Several clubs on the upswing with second-half surges
Phils, Brewers battle back into contention, while outlook is bright for Padres, Royals
By the time the Brewers were soundly beaten, 8-0, by the Phillies at home on Aug. 19, the Sausage Race at Miller Park seemed to be just about as important as the pennant race. Milwaukee was 12 1/2 games out of the newly-created second Wild Card spot.
The Brew Crew hadn't been above .500 since they were 4-3 on April 12. They had traded Zack Grienke, would shortly release Randy Wolf while auditioning younger pitchers and making several other subtle changes.
There's a reason why baseball remains endlessly fascinating, though. In fact, here are four: the Brewers, Phillies, Royals and Padres. Each team got off to a slow start this season. Each was widely written off. All have quietly made dramatic turnarounds which, even if they don't yield playoff spots this year, could be a springboard for next season.
Does it matter? Consider this: Last season, the Orioles were 30 games under .500 before finishing out the schedule by going 22-16. The Athletics went into September 16 games under before closing 14-12.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that Baltimore and Oakland are two of baseball's biggest surprises. Or maybe those late surges should have been a clue for what was to come.
BREWERS: Milwaukee came into this season knowing it would have to make an adjustment to losing the big bat of first baseman Prince Fielder via free agency. Defending National League MVP Award winner Ryan Braun was also in the spotlight after winning the appeal of his 50-game suspension for allegedly using performance-enhancing substances.
It took four-and-a-half months for the Brewers to find themselves, but since then, they've won 18 of 25 games and quickly find themselves just three games out in the Wild Card standings, tied with the Phillies and still behind the Dodgers and Pirates.
"Honestly, it didn't look good," said Travis Ishikawa, who has been filling in at first base for the injured Corey Hart. "As far out as we've been and as bad as we played earlier this year, we found a way to play the ball we knew we were capable of playing. That's the way this game is. You never know what's going to happen."
Even if the Brewers come up short, they've at least demonstrated that the have a nucleus that can compete.
PHILLIES: There's no mystery why the Phils struggled early. They were without Nos. 3-4 hitters Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for most of the first half. Then they lost ace right-hander Roy Halladay for nearly two months with a sore shoulder. The bullpen was also plagued by injuries. The defense sagged.
They won seven straight before falling to the Astros on Thursday, and they've won 15 of their last 20. And they're getting contributions from all over the roster. Erik Kratz, a 32-year-old rookie, stepped up when All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz went down. Kevin Frandsen, getting a chance at third when Placido Polanco was hurt, was a revelation before he was sidelined with a sore left ankle. Career swingman Kyle Kendrick has been dominant. John Mayberry Jr. is having his second straight second-half surge. Phillippe Aumont has become the eighth-inning bridge to closer Jonathan Papelbon that was missing so much of the season.
For a team that had won the division five straight years, just coming close would be little consolation. But if nothing else, this should convince general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that minor adjustments, not sweeping changes, will be needed this offseason.
Even when the prospects were the dimmest and grimmest, manager Charlie Manuel never conceded. And he's certainly not going to change his approach now.
"I'd say we're dead in it," Manuel insisted.
ROYALS: After losing to the White Sox on Aug. 6, Kansas City was 18 games under .500 and in last place of the American League Central. Since then, the Royals have gone 20-15 and are poised to finish as high as third for the first time since 2003.
The turnaround started two days after team made the surprising announcement that veteran infielder Yuniesky Betancourt had been designated for assignment. And Ned Yost made it clear that it wasn't because of Betancourt's performance. It was because Betancourt was unhappy that he wasn't getting more playing time.
"We have been living in a losing culture here for many, many years," the manager explained. "In order for us to get over the hump, we have to have 25 guys that are solely invested in one goal, and that's turning this organization around to become a champion. That's it. It's not about, 'How much do I play?' It's not about, 'Do I have a job?'"
The key to carrying this year's momentum into 2013, Yost believes, centers on the lineup. The Royals are 16-50 when they score three runs or less, compared to 49-28 when they score at least four times. No. 1 prospect Wil Myers, an outfielder, could help, but Yost also thinks the hitters on hand now can do more.
"I just think we have a lot of room for growth in our offense," Yost said. "The majority of guys in our lineup are capable of hitting somewhere between 15 and 30 home runs a year. We have the ability to hit with two strikes. We don't strike out much. Now, we've got to add the power component to our game. I think we're capable of doing that. Will it lower our batting average some? Yes. Will it increase our run production? Yes. It's all a process. We're working to try to get that type of offense developed."
PADRES: San Diego was 29-50 three months into the season. Quietly, but dramatically, the Padres have turned that around. They've had winning records in July, August and September, and after sweeping the Cardinals this week, they had won 16 of their last 21.
The staff has stabilized since using 26 pitchers in the first half, but the real story is that the lineup is producing enough runs to win in spacious Petco Park. Since the All-Star break, the Friars are averaging 4.75 runs per game. That's the third-best mark in franchise history.
Third baseman Chase Headley has come on strong since the break and will reach career highs in several offensive categories. Rookie Yonder Alonso has begun to demonstrate why he was the key to the trade that sent right-hander Mat Latos to Cincinnati. The middle infield underwent an extreme makeover when Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett were replaced by Logan Forsythe, Everth Cabrera and Alexi Amarista.
"It's fun," Headley told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Right now, I feel like we're better than the teams we're playing. Of course, you are measured by what you do for the whole season. But right now, we're the better team."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.