Many horses still running in playoff races
Seventeen teams enter break within five games of division lead
While many of the usual suspects are vying for the four playoff spots available in the American League, this year's National League playoff picture is developing with a few different faces involved than a year ago.
Still months away from the eight-team Class of 2010 postseason photo, the second-half figures to separate the posers from those who will be sitting pretty come October.
One thing's for sure: Some teams people didn't think would be in the picture have muscled their way into prime position at the midpoint.
Start with the NL's division leaders. The Padres were 20 games out at the break last year, and they're now your NL West leaders by two games. The Reds, five out and in fifth place a year ago, lead the NL Central. The Braves, six out at this point last year, are leading the NL East.
Overall, the early postseason picture is crowded with suitors for postseason glory. There are 17 teams within five games of their division's lead, which has happened at the break only once before (2006) in the 17 seasons since the three-division setup began in 1994. There were 16 such teams at this point last season.
Which eight are smiling at the end when the flashbulb pops and the 2010 postseason begins remains to be seen.
But just being within reach at this point is what matters now.
"I'd say if you're in a contending position when you get to the break," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, whose club is one game behind the surging Reds, "that's kind of what you go to Spring Training saying: 'Hey, if we can do this, it's been a good first half.'"
Here's a look at how the races for spots in the postseason picture are shaping up:
The AL East is setting the standard in the standings. Again. It's looking like it could send two teams to the playoffs. Again.
Beyond being a "duh" pick as a playoff contender, the defending World Series champion Yankees already have served better notice than they did a year ago that they intend to top the toughest division in the game, etching the game's best record thus far at 56-32.
"It could be a whole lot worse," All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter said. "But there's always room for improvement. We always feel as though we can do a lot better. It's a good start for us, but it's just a start. We've got the whole second half."
Entering that second half, the Rays trail the Yankees by just two games with the second-best record in baseball, and the Red Sox are right there behind them with the fourth-best record -- again, not something that catches anyone by surprise.
The way it looks now, the AL East could come down to the last two weeks -- which could mean an advantage to the Rays. The Yankees finish with the Rays and Red Sox at home, followed by the Blue Jays and Red Sox on the road. The Red Sox go Orioles at home, at White Sox and Yankees, then Yankees at home. The Rays? After they play at the Yankees, they host the Mariners and the Orioles and finish at the Royals.
In the 163rd Division -- er, the AL Central -- they're possibly heading for another 163rd game. The White Sox went on a 25-5 tear going into the All-Star break, making up 13 games in 30 days to overtake the Tigers and Twins for the AL Central lead. This is the division that has provided baseball with a 163rd game each of the past two seasons, and with this threesome in the mix, a third in a row is not out of the question. The second half starts with a bang out of the gate, with the White Sox visiting the Twins for four.
In the AL West, the Rangers already made what might be the biggest move prior to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, acquiring Cliff Lee from fellow AL West rival Seattle. Can he pull the same trick for the Rangers that he did for the Phillies a year ago, leading his team to the promised land with stellar efforts every fifth day? If so, the Rangers would have their first title since 1999. To do it, they need to hold off an Angels team trying to win its fourth straight division title, and sixth in the past seven years.
The way the AL East is shaping up as the likely source of the Wild Card berth, the Angels very well might have to overtake the Rangers to make the playoffs. But the Rangers, who have improved in all facets of the game over last year's team that faded from the picture in September, aren't going quietly, if at all.
"We're all very aware we haven't accomplished anything yet," veteran infielder Michael Young said. "Having said that, though, we're happy with the progress we're making and we want to make sure we continue to do that -- continue to get better. Take all the improvements we made in the first half in to the second half."
Say cheese, Padres. You're smiling bigger than anybody else in the playoff picture right now.
But among the surprise leaders, the Padres will have their work cut out for them as much as anyone, simply because they have three dogs on their scent.
This will be a battle, and the Padres know it.
"There are challenges ahead based on the fact that we've played well and other teams have taken notice," Padres manager Bud Black said.
If the Padres can manage to hold onto their Majors-leading 3.25 ERA and continue to maintain a high level of defensive play, it's certainly hard to dismiss them as merely half a contender.
But the Dodgers remain intent on earning a third consecutive division title for the first time in franchise history, the Rockies could use Troy Tulowitzki back, but otherwise seem poised to make another run, and the Giants showed some spark before the break. Someone -- or a few someones -- will be left out of the picture there.
The Reds, meanwhile, are leading what appears to be a two-horse NL Central race. Upon overtaking the Cardinals in May, the Reds spent 43 of the past 56 days of the first half in first place, marking the latest they've been atop the division since 1999.
In the NL East, the Phillies have held off all comers the past two seasons. But they're playing catch-up to two clubs this year, with perhaps a little less swagger in their gait than the recent past.
"I think things have to fall in place for us," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
After a rough April skid, things have fallen into place quite nicely for the Braves, whose four-game lead in the NL East is smaller only than the Rangers' AL West lead of 4 1/2 games. That said ...
"You only remember who is in first place at the end of the season," said Troy Glaus, the veteran whose power has helped fuel the Braves' rise to the top.
The second-place Mets believe they may be about to add the biggest difference-maker down the stretch, and it's not somebody they're acquiring via trade. Center fielder Carlos Beltran will be activated after the break, and they're hoping he adds to a lineup that has seen the resurgence of David Wright and Jose Reyes, and the arrival of Ike Davis.
All things considered, the NL Wild Card race might be as thrilling as any of the above. With six teams representing all three divisions within two games of the lead entering the second half, there's a lot left to shake out of that battle.
With all those hopefuls still within five games of their division lead, that means there are a whole lot of clubs still working on their poses for that playoff picture, though only eight make it to the final shoot.
For now? Say cheese, everybody. You're in the shot.