Highlights from the season's first half

The All-Star break is the perfect time to reflect upon scorching starts from esteemed veterans and exceptional youngsters

July 7th, 2016

The road to the 87th All-Star Game has come to a glorious close just north of the border in San Diego. And throughout the daily grind, the highs and lows of the 2016 season have added up to feel like one long, metaphoric ride to the beach.
It's something baseball fans waited for through a long winter, and it didn't disappoint. There were thrills around every corner, and now that we've arrived at this year's halfway point, we pause for the annual midsummer celebration, during which the game's elite never fail to deliver dramatic moments. We revel in the grandeur while anticipating what's to come, but we can't forget what we've seen. Because in the first half of 2016, there have been impressive, historic moments orchestrated by the world's best ballplayers.

Success on the diamond often starts with the pitcher, and this season's stunning feats on the mound came courtesy of Chris Sale, Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw. Sale, the tall, rangy left-hander with a world of ability, has lived up to it more than ever this year. The southpaw won his first nine starts of the season and continues to shine for a much-improved White Sox team that is invigorating fans on the South Side of Chicago.
"I think everybody should know how we feel about him," said White Sox Manager Robin Ventura. "He's special. He's a great pitcher, one of the best in the game. I just see him continuing to get better as the season goes along, as he goes through his career."
Across town, Arrieta, the defending NL Cy Young Award winner, hasn't let up at all from his sterling 2015 form. It took him until June 5 to register his first loss of the season, and his dominant stretch, which began last year, included an April 21 no-hitter against the Reds, his second no-no since last August.
"It's very unusual what he's doing," said Cubs Manager Joe Maddon.

Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2011, 2013 and 2014 (along with the MVP in '14), somehow managed to make even more history before missing some time with a herniated disk in his back. Through 16 starts, the left-hander recorded 145 strikeouts and allowed a paltry nine walks, an 16.11 ratio -- nearly one-and-a-half times the number Phil Hughes posted (11.63) when he set the modern record in 2014.
"That's a big, unfathomable number right there, that ratio," said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. "[It] speaks to his commitment to being aggressive in the strike zone, to his ability to put guys away. It shows who he is as a competitor. Every stretch of his is amazing. You almost can't call them stretches anymore. They're big eras."
Let's not forget that this is still the era of Max Scherzer's reign. Now with the Nats, he did something incredibly rare when he struck out 20 batters over nine innings on May 11, joining Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens in a seriously selective club.
And then there's Justin Verlander, the Tigers veteran who notched his 2,000th career K on May 18. "A lot of great moments along the way, in this stadium, in front of these fans." Verlander said afterward. "A lot of great seasons."
Mets sophomore Noah Syndergaard seems to be on the precipice of many big seasons, as well. Through his first 16 starts, the hurler averaged an MLB-leading (among starting pitchers) 98.4 mph fastball, according to MLB Statcast™, and, not surprisingly, he was 9-3 with a 2.41 ERA and 123 K's.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a batter just beginning his career made for the storyline of the spring. Trevor Story, the Rockies' rookie shortstop who made the Opening Day roster after a torrid Spring Training showing, continued his hot hitting well into his first regular-season campaign and contended for the final spot on the NL All-Star roster. Story became the first player in the modern era to homer in each of his first four games, hitting six total.
"It's an honor," said Story, who went yard twice in his debut. "I can't really understand it. It's surreal that this has happened."
Last year's unanimous National League MVP, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, made the surreal seem routine at the onset of 2016, hitting nine homers and driving in 24 runs while putting up an OPS of 1.121 in April.
Over in the AL, Red Sox teammates Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts -- both of whom were voted onto the AL All-Star roster as starters -- honored the 75th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak by putting together impressive, overlapping streaks of their own: Bradley hit safely in 29 consecutive games while Bogaerts ran his number up to 26. Combined, at least, they were knocking on DiMaggio's door.
Another memorable first half came courtesy of Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, who channeled Babe Ruth when he hit seven postseason homers for the Mets in 2015. This season, he has started to more closely resemble Ted Williams after joining the Washington squad, batting .370 in April and .416 in May to hover around the .350 mark heading into the All-Star Game.
"It's been incredible. He's carrying our team," Harper said of his teammate. "He's doing everything possible in our lineup to keep us going. It's something fun to watch. It's definitely special."
So is Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, whose ceiling continues to grow even higher, much to the delight of Colorado fans. Arenado, who wowed baseball with 42 homers and 130 RBI and complemented his bat with some Gold Glove defense in 2015, had amassed 23 home runs, 70 RBI and a career-high 37 walks just days before the All-Star break.
"[Arenado] literally impacts the game on both sides of the ball almost every single day," Rockies Manager Walt Weiss said. "That's why it's so hard to give him a day off."
The same can be said for one of the brightest rookies in baseball. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager was a top prospect and lived up to his billing in a brilliant September call-up last year. So with Rookie of the Year hype surrounding his every move early this season, all he's done is produce. Seager's shining moment, a three-homer game on June 3, was followed up two days later with a two-homer game. He gives Los Angeles fans a lot to look forward to in both the Home Run Derby and throughout the summer.
Next, we travel to Miami, where the venerable Ichiro Suzuki toiled away in the first half of 2016 toward a few career milestones of his own. Even at 42 years old and as a part-time player, Ichiro continued his march toward 3,000 MLB hits. When combined with his 1,278 total knocks from his first nine professional seasons in Japan, he eclipsed Pete Rose's amazing total of 4,256 to rank as the "unofficial" all-time leader in the category.

Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon owns a few less career hits, but nonetheless he made a little history. Just weeks before his 43rd birthday, Colon did what many believed to be impossible and belted a homer in San Diego on May 7 for his first career round-tripper. He became many things with that one swing: Mets hero, Internet legend and the oldest player ever to hit his first career home run.
Back in Boston, another baseball icon plugged through his last first half. This season marks the final ride for David Ortiz, the larger-than-life slugger whose gregarious nature and acts of violence toward pitched baseballs have cemented his status as one of the game's great all-time designated hitters. But this wasn't going to be the final foray of some flailing figurehead. "Big Papi" is going out swinging at age 40, and on the way to his 10th All-Star nod, he was on pace for one of the best numerical seasons of his career, with a slash line of .337/.429/.677, 20 homers and 69 RBI -- the third-best mark in MLB -- through much of the first half.

"He's in such a good groove, squaring up so many balls," Red Sox Manager John Farrell said. "He's having fun playing."
And fans league-wide have certainly had fun watching.
This article appears in the MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Click here to purchase a copy, and read more features on allstargame.com.