There’s an old baseball axiom that states that the team that is in first place on the 4th of July will win the pennant. Sadly for fans of A.L. East teams that are not the Evil Empire, that truth has held up in the new division (beginning in 1995) era. From 1995 through 2011, the team that was in first place on Independence Day has won the division 12 out of 17 times. In the 5 years in which the front runner fell out of first, the Red Sox have done so 3 times (2005, 2006, 2009), the Blue Jays once (2000), and the Yankees once (2010.) To make matters worse, the only two teams that have not clinched at least a wild card when leading at the 4th are the 2000 Toronto Blue Jays and the 2006 Boston Red Sox, which means we’re all likely in for a healthy dose of the Yankees in to the playoffs. Awesome.
The Yankees find themselves in first after an absolutely torrid June that saw them go 20-7, which included a 10-game winning streak from the 8th to the 18th as they tore through the N.L. East. All told, they would finish inter-league play at 13-5, the 2nd best mark in the majors (Texas went 14-4.) Their Achilles’ heel thus far has been play in the A.L. East, where they are only 11-12, and against the Tampa Bay Rays in particular. Heading in to today’s game, the Yankees are 4-7 against the Rays, and have had their July get off to a rocky start thanks to Maddon’s bunch. Unfortunately for the Rays, and the rest of the East, the Yanks and Rays only match up 6 more times (at Tampa from September 3-5, at New York from the 14th-16th) after this afternoon’s match-up. If the rest of the East doesn’t step it up, those games might not matter much. The good news is that the other 3 teams in the East will have a combined 42 games with the Yankees, so they still control the division’s destiny.
The Baltimore Orioles make their way to the holiday having slipped 5 games behind the Yankees in the East, but they still are holding on to the 2nd wild card position (2 games in front of the Cleveland Indians.) The big news for them was their acquisition of Jim Thome from the Phillies, as Josh Flagner wrote about yesterday. While his batting average was less than impressive with the Phillies this season in part-time action, it’s obvious that he still swings a big stick. He averaged one home run per every 12.4 at-bats, and if he can keep that pace up as the Orioles’ DH the rest of the season, that makes them a much more dangerous team. Whether the pitching and the rest of the lineup can keep up the pace will determine whether or not the Orioles can make the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
The Toronto Blue Jays get to the halfway point of the season right around where I had expected them to, at least in terms of their record. Their last-place position in the standings, however, I wouldn’t have predicted, but that is in large part due to how well the Orioles have played so far. Considering the injuries that the Jays have suffered to their pitching staff (Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchinson), it is impressive that they have continued to play as well as they have. Then again, a lineup with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnarcion is likely to keep most pitching staffs in any game. I caught the Blue Jays at Fenway Park last Wednesday (June 27th), and Bautista hit a ball so hard, I only heard it leave the park. To see the damage it caused, I had to go to MLB.com for the replay.
Despite the fact that the Rays find themselves uncharacteristically tied for last place in fielding with the Baltimore Orioles, they find themselves only one-half of a game behind the Orioles for the 2nd wild card slot and only trail the Yankees by 5 and a half games. This is in spite of the fact that Evan Longoria has only appeared in 23 games for the Rays so far this season. Joe Smith reports that Longoria feels his recovery is moving in the right direction and that he tried to do “too much too soon”, which led him to take himself out of a rehab game on June 18th. Fernando Rodney‘s 24 saves lead the team, and assuming that holds up through the end of the season, he will become the 8th different pitcher in the last 8 seasons to lead the Rays in saves. The previous 7 were Kyle Farnsworth (25, 2011); Rafael Soriano (45, 2010); J.P. Howell (17, 2009); Troy Percival (28, 2008); Alberto Reyes (26, 2007); Tyler Walker (10, 2006); and Danys Baez (41, 2005, he also led the team with 30 in 2004.) If this doesn’t prove closer to be one of the more overrated positions in baseball, I’m not sure what will.
The Red Sox make their way to the 4th having in much better shape than they might have been able to hope for, given injuries, trade failures, and Bobby V. still at the helm. With Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury on the mend, the Sox should theoretically get better. What the organization really needs, is a trade win, or at the very least, a trade break even. Kevin Youkilis‘ performance last night would suggest that he is ready to break out, and that will be another mark against Sox GM Ben Cherinton. Cole Hamels is a big name that is rumored to be available, but I don’t know if the Sox can match the asking price of 4-5 prospects. Through the injuries they’ve incurred this season, they’ve been able to display some of the young talent that they have available, but none of them are big-time names or sure-fire hits, even with the success they’ve enjoyed this season. If the Phillies’ asking price were to drop, the Sox might find themselves in the running. The real key to the 2nd half for the Sox will be Bobby V.’s ability to control himself.
Questions? Thoughts? Criticisms?