By Jay Webster
As Major League Baseball reaches the All-Star break, the traditional half-way point of their arduous 162-game schedule, it’s a good time to take a gander at the standings. First-place teams such as the Yankees, Rangers, Dodgers and Nationals were expected to contend in their respective divisions, but in the National and American League Central divisions hold some surprises.
The Chicago White Sox finished 16 games out of first place in 2011, and replaced manager Ozzie Guillen with Robin Ventura. The much-loved former White Sox third baseman, and all-around nice guy, had exactly zero games of managerial experience. To say the least, expectations were low for his first year on the hot seat.
But the Pale Hose obviously weren’t paying attention to those expectations. They currently lead the AL Central by three games over the Cleveland Indians, winning five of their last six games before the break, including a three-game sweep over the vaunted Texas Rangers.
Well Dunn Chicago
Slugger Adam Dunn has been the poster boy for the team’s turnaround. After a historically bad season last year in which he hit an anaemic .159 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI to go with a whopping 177 strikeouts, Dunn has slugged 25 homers and driven in 61 runs already this season.
But the Sox have gotten production up and down the order. First baseman Paul Konerko is among the league leaders with a .329 batting average, and eight players in total have driven in more than 30 runs. The Sox are now 9/1 with Paddy Power to win the American League and 18/1 to win the World Series.
Pitching has also been a strong point. Left-handed starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are a combined 14-3, and rookie closer Addison Reed has converted 13 of his 14 save chances.
GM Kenny Williams gets credit for not resting on his laurels, as he recently went out and acquired veteran third baseman Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox. ‘Youk’ has responded to the change of scenery by driving in 14 runs in his first 13 games and producing three game-winning hits, including a two-run homer in a 2-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Saturday.
While the Tigers and Indians lurk in the division, the White Sox are looking like the team to beat. If Ventura keeps pushing the right buttons, a division title is not out of the question.
Pirates eyeing up the playoffs
Over on the NL side of things, the Pirates started quickly prior to the All-Star break last year before fading away, finishing with a losing record for the 19th straight season. But they were never 11 games above .500, and never in first place. That’s a lofty height the Bucs haven’t reached at the midway point since the days when Barry Bonds had a normal hat size and wore the Pirate black and yellow back in the early 90’s.
Statistically, they have done it with very little offense – the team is 21st out of 30 teams in runs scored, 22nd in batting average and 29th in on-base percentage. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The bats have heated up over the last six weeks or so, led by All Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, whose Major League-leading .362 average, to go with 18 HR and 60 RBI, are numbers unprecedented in Pirate history prior to the All-Star break.
Look for the Pirates to be buyers at the trading deadline for a change, as they’ll look to bring in another bat or arm to help out over the stretch drive. But if the Bucs can keep their offensive production up to the level of where their pitching and defense has been so far, they could be looking at their first playoff appearance since 1992.