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Baseball's Best Bets for a Second-Half Surge

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Baseball's Best Bets for a Second-Half Surge
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On Monday, in Anaheim, California, Major League Baseball begins its yearly ceremonial celebration for the regular season's halfway point with the 81st All-Star Game.

However, last night officially split the 162-game campaign as teams have played between 81-83 games.

As of Tuesday, surprise teams like the Atlanta Braves , Cincinnati Reds , and San Diego Padres lead their respective National League divisions.

In the American League, the Texas Rangers hold a two-game advantage on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

For supporters of preseason favorites, the St. Louis Cardinals or Los Angeles Dodgers , panic probably hasn’t set in because there’s still time to make up a few games.

But a few teams—Toronto Blue Jays , Oakland Athletics , Florida Marlins , San Francisco Giants —are hovering around .500 and need to make up a handful of games for a spot in the postseason.

These fans are praying for a second-half run.

Luckily, there are reasons to keep hoping because, since 2001, there have been teams that rebounded from slow first-half starts.

Here’s a look:

2001: Through 87 games, the Oakland Athletics were 44-43.

Using young hurlers, Tim Hudson , Mark Mulder and Barry Zito , the Athletics went 58-17 in 75 games to finish 102-60 and snag the AL Wild Card.

2004: At 44-44 through 88 games, the Houston Astros acquired outfielder, Carlos Beltran , around the trade deadline.

Beltran smashed 23 home runs in 90 games, propelling the Astros to a 92-70 record and the NL Wild Card.

2005: Roger Clemens , Andy Pettitte , and Roy Oswalt helped Houston , again, come back from a slow start, 44-43, to earn the Wild Card spot with an 89-73 record.

The Astros reached the World Series where the Chicago White Sox used a four-game sweep to capture their first championship since 1917.

2006: Oakland’s 48-26 second-half finish helped win the AL West and overcome a sluggish start of 45-43.

2007: The Phillies (44-44), Rockies (44-44), Chicago Cubs (44-43), and New York Yankees (43-43) each flirted with .500 and found a second-half spark to make the playoffs.

2009: The Rockies were 18-29 with manager Clint Hurdle , who was fired, but behind Jim Tracy the NL Wild Card winner went 74-42 to go 92-70 overall.

History doesn’t lie.

So, of the four teams listed earlier, which has the best shot of making a second-half surge?

Let's take a look.

 

4. Toronto Blue Jays (41-42), Fourth, AL East

Through 83 games, the “grip and rip” mentality has the Jays atop the American League in strikeouts (hitting and pitching).

At the plate, Toronto is striking out 7.6 times per game, second in the AL.

On the mound, the Jays have averaged 7.5 strikeouts, first in the AL.

There’s probably no correlation, but the coincidence is interesting.

Even more fascinating are the similarities between Toronto’s philosophy and All-Star right fielder Jose Bautista , who leads the league in home runs, 21, but is hitting .236 with 66 strikeouts.

However, the keys for the Jays—10.5 and 8.5 games behind the AL East lead and the Wild Card, respectively—becoming postseason contenders is outfielder Vernon Wells ' continued hitting and maturity, starting pitching—oh, and a bullpen.

From 2004-06, Wells maintained a season average of .281 and 27.6 home runs.

The past three seasons Wells struggled, averaging .265 with 17 homers.

Currently Wells is on pace to hit .274, 40 homers, collect 100 RBI, with a .544 slugging percentage and is back to an old form.

The top three starting pitchers, Ricky Romero , Shaun Marcum , and Brandon Morrow , are all under 28 years old.

Romero, 25, is 6-5, has fanned 106, and compiled an ERA of 3.39.

Morrow, 25, has 107 strikeouts while Marcum, 28, is 7-4 with an ERA of 3.44.

If Toronto limits the outs it gives away and finds a closer who’s not Kevin Gregg , there’s a slight chance of a miracle march to the top of the standings.

However, arguably the three best teams in the league stand in the way.

For the neighbors up north, it’s probably better luck next season.

 

3. Oakland Athletics (41-43), Third, AL West

MLB followers have seen this story before.

The Athletics begin slowly but a surprising second-half charge helps secure a playoff spot.

This season, the Oakland formula of solid young pitching plus timely hitting will need to be implemented for the Athletics, which sit eight games behind in the West, nine in the Wild Card.

Using a team ERA of 3.84, second in the AL, the Athletics are positioned in a tough but doable spot because of a Top Gun rotation that features one starting pitcher—Ben Sheets , 31—who’s older than 26.

Trevor Cahill , 22, has played Iceman, the Val Kilmer character, posting a solid first-half ERA of 2.74 and going 8-2.

So, if Cahill played Kilmer, then Dallas Braden , 26, was Maverick, Tom Cruise’s character.

Despite a 4-7 record, Braden found the headlines by yelling at Alex Rodriguez in 4-2 win , April 22, and tossing a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays , May 9.

Unfortunately for Oakland, hitting hasn’t backed up its superb pitching.

Fact: Sheets, 1-for-3, is the only player hitting above .300.

Oakland’s best full-time batter is Ryan Sweeney , who’s hitting .294 with one homer.

Kurt Suzuki leads the team with 10 home runs.

Obviously for the Athletics, they need some type of offensive jolt to make a playoff run.

However, the Texas Rangers have shown it may have the best package of talent and could earn their first playoff appearance since 1999.

Also, who’s going to bet against Angels manager Mike Scioscia ?

 

2. Florida Marlins (39-43), Fourth, NL East

For the last few seasons, the Marlins have been the trendy sleeper pick.

With young hurlers like Josh Johnson , Ricky Nolasco , Anibal Sanchez , and Chris Volstad ; add 2009 NL MVP runner-up, Hanley Ramirez , 2009 Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan , and second base slugger, Dan Uggla , and it’s a tough opinion to be opposed to.

But the Marlins, 8.5 games behind NL Eastleading Atlanta, 6.5 in the Wild Card, haven’t played up to their potential.

That’s why Florida’s front office fired manager Fredi Gonzalez on June 24, and replaced him with Edwin Rodriguez , who could be replaced by Bobby Valentine .

Last season, the manager swap helped the Rockies rally and earn a playoff bid.

This season, Florida hopes a similar move works in Miami.

And it could with the right leadership in place—this wasn’t the case with Gonzalez, whose leadership skills were, rightly or wrongly, called out by Ramirez.

Ramirez, 26, has played consistently, hitting .297, 15 homers, 53 RBI, 48 runs, and 15 stolen bases.

Uggla is putting up some of his better career numbers in average (.278), on-base percentage (.346), and slugging (.487).

So what’s the problem?

Answer: consistency on both offense and defense.

The Marlins have a team batting average of .263, third in the NL, but average about eight strikeouts per game, second highest in the NL.

Johnson, 8-3, has a league-leading ERA of 1.82 but is only 3-2 in his last seven starts, despite having an ERA of 0.91.

Even with Johnson’s dominance, Florida’s team ERA of 4.05 is ranked ninth in the NL.

The Marlins have enough tools to make a dash up the standings, especially in a NL East that is battered by injuries and inconsistent play.

The new manager, whoever it is, will need to quickly fix the cracks left by Gonzalez and motivate a team full of potential.

 

1. San Francisco Giants (42-40), Fourth, NL West

Sitting seven games behind the NL West-leading San Diego Padres , 3.5 in the Wild Card, the Giants must beat three quality teams for a postseason bid.

Good news for Bay Area fans.

With four top-notch starting pitchers in Tim Lincecum , Matt Cain , Jonathan Sanchez , and Zito, and an efficient but not flashy offense, San Fran’s arsenal is enough to make a run.

Currently, the pitching staff is carrying an ERA of 3.51, third in the NL, and strikes out 7.98 batters per game, ranked first.

Throw in that the Giants top four starters are legit workhorses—each have already tossed 100 innings, and the main ingredient for “Comeback Soup” is created.

What about the offense?

Averaging 4.1 runs, ranked 11th in the NL, and slugging .400, 10th in the NL, it’s not glamorous.

However, there are key pieces like:

Struggling Star Who Makes Second-Half Revival: Pablo Sandoval .

Last year, Sandoval hit .330 with 25 home runs, but this season is hitting .269 with six homers.

2010 Surprise of the Year: Aubrey Huff .

He’s hitting .294 with an OPS of .916 and 15 homers.

Second Half Breakout Player: Buster Posey .

Since Bengie Molina was traded on July 1, Posey is 7-for-19, .368, with two homers, and five runs.

Amped Bullpen Stud: Madison Bumgarner .

He's destined to be the young, over-excited bullpen hurler who upsets announcers with fist pumps—this video solidifies the theory.

“How Is This Guy Still On The Field?” Player: Juan Uribe, who hit 12 dingers and is on pace to surpass a career-high of 23 homers, set in 2004.

Also, consider that no one can predict endings in the NL West.

This is why San Francisco is the MLB’s best bet to complete a second-half playoff push.

 

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