By Thom Henninger
No division leader had more than a 4.5-game edge when the second half began on Thursday. It marked the first time under the six-division alignment that no first-place club had a lead of five games or more at the All-Star break.
The last time every second-place club was within five games out of the top spot at the break was 1992, when the largest lead in the four divisions was 4.5 games by the NL East-leading Pittsburgh Pirates. That season marked the last time the Pirates posted a winning record and their last division title.
With the Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres among the surprising first-place clubs, and tight races across the board, the second half should have more than its share of drama.
Already the Rangers have spent 71 days in first place in the AL West, the largest number of days they have led their division in any season since 1999. That season marks the last year they reached the playoffs.
The Rangers aren’t content to simply contend. The front office has stepped up recently, acquiring both catcher Bengie Molina and lefty Cliff Lee, one of the top two pitchers on the market leading up to the trade deadline.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels, who have won the last three AL West crowns, trail the Rangers by 4.5 games in the West race. The Angels are averaging nearly one run less a game than a year ago, and it’ll take a boost in run production to stick with the high-scoring Rangers.
While the Rangers have added Lee, the Angels need a big turnaround from Scott Kazmir, their 2009 trade pickup who is 7-9 with a 6.92 ERA. History is on their side. Since the start of the 2006 season, among pitchers who have worked at least 600 innings in this span, the lefty has demonstrated the biggest ERA improvement from the first to the second half. His 3.14 second-half ERA is 1.60 lower than his 4.74 first-half mark.
After a fast start in April, the St. Louis Cardinals have played .500 ball and opened the second half a game behind the NL Central-leading Reds. The upstart Reds face a tough race, however, as the Cardinals have been a top second-half performer under manager Tony La Russa. Over the past 10 seasons, since 2000, the Cardinals have a .577 second-half winning percentage — the highest in the National League over this stretch.
The biggest surprise would have to be the Padres, who led the NL West at the break. With the Padres expected to go nowhere in 2010, their top hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, was rumored to be dealt to a contender even before the club departed Arizona in March.
A key to San Diego’s success has been the starting staff, which has posted a 3.46 ERA that ranks second among all big league rotations. Only the Cardinals (3.30) have a lower mark. A year ago, Padres starters had a 4.78 ERA that placed 24th among all teams.
The San Diego rotation is excelling without its former ace, Jake Peavy, who was dealt to the White Sox at last summer’s trade deadline and is now out for the season following shoulder surgery. The Padres are getting the job done with a starting five of offseason pickup Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, youngsters Wade LeBlanc and Clayton Richard, and rookie sensation Matt Latos.
The ace has been the 22-year-old Latos, a hard-throwing right-hander who is 10-4 with 2.45 ERA that ranks seventh in the National League. He is one of only seven NL starters with double-digit wins. The bad news is, Latos has gone on the disabled list after he strained a muscle in his side suppressing a sneeze a week ago. The move coincides with front office plans to limit his innings.
The injury will put a strain on the San Diego rotation. LeBlanc and Richard, who was acquired in the Peavy deal with Chicago, have little big league experience, and Garland has been a slightly better first-half pitcher over his career. All three will have to maintain their early success to keep the Padres atop the NL West. And Latos will be a key figure if they are able to play meaningful games in September and October.
The team that may epitomize most the crazy division races of 2010 is the Chicago White Sox. After starting 24-33, they kicked off a 26-6 surge when they throttled Detroit pitching in a 15-3 victory on June 9. The White Sox were trailing first-place Minnesota by 9.5 games prior to the win, but held down the top spot in the AL Central at the break, a half-game ahead of Detroit.
Much like the Rangers, Reds and Padres, the White Sox are one of the top stories of the first half. Whether these clubs are in it for the long haul will play out in the weeks ahead.