Races wide open as 2nd half begins

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2003

CHICAGO - Now that the American League has home-field advantage in the World Series, the question is which team will benefit.

At the start of the second half, the upstart Kansas City Royals have the biggest lead in the league, a seven-game advantage over All-Star host Chicago in the AL Central.

The New York Yankees, chasing their sixth straight AL East title, are two games ahead of second-place Boston. If the Yankees are home for the World Series opener on Oct. 18, they'll thank Hank Blalock, whose go-ahead, two-run homer off Eric Gagne in the eighth inning provided the winning All-Star margin Tuesday night.

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''I'm sure whoever reaches the World Series in a Game 7 or something like that will send him a 12-pack of something,'' said the Yankees' Jason Giambi, who also homered in the AL's 7-6 victory.

Blalock's Texas Rangers aren't likely to benefit: They're last in the AL West, 20 games behind Seattle, which at 58-35 has the league's best record. The defending World Series champion Anaheim Angels, who beat visiting San Francisco in Game 7 last year, are 8 1/2 games back of the Mariners. It was the eighth straight Game 7 win since 1979 for the Series team opening and closing in its home ballpark.

''Home-field advantage is an advantage because you play more games in your park,'' said Garret Anderson, selected MVP of the All-Star game after singling, doubling and hitting a two-run homer.

In the National League, Atlanta looks like a runaway for its 12th straight division title, compiling a major league-best 61-32 record in the first half to take an 8 1/2-game lead over second-place Philadelphia in the East.

Houston leads the Central, one game ahead of St. Louis and three in front of the Chicago Cubs. San Francisco heads the West, five games in front of Arizona.

Teams spent part of the three-day All-Star break contemplating what moves they want to make before July 31, the last day to trade players without putting them through waivers.

Los Angeles, seeking pop for the sorriest offense in the NL, acquired outfielder Jeromy Burnitz from the New York Mets on Monday and signed 44-year-old Rickey Henderson. The Yankees, hoping to boost their bullpen, got Armando Benitez from the Mets on Wednesday.

Juan Gonzalez could be had from Texas - if he's willing to waive his no-trade clause. Look for all the top teams to prey on the weak as the deadline approaches.

Teams also are looking to get back injured players.

Randy Johnson, sidelined since arthroscopic surgery May 1 to remove bone chips and loose cartilage from his right knee, hopes to rejoin the Diamondbacks' rotation July 20 against San Diego. Nick Johnson, out for two months because of a stress fracture in his right hand, thinks he can rejoin the Yankees by the end of the month.

Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, seeking his first batting title, leads the major leagues at .368. Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki, trying for his second AL batting title in three seasons, leads his league with a .352 average.

San Francisco's Barry Bonds (30) and Toronto's Carlos Delgado (28) top their leagues in homers, while Delgado's 97 RBIs are the third-most ever at the break. Colorado's Preston Wilson tops the NL with 91.

Toronto's Roy Halladay tops the AL with 13 wins, while Woody Williams of the Cardinals and Russ Ortiz of the Braves share the NL lead at 12.

Fans also will be getting their final look at Roger Clemens, who says he will retire at the end of the season, his 20th in the major leagues.

''My work's not done, and it won't be done until I've pitched my final game,'' he said. ''And at that point, I will be sad, I will be happy. I'll have a lot of emotions at that point, knowing that this will be it for me.''