Baseball ready to resume drama-filled season

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Raise your hand if you had this in your preseason picks.

Evan Longoria and the Tampa Bay Rays are sandwiched between the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and leading the wild-card race in — gasp! — mid-July. The Chicago White Sox are on top in the AL Central, with the big-budget Detroit Tigers in third and Cleveland languishing in last.

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Not one team is above .500 in the NL West, and the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins have muddled the picture in the Central and East.

Coming off the longest All-Star game in major league history, baseball is set up for a second half that also could provide last weekend drama.

‘‘We would have taken the spot we’re in (when the season started),’’ said Longoria, whose team was leading the East before closing the first half with a season-worst seven-game skid. ‘‘We’re in a great position. We just have to get back to what we were doing.’’

Longoria and teammates Scott Kazmir and Dioner Navarro were roundly booed by the Yankee Stadium crowd before the American League’s 4-3, 15-inning win Tuesday night, signaling the previously irrelevant Rays must be doing something right.

Purged of the Devil, Tampa Bay is just a half-game behind Boston and 5 1/2 ahead of the Yankees. The Rays also have the prospects to acquire another bat before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

But the AL East race could come down to the arms, with New York hoping to get injured right-handers Phil Hughes and Chien-Ming Wang back in time for another run in the final season at Yankee Stadium.

‘‘As well as we’re going to pitch is how well our team is going to do,’’ Red Sox captain Jason Varitek said.

Pitching, as always, is a hot commodity.

The Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs acted quickly to secure two of the best arms on the trade market, setting up a compelling finish in the suddenly strong NL Central. The Brewers sent four prospects to the Indians for left-hander CC Sabathia, sending a jolt through a franchise seeking its first postseason berth since 1982.

‘‘I like our chances,’’ slugger Ryan Braun said. ‘‘Whenever you can get a Cy Young Award winner and add him to your pitching staff, you’re in great shape.’’

Braun and the Brewers will have to leap over wild card-leading St. Louis to reach the postseason, and the surprising Cardinals were 4 1/2 games back of Central-leading Chicago.

Back again after decades of heartache, Cubs fans are hoping this is the year their beloved team wins its first World Series title since 1908. Chicago rolled to a 37-12 record at a rollicking Wrigley Field in the first half and acquired right-hander Rich Harden from Oakland before the break.

‘‘Names don’t win baseball games for you, production does,’’ manager Lou Piniella said. ‘‘I’ll tell you this, we’re going to have our hands full the rest of the summer. You look at the teams in our division and all of them have winning records at home.’’

Piniella helped skipper the Cubs through first-half injuries to ace Carlos Zambrano and All-Star outfielder Alfonso Soriano, who could be back in Chicago’s potent lineup soon.

‘‘We’re confident, but we’re not arrogant,’’ second baseman Mark DeRosa said. ‘‘Just a bunch of guys having fun.’’

They’re also having a lot of fun on the South side of Chicago, where the White Sox were in first after losing 90 games a year ago.

‘‘I won’t say I’m satisfied but I’m happy where we are for now,’’ manager Ozzie Guillen said. ‘‘I’d rather be here right now in this position than be in another position.’’

Guillen’s team will be tested over the season’s final months, trying to hold off the plucky Twins and Tigers.

Minnesota traded ace Johan Santana in the offseason but stayed in the race behind steady All-Stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, whose production will be closely watched as the Home Run Derby champ. Justin Verlander and Detroit are back on track after an awful start, with the ace right-hander winning his last five decisions before the break.

The Los Angeles Angels’ six-game lead over the Oakland Athletics in the AL West was the biggest lead in baseball at break, but there were close races in the NL East and West — for very different reasons.

The uneven Diamondbacks (47-48) were leading the slumping West, followed by the mediocre Dodgers.

‘‘I knew we were going to be inexperienced, I knew we were going through trials of being inconsistent,’’ Los Angeles second baseman Jeff Kent said. ‘‘But I’m grateful that Arizona’s going through the same thing.’’

All the standings could be thrown for a loop with a big trade or signing. Atlanta slugger Mark Teixeira could be on the move again if the injury-riddled Braves fall off the pace, and Toronto right-hander A.J. Burnett could be attractive for a team desperately seeking another starter. San Diego could deal 350-game winner Greg Maddux and left-hander Randy Wolf.

And still out there on the free-agent market: indicted home run king Barry Bonds.

With most of the teams still in the race for a postseason spot, teams could have trouble deciding whether they’re buyers or sellers ahead of the deadline. It could lead to another surprising postseason, too.

‘‘There isn’t that much of a difference between the top five teams in our league and the teams on the bottom,’’ Piniella said. ‘‘Any team can beat you.’’