Friday, July 19, 2013

Before We Begin Again: Season One at the Break

The beauty of baseball is the inevitability of witnessing something you've never seen before. A timeless moment can occur on any night, in any city. Sometimes the event is the culmination of a career or a season, or it maybe a single-game act of brilliance. In the first few months of the season, we've seen perfect games blown, a full cycle from a phenom, and the greatest hitter alive get better. A crop of remarkable young stars have ushered in a new wave of household names. Rosters will shift by July's end and contenders will separate from those who merely hang on for pride. Chris Davis has thirty-seven home runs. The Pittsburgh Pirates have fifty-six wins. Baseball is a game of patience and expectation. Now we turn the page and begin to unveil our story's climax.Annually, as the All-Star Game gives way to the second half of the season, the story lines of the season begin to breathe and grow. Miguel Cabrera is again having one of the greatest offensive seasons in recent memory. If he is able to catch Davis in the home run column, an unprecedented second consecutive triple crown would be almost a certainty. Each day it becomes more of a reality that we are watching one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. Alongside Cabrera in Detroit is an assortment of All-Stars and future hall-of-famers that lead me to believe that until the Tigers are eliminated, they are the favorites in the junior circuit. Much like last season, Detroit is lurking below the radar, ready to flip the switch when necessary. The Indians have held tough to this point, but in years past, their inability to perform in the latter months of the season have kept Cleveland from pushing over the threshold of October.

The Toronto Blue Jays are a patchwork quilt slowly being tugged upon before the seams finally give. In fifth place, the offseason's biggest move now leap of faith is now on the verge of becoming nothing more than a giant slip and fall. Injuries and lackluster performances have hindered the lofty goals that Canada's team began the season with, and each game inches the Jays ever closer to their probable inevitability- disappointment. Looking down upon Toronto are the Boston Red Sox, who start the second half with more wins than anyone else. There surely are few who, back in winter, envisioned the Red Sox atop not just the East Division, but the entire American League at any point.

The Oakland Athletics continue to shatter the conventions of modern baseball. With teams in their division buying up contracts on a whim, the A's stand pat with their minuscule payroll, perched on top of the West. Their success is increasingly becoming a foregone conclusion, which does a great disservice to their blend of budget-friendly talent and clubhouse chemistry. Playing in what is a consensus bottom-five ballpark in all of baseball, Oakland is a constant threat not just to make the playoffs, but to move as well. San Jose appears to be the promised land for a franchise with a history of moving around, but their Bay-area rivals, the Giants, are blocking the plate so to speak. At the opposite side of the standings lie the Astros, semi-conscious, floundering into their third consecutive 100-loss season. The rebranded American League Houston ballclub has only excelled at one aspect of the game- strikeouts. At one point earlier this season, they were on pace to break the previous team record for punchouts by over two hundred. The future is cooking in the minor leagues for the Astros, but the present continues to be a sub-thirty-million-dollar disaster.

The St. Louis Cardinals have done their best to prove they are the class organization of baseball. They continue to cultivate a culture of success that roots all the way down to the single-A club. There should be few amazed by the red birds' place in the National League. Shelby Miller is making a case for Rookie of the Year honors, and his brother in arms Adam Wainwright is having a Cy Young award-worthy season of his own. Of course, the big story in the Central Division is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are now twenty-six wins from their first positive season in two decades. Players want to be in Pittsburgh. A team that struggled to sign decent free agents for many years has now compiled a roster of offseason signings and young talent that is ready to break the glass ceiling of eighty wins.

Out East, the Atlanta Braves are in the driver's seat because of their almost robotic consistency. They are currently eleventh in runs scored and eighteenth in batting average, but their pitching staff ranks in the top three in earned run average and quality starts. Given the rather unimpressive first half from the rest of the division, Atlanta is poised to do what they have done more than anyone in my lifetime- win their division. Injuries and slumps will have their way through any lineup, and pitchers often flame out around the end of August, but the Braves will agree that it is better to be in a position to succeed than it is to look up at a rival in the standings. They did last year, as Washington held on to win the most games of any team in either league. The Nationals are built for right now, despite their young superstar outfielder looking to carry the torch for the franchise into the 2020's.

Perhaps, and this may be because of his geographic placement, the biggest story to this point has been Matt Harvey of the New York Mets. The baseball writer hive-mind has led the casual fan into believing that every Harvey start is must-see television, and they are correct. As he showed in the All-Star Game, the Mets budding superstar has a confidence and a calm to him that is frightening to see in a twenty-four year old with just under a year of experience. The franchise that gave us Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan may just have their next iconic arm, but as all things go with this game, time will tell.

Yasiel Puig spurred the first great controversy of 2013. Baseball divided nearly in half over whether or not the borderline superhuman Puig should play in the midsummer classic. The naysayers won, as the shy Cuban defector must wait a year to add the accolade of All-Star to his resume.

Arizona, San Diego, and Los Angeles have been wrapped up in a hate triangle that is nothing short of tumultuous. Hit batsmen, clearing benches, landing fists, and suspensions have run wild in the West Division. The Diamondbacks trail the Dodgers by more than $130 million in payroll, but currently lead their rivals by two and a half games in the division race. For perspective, take note that the Dodgers' top-five highest salaries this season cost more than the entire Arizona roster. Two games back of Los Angeles sit the Colorado Rockies, with baseball's 25th highest payroll, barely more than a third of the second place Dodgers. Between Colorado and the dirt-cheap San Diego Padres reside the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants, who may be sellers come the trade deadline, have allowed forty more runs than they've scored. Given the rowdy competition in the West, the odds of a new champion of baseball grow increasingly better with every pitch. Yet there is still a bit of magic in Frisco, as I'll get to early next week.

The plot lines are drawn, the main characters are defined, and we now march toward the playoffs at an increasingly grueling pace. Each team has played around ninety-five games to this point. There will surely be surprises, there will most definitely be high-drama heading into October. Now we must do what baseball summons us to bear every summer- wait.  Patience is a cardinal virtue of the game. The goal is clear, but the destination will always pale to the wonder of the journey. 

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