The Week Ahead: Second-half answers on deck
All-Star break to shine spotlight on New York before action resumes Friday
The Cardinals beat their rival Cubs in Wrigley Field on Sunday night to finish with 57 victories in the first half -- the most in the National League and only one behind Major League-leading Boston.
That's a lot to digest right there, but now we're off to New York -- Citi Field, to be exact -- for Tuesday's All-Star Game, and the baseball world will get a well-deserved breather and time to celebrate until it all starts up again Friday.
Even though we'll all be watching as the best players in the game determine who will win home-field advantage for the World Series, we'll surely also be wondering what's on tap once the break ends. And at the end of this week, we'll start to find out.
Here are five teams worth watching closely for the second installment of the Major League summer as All-Star week kicks into high gear:
Los Angeles Dodgers
How about those Dodgers? Everyone looked at their stacked roster and huge payroll before the season started and proclaimed it a World Series-or-bust year. Injuries hit them hard and they found themselves mired toward the bottom of the NL West, but manager Don Mattingly kept things calm, phenom Yasiel Puig arrived, they got a bit healthier and now they're a buzzsaw. Sunday's loss in Colorado was a brief setback, but they're still at .500 (47-47) and only 2 1/2 games out of first place.
The Dodgers just traded for Ricky Nolasco to join a resurgent starting staff that is grooving right now with ace Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu and Chris Capuano all giving Los Angeles a good chance in each start. The Dodgers are getting hits with runners in scoring position. They're doing what it takes to win.
"It's been a lot of fun, things have turned around," second baseman Mark Ellis said. "We're playing better baseball. Any time you can play good baseball and win games and do the right things, it's going to be a lot more fun."
It's been a fun first half for the Pirates, but those are words we heard the past two years before they faded down the stretch. This time around, things sure do seem different, however. More than ever, the team looks like a lock to finish the year with a winning record for the first time since 1992, which will be a big accomplishment in itself. But you can tell in watching manager Clint Hurdle's gritty bunch that they want more. A lot more. And they just might have the roster to do it.
Entering the break, Pittsburgh is only a game behind St. Louis. The Pirates lost to the Mets on Sunday, but their 56 victories are the most for a Bucs club prior to the All-Star break since their 1971 World Series championship season.
"That's good," Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "But we've still got a whole season to play. It's good what we're doing, but we got to get ready for tomorrow, then for the next half."
The A's have been playing with that kind of attitude since their dramatic turnaround in the middle of last season, and the momentum, their young pitching and a masterful job by manager Bob Melvin has them right there again. Oakland enters the break with a two-game cushion on the Rangers in the AL West, and the race for that division is setting up an awful lot like last year's, which went down to the last game of the regular season.
The Angels would like to have something to say about the final standings in the West, but their break-preceding sweep at the hands of the Mariners in Seattle has them still under .500 and searching for answers.
Maybe the Tigers will get the answers. They didn't catch fire until late last year, but once they did, they were everyone's choice to win the World Series. Detroit didn't quite get that done, but Justin Verlander's flirtation with a no-hitter on Sunday indicates he's back in prime ace form, and that sets up well for another second-half run.
The Tigers will need to be that good, too, because Terry Francona's rebuilt Cleveland Indians club is right there with Detroit, having won four in a row to close to within a game and a half of the AL Central lead.
Boston Red Sox
Speaking of Francona, take a look at his old team. The Red Sox have been getting it done on all sides of the ball en route to a huge rebound from a difficult 2012 season under Bobby Valentine, Francona's predecessor.
With Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the Yankees not far behind them, however, they'll need to keep getting what they've been getting from the usual suspects (Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury) and the surprise contributors who have them back on top.
As for players, we'll be wondering what the break might bring for Baltimore's Chris Davis, who hit his Major League-leading 37th home runs of the year on Sunday, for Miguel Cabrera, who still has a shot at a second consecutive Triple Crown (if Davis goes cold any time soon), and for Puig, who's been banged up over the last week but has been playing through the pain.
We'll be wondering if Detroit starter Max Scherzer will come back and win another 13 games in a row after suffering his first loss. Can he get to 25 victories in a season? Can he get even more?
And in New York and elsewhere across the grand baseball landscape, we'll be wondering about Derek Jeter, who came back from a fractured ankle suffered in last year's playoffs only to be sidelined again with a tight quad after his return game.
The Yankees are still in the hunt in the ultra-tight AL East, but they need their Captain. Can he make it back soon?
These are just some of the questions around the big leagues as we take a Midsummer (Classic) break. Soon enough, we'll have even more answers.