Sarah's Take: The wild and wide-open West
Even though the All-Star break normally signals the end of the first half of the regular season, this year it came when the teams have about 45 percent of their games left. This period in baseball, including the dog days, produces the most exciting games all year.
This season shouldn't be an exception.
The race in the National League West is the closest in Major League Baseball. Although it is doubtful that the San Diego Padres, who have been besieged by injuries and are 8 1/2 games out of first place, will win the division, it is possible.
The World Series champion San Francisco Giants have disappointed. They have suffered many injuries -- namely to Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong -- that have undermined their performance. Unlike in the past, the Giants don't have the best starting rotation in baseball. Frankly, they have one of the worst. Even when Tim Lincecum pitched a no-hitter last Saturday, it was a cause for concern because he used too many pitches.
The Giants have poor offense contributing to the pitching problems. After losing Pagan, their leadoff hitter, they have a one-dimensional offense. Unless they drastically improve their performance in all aspects of the game, they won't make the playoffs.
While the Giants have disappointed, the Colorado Rockies have surprised everyone. Coming off a 99-loss season, the Rockies should have had a rebuilding season as they sought solutions to their problems. However, first-time manager Walt Weiss had different ideas. He wouldn't tolerate defensive or mental errors. He created a new kind of aggressive offense, not dependent on the home run, even though they hit many homers thanks to NL leader Carlos Gonzalez. The new scheme for handling the pitching staff while in Denver seems to be working. If everything continues working for the Rockies, they will have a great opportunity to go to the playoffs.
Early in the season, injuries ravaged the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although they have a humongous payroll, they had weaknesses.
The "Puig Factor" might propel them to the playoffs despite having a horrible beginning to the season. Nevertheless, their reluctance to promote Yasiel Puig after his fantastic Spring Training might cost the Dodgers a playoff berth.
Puig made his Major League debut on June 3, when it was beginning to appear hopeless for the Dodgers to climb out of last place. Before then -- due to a lack of aggressiveness -- the Dodgers couldn't score a runner in scoring position if their life depended on it. They looked like a team that wanted to depend on the home run even though they had a scarcity of power. For some reason, Andre Ethier slumped offensively until Puig arrived.
Puig brought a new kind of attitude to the Dodgers. Sometimes he's overly aggressive -- running into outs and walls -- and it sometimes has hurt the club. Nevertheless, no one questions whether he wants to win or not, and at times before he came, the lackluster play made Dodgers fans question if the team cared about going to the playoffs. Despite his occasional miscue, Puig's aggressiveness has enabled him to make terrific plays and contribute to the offense greatly.
The return of Hanley Ramirez also has helped the Dodgers climb into second place. While he was on the disabled list, the Dodgers couldn't find a shortstop who could hit above .200, and they didn't play good defense. Not having an adequate shortstop hurt the Dodgers.
Since Ramirez returned to the lineup, he has provided Los Angeles with an awesome cleanup hitter. According to Ramirez, he hasn't hit this well since 2009 when he won the NL batting championship while with the Florida Marlins. Defensively, although he won't win a Gold Glove, Ramirez has helped to stabilize the infield. If he keeps playing this well, and barring another injury, he can play an integral role in the Dodgers' pursuit of a playoff berth.
Remaining healthy, improving their defense, hitting with runners in scoring position and having a reliable bullpen that can protect leads are crucial for the Dodgers if they are to overtake the Arizona Diamondbacks. If Matt Kemp can return from the DL and produce offensively, he might be the missing piece.
After a season where most people thought the Diamondbacks regressed after winning the division, the D-backs have performed well. They have received better starting pitching than most baseball pundits expected. Paul Goldschmidt has had a banner year, sometimes carrying the team offensively. The acquisition of Martin Prado during the offseason has proven to be important to the team. They have the best bench in the division, and it has enabled them to deal with their rash of injuries.
The Diamondbacks have had serious bullpen problems. They lost their closer, and Heath Bell has been ineffective. Unless they obtain at least one reliever at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, they will have difficulty holding onto the division lead despite having the best defense within the division.
The Wild West might be the best race in baseball. Each team has its own strengths and weaknesses. The beauty of baseball is no one can predict what will happen.