Major League Baseball has officially reached the halfway point through the 2014 season. With 81 games down and 81 to, the yearly grind is about to begin. Now that the All-Star break is looming on the horizon, it’s time to review some of the first-half surprises.
What happened to the Red Sox? The defending World Series champions find themselves holding up the bottom of the American League East at the halfway point for the first time in nearly a decade. Their offense has been anemic, ranking near last in the American League in batting average at .243 and second to last in runs scored per game. After losing veteran Jacoby Ellsbury to free agency in the offseason – to their hated rivals, the Yankees – their younger prospects, like Xander Bogaerts, Daniel Nava and Jackie Bradley Jr., have not played up to expectations. The Red Sox are not yet out of the race, but need to turn things around in the second half to make another playoff run.
The Oakland A’s have the best record in baseball. Leading into the 2014 season, most experts predicted Oakland to be a good ball club, competing for a playoff spot. Nobody thought they’d be this dominant. They lead the AL in team ERA, have scored the most runs in the Majors and feature good team power and speed. Traditionally, the A’s always have solid pitching, but this season the bats are doing a lot of talking too. Sluggers Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes are all on pace to eclipse the 100 RBI mark. If their hitting can stay hot and the pitching is consistent, Oakland has a legitimate shot at their first World Series appearance since 1992.
Staying in the AL West, the Texas Rangers’ roster looks like a medical clinic chart, with 14 players currently on the disabled list. With just the names on the DL, the Rangers could field a competitive baseball team, if they were all healthy. Texas has lost newly acquired Prince Fielder for the season with a neck injury. Big boppers Mitch Moreland and Kevin Kouzmanoff are both on the shelf and the pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez were all slated to be integral parts of the Rangers’ pitching rotation, but all are out with various injuries. Even emergency Opening Day starting pitcher Tanner Scheppers, who started the first game Opening Day due to injury, is now injured himself.
Did anyone think the Brewers were going to run away with the National League Central? With half the baseball season behind them, they hold the largest division lead over the second place teams, with the Reds and Cardinals both trailing by 6.5 games. At this point, they look like the most balanced team in baseball, ranking near the top of the league in most the major statistical categories for both hitting and pitching. New additions Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse have proven to be excellent pitching assets for their new team, with Khris Davis and Jonathan Lucroy having breakout seasons at the plate. Ryan Braun continues to lead the way for the Milwaukee offense, with a team leading 46 RBIs. Also, Fernando “K-Rod” Rodriguez has resurrected his career as a closer this season. He leads the Majors with 27 saves, slamming the door for more than half the Brewers’ 51 wins so far this year.
Then there are the Royals. Kansas City hasn’t made the playoffs since they won the 1985 World Series, but is poised for a 2014 postseason run. With a solid pitching staff, anchored by James Shields and Jason Vargas, the Royals have been scoring runs in bunches. Also, their bullpen has been lights out, collectively posting an ERA below 3.00. Although their homerun numbers may be lacking, they’ve been scoring runs using contact and speed. Despite ranking last in the league in homeruns, they rank fourth in both team batting average and stolen bases. Count on them to continue winning down the stretch. If the veteran starting pitching staff can keep handing close games over to the bullpen and the offense continues to manufacture runs, the Royals will be in it for the long haul.
The push for the postseason is on. At the halfway point, the American League division leaders are the A’s, Tigers and Blue Jays. The Angels, Mariners, Orioles and Royals are the frontrunners for the AL Wild Card spots. In the National League things are more jumbled near the top. The Dodgers and Giants are tied for the NL West divisional lead, and the Nationals only trail the Braves by a half game in the East. The Brewers have a tight grasp on the Central, but the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals are all separated by a mere one and a half game margin. This creates the recipe for an exciting Wild Card chase in the National League during these dog days of summer. Here are the playoff contenders, with 81 more games to figure it all out. Let the grind begin!