Five Cuts from the first weekend of the second half of the 2012 baseball season ...
1. Sheets Impresses -- Ben Sheets held the Mets scoreless for six innings on Sunday in what was his first major league start since July 19, 2010. Sheets, a four-time All-Star with the Brewers, spent the last two years rehabbing from August 2010 Tommy John surgery, and given the way injuries had impacted his career before that (he averaged 21 starts and 135 innings per season from 2005 to 2007, then missed the 2008 postseason and all of the 2009 season due to another elbow injury and the subsequent surgery), few expected him to come back at all. Indeed, Sheets, who will turn 34 on Wednesday, didn't sign with a team until this July 1, when the Braves inked him to a minor league deal, so it was quite a surprise to see him cruising against the fourth-best offense in the National League (according to runs scored per game).
Sheets, who had a 4.53 ERA in just 20 major league starts since September 2008, held the Mets to two hits and a walk, struck out five, and retired the last ten men he faced. His fastball sat in the low-90s, right where it was when we last saw him, and his breaking stuff, particularly his curveball, had good movement. It's too early to know if Sheets is going to give Johan Santana, his mound opponent, a serious challenge for the comeback player of the year award, but with the exception of his abbreviated 2010 season, during which it now seems clear his elbow was not sound, he has always pitched well despite his injuries (from 2005-2008 he posted a 126 ERA+ and a 4.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio). The Braves only need him for three months of solid pitching as a replacement for Brandon Beachy (T.J. giveth, and T.J. taketh away). That doesn't seem out of the question.
Meanwhile, the Braves' 6-1 victory over the Mets completed a three-game sweep of their closest division rivals, a nice way to start the second half for the second-place Braves, who are currently tied with the Pirates for the lead in the NL wild-card race. Meanwhile, the Mets dropped from a three-way tie for third in that race to fifth and now have to travel to Washington to face the division-leading Nationals, who have the best record in the league.
2. Fistful Of Aces -- The National League lit up Justin Verlander and Matt Harrison in the All-Star Game, but that didn't carry over to their first starts of the second half. Verlander dominated the Orioles, holding them scoreless for eight innings on three hits and two walks while striking out eight, while Harrison shut out the Mariners despite weaker peripherals. Joining those two with strong second-half debuts were fellow AL All-Star Chris Sale (8 IP, 1 R, 0 BB vs. the Royals) and National Leaguers Cole Hamels (8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 7 K vs. the Rockies), Yovani Gallardo (7 IP, 1 R, 0 BB, 14 K vs. the Pirates) and Stephen Strasburg (6 IP, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K vs. the Marlins). Those six combined to allow just three runs in 46 innings, just one less than NL All-Star starter Matt Cain allowed in his 6 1/3 innings against the Astros, though Cain also pitched well (only one run was earned and he struck out six against one walk).
The seven combined to go 7-0 with a 0.69 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 5.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio with nearly a strikeout per inning. All but Gallardo, the lone non-All-Star, broke into double digits in the win column, and Hamels is the only one of the six All-Stars still sporting an ERA above 3.00 (he's at 3.07). Encouraging as all that is for those men and their teams, it also serves to highlight just how important Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale have been to their first-place teams, and just how much consternation it would cause if one or both of them is shut down down the stretch due to workload concerns. After Sunday's starts, Strasburg is at 105 innings and Sale, who threw just 71 innings last year, his first full season as a professional, is at 110 2/3.
3. Angels With Dirty Faces -- Not joining the list of dominant starts above was Jered Weaver, who had allowed just one run in 27 2/3 innings, not counting a scoreless frame in the All-Star Game, since returning from a back injury on June 20. The Yankees doubled that total in the first inning with an Alex Rodriguez home run and added singles runs in the second, sixth, and seventh, the last two coming on home runs by Curtis Granderson and Eric Chavez, to send Weaver to the showers with a five-spot on his pitching line. The Yankees later became the first team to score on Angels closer Ernesto Frieri since the May 3 trade that sent him to Anaheim when Mark Teixeira hit a two-run shot off him in the ninth.
Despite all that, the Angels took the lead in the game in the sixth and never relinquished it, scoring five runs in six innings against starter Ivan Nova, charging one more to him in the seventh following a leadoff double by Mike Trout, then jumping all over reliever Chad Qualls in the eighth to go up 9-5. Still, the Yankees made things interesting in the ninth. Teixeira's homer made it 10-7, after which the Yankees loaded the bases and forced in a run via a two-out, full-count walk to Granderson by lefty Scott Downs. That brought up Rodriguez, the career grand-slam leader. Relieving Downs, righty Kevin Jepsen came after Rodriguez with high heat in the upper 90s, but he left the 2-2 pitch down in the zone only to have Rodriguez pop it up for the last out. It was by that narrow margin, the Angels, still comfortably ensconced as the leader in the AL Wild Card race but trailing the Rangers by five games in the West, avoided a sweep.
4. Red Hot -- The Cardinals were not so lucky, losing three close games to suffer a sweep at the hands of the once-again-first-place Reds in Cincinnati. The Reds have now won their last six contests to take a one-game lead over the Pirates in the NL Central and push the Cardinals 4½ games behind in the division and 3½ games behind the Braves and Pirates in the wild card. Hot as the Reds have been, their wins have been close, with only the first of their current streak coming by a margin of more than two runs. Sunday night's finale was tied 2-2 with two out in the bottom of the eighth when Scott Rolen delivered a bases-loaded single into right field to plate two runs. Aroldis Chapman did the rest, striking out the side in the ninth.
The Reds' next foe will be the Arizona Diamondbacks, who arrive in Cincinnati after having just been swept by the lowly Cubs by a combined score of 15-3, an ominous opening to the second half for last year's West Division champions. The Cardinals, meanwhile, travel to Milwaukee to face the Brewers, who just took two of three from the Pirates and now stand just 3½ games behind St. Louis in the Central Division standings.
5. The Boys Are Back In Town -- One of the big themes of the second half has been the return of key players from the disabled list. Friday marked the return of last year's Most Valuable Player runners-up, Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury, who had been out since May and April, respectively, as well as Kemp's left-hand man, Andre Ethier. Saturday saw Lance Berkman return for the Cardinals for the first time since May 19. That trend will continue this week with Carl Crawford making his 2012 debut for the Red Sox on Monday night and Roy Halladay scheduled to make his first start for the Phillies since May 27 on Tuesday. The Red Sox also hope to have Dustin Pedroia back in their lineup by the end of the week, while the rival Yankees are still on track to activate ace CC Sabathia to start against the Blue Jays on Tuesday night. The Rangers are hoping to have Colby Lewis return to start on Wednesday and expecting to have Alexi Ogando back in their bullpen by then as well.
Of this week's returns, Crawford's and Halladay's are the most eagerly anticipated. Crawford at this point is more a curiosity than a bankable ballplayer. He was a replacement-level player for Boston last year and is coming off wrist surgery and a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow, that's the ligament that is replaced in Tommy John surgery and the arm he throws with. His return comes just three weeks shy of his 31st birthday and there's no guarantee he is going to go back to being the star he was for the Rays, though if he does, and is able to stay healthy while doing it, Boston is in a good position to claim the American League's second wild-card spot.
As for Halladay, he joins the recently-activated Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in restoring the Phillies' roster to something resembling last year's 102-game winners, but can those three players right a ship that has been taking on water all season? Howard and Utley have only started in the same game four times since Howard's July 6 return, and the Phillies are 1-3 in those games and have won just three of their last 14 games overall. The clock is ticking on the trio's impact with the trading deadline two weeks from Tuesday and Hamels and Shane Victorino still headed for free agency after the season. There may not be a more compelling story in baseball over those next two weeks than what happens with Hamels, who could just as easily be traded as sign an extension that could keep him in Philadelphia for the rest of the decade.