Baseball gears up for second half

Published 4:24 pm Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nobody expected the Detroit Tigers to have the best record in baseball at the All-Star break, and everyone wants to see if they can keep it up.

Especially their old-school manager, Jim Leyland.

“We’ve got a little something going, we really do, we just have to take advantage,” he said. “It’s like I told our players: We’re no longer the hunter — we’re the hunted.”

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After the American League, down to its final strike, rallied to win yet another All-Star game Tuesday night on Michael Young’s two-run triple off Trevor Hoffman, baseball is gearing up for an intriguing second half when the season resumes Thursday.

Two divisions are up for grabs out West, and the NL wild-card race is wide open.

Plus, a pair of October regulars are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs: the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves.

There are 21 teams within 6 1/2 games of a spot in the postseason, so one or two big deals before the July 31 trade deadline could have a major effect on the pennant race.

Dontrelle Willis’ name is sure to come up again, even though his rookie-laden Florida Marlins have played surprisingly well.

Leyland’s scrappy bunch of rising stars will try to hold off the World Series champion Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.

After losing an AL-record 119 games only three years ago, the Tigers (59-29) have reversed their fortunes on the strength of a young pitching staff highlighted by hard-throwing rookies Justin Verlander (10-4, 3.01 ERA) and Joel Zumaya.

The group, which also includes 23-year-old Jeremy Bonderman, is anchored by 41-year-old lefty Kenny Rogers, the AL starter in the All-Star game.

“To me, it’s the No. 1 story of the year so far,” commissioner Bud Selig said.

Detroit’s 3.46 ERA leads the majors by a wide margin, but the Tigers are only two games in front of Chicago. Their postseason dreams probably depend on how well their young arms hold up down the stretch.

If the Tigers falter a bit, they do have the wild card to fall back on. They own an eight-game edge over the injury-riddled Yankees, who are three behind the first-place Red Sox in the AL East.

That means New York and Boston could be playing for one playoff spot in September, which would ratchet up an already-intense rivalry.

“I feel good about our chances,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “If Boston hadn’t won 20 or 30 games in a row like they did, we’d be right where we want to be.”

Young’s Texas Rangers are tied with Oakland for first place in the AL West, just two games above .500.

Looking for their third consecutive division title, the Angels got off to a slow start. But Los Angeles won eight of 10 before the break to move within two games of the lead, and could take off from here.

Rookie pitcher Jered Weaver is 6-0 in six starts with a 1.12 ERA. Bartolo Colon, injured most of the first half, tossed a four-hit shutout in his last start. General manager Bill Stoneman would probably love to add a bat to help Vladimir Guerrero, who homered in the All-Star game.

In the National League, the New York Mets look like the class of the crop. With a 12-game cushion in the East, their biggest concern is Pedro Martinez’s sore hip.

Still, freewheeling GM Omar Minaya certainly knows another reliable arm in the rotation would make his team much more formidable in October.

The Mets’ emergence has coincided with Atlanta’s slide. Beset by a shaky bullpen, the Braves (40-49) trail New York by 13 games and need a stunning comeback to win their 15th straight division title.

“We started playing good baseball the last two weeks,” outfielder Andruw Jones said. “This is not over yet. We’ve still got a chance.”

Despite some key injuries, the St. Louis Cardinals righted themselves after a long slump. They lead the NL Central by four games over surprising Cincinnati, which appears to be slipping.

Maybe Roger Clemens can help the NL champion Houston Astros make a push for another wild-card berth. Looking to boost their punchless offense, they acquired Aubrey Huff from Tampa Bay for two minor league prospects Wednesday.

“I think it’s going to come down to the wire,” All-Star reliever Derrick Turnbow of the Milwaukee Brewers said. “The Cardinals are always capable of pulling away.”

The West is wide open again. First-place San Diego is two games in front of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the other three teams are all within five games of the lead.

“It might come down to whoever plays better outside the division,” said Hoffman, the San Diego Padres closer who is 18 saves shy of Lee Smith’s career record (478).

One other race to watch is for AL Rookie of the Year.

Verlander and Weaver are two members of a stellar class that also includes a pair of All-Stars: rookie pitcher Francisco Liriano of the Minnesota Twins and Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.