NL Central Race, Rays Among Top Stories Heading Into the Second Half

Tony BishopCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2008

The second half of the 2008 Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and there are tons of stories out there worth following and here's a few of the best.

NL Central Race

The Chicago Cubs are tied for the best record in baseball, but the rest of the season is no cakewalk.  With 19 games against the Milwaukee Brewers (nine) and St. Louis Cardinals (10), much of the division will be played out on the field (only five games left between the Cards and Brewers, all at Busch Stadium). 

The Cubs definitely control their own destiny and will have the chance to distance themselves from their top competition.

The addition of CC Sabathia to the Brewers put enough pressure on the Cubs to get Harden and Sabathia hasn't disappointed (2-0, 2.40 ERA). By the way, Harden pitched 5.1 scoreless innings with ten strikeouts just before the break. 

The Cardinals haven't made any moves, and it doesn't appear likely that they will.  So far, their under-appreciated starting staff is playing fantastic baseball and Ryan Franklin has helped bring the bullpen back up.

My guess is that the Cubs will still win the division, probably about 7-10 days before the end of the season, with the second place team making the playoffs as a wildcard.

Tampa Bay Rays

Who says you need $100 million to be in a divisional race?  The Rays are making fools of the Yankees' and Red Sox' payrolls with what should be considered the greatest story in baseball right now. 

Perennial bottom-dwellers who have an absurd amount of youth, talent, and Troy Percival.  The pitching has been sick at home, sporting a 2.82 ERA at Tropicana.  Percival is 1-0 with 19 out of 21 saves and has been the leader and heart of the young starters.

Evan Longoria has made prophets out of those who called out his potential.  Not only does he sport a pretty good bat, he's also one of the best defensive third basemen I've ever seen.

The Rays play Boston and New York six times each (three home, three away) all in the last month, and if they can keep up with the traditional powerhouses, it could make for an extremely exciting September.

Triple Crown

Baseball and horse racing have both teased America plenty in recent years regarding their respective Triple Crown potential, and this year is no different.  Although we already know that the ponies couldn't deliver, both leagues have a solid Triple Crown threat.

Josh Hamilton's only downfall right now is his batting average.  Currently he's at .310 and in ninth in the AL.  In home runs, he's tied for third at 21 with the leader at 23 (so not a huge gap to make up) and in RBI he's dominating the AL at 95 (25 better that Quentin of Chicago).

In the National League, Lance Berkman has a .347 average and is in third behind Chipper Jones at .376 (Pujols is in second at .350).  Berkman has fallen six behind Ryan Howard in home runs, but a few hot weeks can change that (this is probably his roughest category at this point).  In RBI he's 11 behind Howard with 73, but RBI can easily change in the course of two months.

Essentially, I don't see either guy getting it and Berkman probably has the only legitimate shot.  Power numbers are easy to improve, but your batting average is very hard to get up to the leaders.

NL West

There's not much good coming out of the west coast these days and the only reason I'm bringing this up is because I really want to see if the winner is below .500 at the end of the season.  Either way, with an almost guaranteed trip to the league's best home team (Cubs) in the playoffs, the West division is pretty much dead now.