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Sports >  MLB

Baseball teams chase Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros on eve of second half

Clayton Kershaw, left, Justin Turner and the Los Angeles Dodgers are looking down at the rest of the National League as the season enters the second half. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)
Clayton Kershaw, left, Justin Turner and the Los Angeles Dodgers are looking down at the rest of the National League as the season enters the second half. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)
By Jay Cohen Associated Press

The Washington Nationals have Bryce Harper anchoring one of baseball’s best lineups, and a glaring hole at the back of their bullpen. The Boston Red Sox are enjoying life with Chris Sale, and missing David Ortiz at times. The Chicago Cubs are searching for answers for their pesky championship hangover.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros are looking down at the rest of the majors right now, and it’s quite a gap at the moment.

With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror and the trade deadline inching closer, the World Series favorites are as clear as the beautiful blue waters of Miami that hosted baseball’s best players for the past couple days. The Dodgers and Astros are each on pace to win 100-plus games, something that hasn’t happened for two teams in a single season since the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees in 2004.

“I don’t think there’s one key, but I think that’s probably why we’re doing so well – is that there’s not one specific thing you can hone in on as to why we’re playing so well,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said.

Los Angeles leads the majors with a 61-29 record, one game better than Houston and 7 1/2 ahead of second-place Arizona in the loaded N.L. West. The Dodgers’ plus-163 run differential is the best in National League history at the All-Star break, according to STATS LLC.

Kershaw has been, well, Kershaw, and Kenley Jansen remains one of the majors’ best closers. But rookie Cody Bellinger has provided an unexpected lift with 25 homers, and left-hander Alex Wood is 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA.

“Every night it’s somebody different, and that’s a sign of a good team,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It seems like I say depth every single night, but that’s probably been the biggest reason for our success.”

The Astros are feeling pretty good, too. Led by All-Stars Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, they top the majors in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs and batting average. Perhaps most important, they also have a whopping 16 1/2-game lead in the A.L. West, allowing them to go slowly with Dallas Keuchel after the 2015 A.L. Cy Young Award winner was shelved by a neck injury.

“You don’t think you’re going to play that well but you don’t think you’re going to play badly either,” Springer said. “I’ll take it.”

A year ago, the Cubs were in the same position as the Dodgers and Astros, on top of the game heading into the second half of the season. They went on to their first World Series championship since 1908, but their title defense has been one bumpy ride so far.

Hampered by injuries and inconsistency, the Cubs are under .500 and trail surprising Milwaukee by 5 1/2 games in the N.L. Central. The Cleveland Indians, who lost to Chicago in the World Series, have experienced some of the same problems, but they are in position for another October run at the top of the A.L. Central.

“We definitely believe in ourselves as a team. We know what we have here, what we’re capable of,” Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “Just got to execute better in the second half and really turn on the burners.”

Another starting pitcher also could help the Cubs, so expect Theo Epstein and company to be working the phones all the way to the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. The Astros, Brewers, Rockies and sweet-swinging Yankees also could be on the lookout for rotation help.

Some possibilities include White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana, Athletics right-hander Sonny Gray and Tigers star Justin Verlander. Any one of those pitchers on the right team could help close the gap with the Dodgers and Astros.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of guys going down,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. “We’ll get a couple guys back so I’m looking forward to the second half.”

Washington needs another arm or two for its bullpen, and Boston could look for a power-hitting third baseman before the deadline. While Ortiz seems to be enjoying his retirement, the A.L. East-leading Red Sox have an A.L.-low 92 homers at the break. The Nationals bashed their way to a big lead in the N.L. East, but they have 14 blown saves and a major league-worst 5.20 bullpen ERA.

One shrewd move by either team, and they could turn into a legitimate challenger to the front-running Astros and Dodgers.

“We’re having fun, we’re playing confidently,” Bellinger said. “When it all clicks like it is now, it’s fun.”

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