ST. LOUIS – Now that the pomp of the All-Star Game and pageantry of Yankee Stadium’s farewell have passed, the Major League Baseball season hits the backstretch with the real story of the summer.
Parity. Nineteen teams are within 7 1/2 games of the lead in their respective divisions. Two divisions in opposite leagues and on opposite coasts, the American League East and the National League West, are so tightly packed that only 10 games separate first from fifth place.
The three best records in the N.L. are in the Central. Once a division ruled by the checkbook, the A.L. East has a second-place team with an entire roster that doesn’t make as much as the third baseman on the third-place team, New York Yankees MVP Alex Rodriguez.
“Parity, parity, parity,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella told the Chicago Tribune this month. “Every team out there can beat you. There isn’t what you would call an invincible team.”
Ten things to watch during this sprint to the finish:
•Josh Hamilton, Texas outfielder: Every so often, a player seizes the spotlight with such certainty that it becomes clear this is more than a coming-out party, this is his season. Hamilton may have done that on the game’s grandest stage Monday. With 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, Hamilton may not have ultimately won the derby, but he won much more. He laid claim to the summer.
His story is well-known: He’s recovered from multiple suspensions, did not play for three seasons and continues to talk openly about his ongoing battle with drug addiction.
Oh, and he has a shot at the Triple Crown.
Hamilton, traded to Texas during the off-season, is a legit MVP candidate. His 95 RBIs lead the majors and are the fifth most at the break in baseball history and eight shy of the record.
Hamilton is tied for third in the A.L. with 21 homers and ninth in batting average at .310.
•Arms race: Immediately on the horizon is the July 31 trade deadline. While a couple of top sluggers could be available, Colorado and Atlanta seem hesitant to part with Matt Holliday and Mark Teixeira, respectively. The real deadline scramble is for arms.
Toronto’s A.J. Burnett and Seattle’s Eric Bedard are the biggest names that could be moved. San Diego’s Randy Wolf and Greg Maddux are also drawing interest. Colorado closer Brian Fuentes, a lefty, is a coveted commodity, and Baltimore could command a prime price for All-Star closer George Sherrill.
•Chipper Jones’ quest for .400: As late into the season as June 18, Atlanta switch-hitter Chipper Jones was hitting .400. He acknowledged even then that finishing the season with the first .400 average since Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941 was unlikely. “I got a feeling the law of averages is going to catch up with me before it’s all said and done,” he told reporters in Toronto. Jones hit the break with a league-leading .376 average after hitting .422 in April and .417 in May.
•Barry Bonds’ job hunt: The agent for tainted king Barry Bonds said no team has approached him about signing the perennial MVP and all-time home run slugger. Jeff Borris told reporters that he’s “not optimistic.” Bonds, who turns 44 on July 24, could find the market more friendly after the deadline approaches and teams are still hankering for a bat. Beyond the 28 homers he hit in just 340 at-bats last season, Bonds has a career .444 on-base percentage and has reached base .450 or better in his past six seasons with at least 100 at-bats.
•New rules: In what could have been seen as a purification ceremony, the press conferences for the All-Star Game this week were held in the same Manhattan room where baseball unveiled its Mitchell Report. The stain of the Steroid Era remains deep in the fabric of the game, but other rules, regulations and controversies are simmering, certain to boil over in the comings months. Major League Baseball began seizing broken bats for a study that could result in limitations on maple bats. Instant replay is also coming, maybe as soon as the postseason, commissioner Bud Selig said this week.
•Rays for real: Change the name, change the fortune. The Tampa Bay Rays begin the second half of the season needing to win only 26 of their remaining 68 games to set a franchise record for victories, at 71. But they are capable of much more. The Rays hit the break in second place, a half-game behind Boston. They are loaded with strong pitching (Scott Kazmir, James Shields); dynamic talent (Rookie of the Year certainty Evan Longoria); and even boast a wild-card contributor (former No. 1 draft pick, lefty David Price).
•N.L. West: Arizona cannot hit. The Los Angeles Dodgers cannot stay healthy. San Francisco wasn’t supposed to contend. Colorado cannot play consistently. Welcome to the wild, wild, wildly mediocre N.L. West. A season after producing the two teams that played for the N.L. pennant, not one of the teams in the division reached the All-Star break with a winning record. That has turned would-be sellers, like Colorado, into wannabe contenders.
•N.L. Cy Young: As tight as the standings are in most divisions, so too is the race for the N.L. Cy Young. Newcomers Edinson Volquez of Cincinnati and Tim Lincecum of San Francisco have stormed the ranks of standard contenders Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs, Ben Sheets of Milwaukee and past winner Brandon Webb of Arizona.
•Chasing Thigpen: Los Angeles Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez reached the All-Star break with a record 38 saves. He is on pace to not just break Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 saves, set in 1990 with the White Sox, but blow by it. Rodriguez, while wearing No. 57, has saves in two-thirds of his team’s victories. If the Angels, who have the best record in the A.L., continue at their current winning percentage and call on Rodriguez with the same regularity, he’s on pace for 65 saves.
•The Cubs: This year really could be the next year Wrigleyville has been waiting for.
With the N.L.’s best record and eight players selected for the All-Star Game, the Cubs have the ingredients of an October favorite. About to get Alfonso Soriano back in the lineup, the Cubs boast one of the most balanced and deep offenses in the game, buttressed by Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, rookie Geovany Soto and, in Soriano’s absence, Jim Edmonds. The addition of Rich Harden gives them a complement to Zambrano, and Kerry Wood’s development as a closer gives them a hammer.
If they are going to make answering all the questions about the 100th anniversary of 1908 worthwhile, they have to first stay ahead of St. Louis and Milwaukee. But it’s not winning a World Series in 100 years that has these Cubs focused, it’s having what they believe is their best team in years.