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Take 5: Second-half storylines

Sportsnaut
Jul 18, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Judge (99) takes swings in the cage during All Star-Batting Practice at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball officially surpassed the season’s midway point before the just-completed All-Star break, but whatever your semantics, we have entered the stretch run.

Intriguing division and wild-card races loom, as do chases for team and individual immortality. And we hardly scratch the surface on the special things reigning American League MVP Shohei Ohtani keeps doing with the Los Angeles Angels.

Setting aside the MLB Trade Deadline on August 2 (covered in a companion piece published Wednesday), here are the five biggest second-half storylines in MLB:

–Yankees keep rolling

As renowned late New York Yankees broadcaster and Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto often put it, “Holy cow.”

The Yankees rolled to an MLB-best 64-28 record in the first half, building a 13-game lead on their nearest American League East pursuer, the Tampa Bay Rays, while setting a team record for wins before the All-Star break.

It’s rarified air for the Bronx Bombers, to be sure. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only five other clubs since 1947 earned victories in 64 of their first 92 games. Just one of them, the 1998 Yankees, won the World Series.

“It’s special, what’s going on here,” New York outfielder Tim Locastro said. “Every single game, they’re never out of it. You can tell that every single night. That’s what happens with a winning ballclub.”

The Yankees rank third in baseball with a 3.08 team ERA, while the pitching staff is fifth with 846 strikeouts. A potent, opportunistic attack is led by Aaron Judge — who has a big-league best 33 home runs to go with 70 RBIs — and All-Star game MVP Giancarlo Stanton and his 24 homers and 61 RBIs.

If New York can keep pace in the franchise’s pursuit of its first World Series title in 2009, intangibles also could play a role.

“I think we care about each other,” right-hander Gerrit Cole said. “I think we root for each other hard and want the best for each other. We find ways to inspire each other and elevate our game when we need to.”

–Hunt for M’s October

The Seattle Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001, but that playoff drought may be nearing its end.

Seattle set an MLB record by entering the All-Star break on a 14-game winning streak, the largest such tear in history and the first time took a double-digit winning streak into the break since the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Behind a staff led by Robbie Ray and Logan Gilbert and a lineup keyed by All-Star rookie outfielder Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners have the pieces to reach the postseason. They trailed the Houston Astros in the AL West by nine games at the break but are solidly in the wild card hunt.

“Throughout the course of any season — you play six months — you’re gonna have some highs, you’re gonna have some lows,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Every team goes through it. This is a long ways from over. This team’s got big goals, big aspirations. We want to play October baseball.”

–Whither the White Sox?

A trendy World Series pick entering the season, the Chicago White Sox navigated a horde of injuries, various fans’ calls for manager Tony La Russa’s job and overall inconsistency to get to .500 at the break.

Defending AL Central champion Chicago is in third place in the division, but just three games behind Minnesota and one back of Cleveland. The White Sox also are chasing several teams for one of three AL wild-card spots.

The White Sox charged into the break by winning three of four at Minnesota.

‘‘It was important to make a statement and show that we’re still here,” right-hander Dylan Cease said. ‘‘I think it’s going to be a good second half.”

–Ready to scramble

Eighteen of 30 teams either possess or are within 3 ½ games of a playoff spot as baseball begins the second half.

That’s exactly what MLB was going for when it elected to expand the postseason to three wild-card teams per league in addition to the three division winners.

Apart from the AL Central, look for tight division races in the NL Central, where Milwaukee leads St. Louis by ½ game, and the NL East, which sees the New York Mets with a 2 1/2-game edge on defending World Series champ Atlanta.

–Legendary swan song

Albert Pujols re-signed with St. Louis for his final season with the hopes of one final playoff run with the organization with which he became a superstar.

While that still is in play for the Cardinals, Pujols also has a shot at individual glory. A part-time player against left-handers and occasional pinch-hitter, Pujols stands at 685 career home runs, fifth all-time, 11 behind Alex Rodriguez for fourth. Pujols batted .215 with six homers and 20 RBIs in 53 games in the first half.

Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who collected his 3,000th hit this season, joined Pujols as an All-Star legacy selection. Cabrera has indicated his intent to retire following the 2023 season.

–Kevin Druley, Field Level Media