Turning It Up A Notch From the historic to the horrendous, the first half had its moments. Now the stage is set for some heated division races

July 06, 2003

Commissioner Bud Selig needs an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness
pennant race or two, something that's been difficult to come by
since the owners introduced the wild card in 1995. And at week's
end it looked as if he could be in luck: 19 of the 30 teams were
within 6 1/2 games of a playoff spot. A few down-to-the-wire
battles would be welcome, as baseball hit its halfway mark
quietly, with no dominant team and no dominant player (though the
understated greatness of St. Louis Cardinals leftfielder Albert
Pujols should be savored). ¶ The biggest news of the first half
was the stained reputation of one of its most lovable stars,
Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who was suspended seven games
for using a corked bat on June 3. (Talk about your expensive
corkage fees.) Sosa, meanwhile, had been outhomered through Sunday
14-10 by Morgan Ensberg, which is not the name of a brokerage firm
but the third baseman for the Houston Astros. What's more, Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson and Boston Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez, the game's most dynamic pitchers, had spent a
combined 104 days on the disabled list and had six wins between
them. New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza and New York Yankees
shortstop Derek Jeter, the biggest stars in the biggest market,
had missed a combined 74 games because of injuries.

"The longer the season goes on, the better I feel about things,"
says Selig, which may be a polite way of wishing that more
captivating days are ahead. It's been the kind of year in which
Baltimore Orioles outfielder Melvin Mora and Chicago White Sox
righthander Esteban Loaiza--your basic anonymous journeymen--are
the front-runners for the American League batting title and Cy
Young Award, respectively. Mora (.357), the father of
quintuplets, was heretofore known for putting up big numbers only
when shopping for diapers at a warehouse superstore. The
31-year-old Loaiza (11-3) has already equaled his career high in
victories.

"We've got great division races shaping up," says Selig, who may
be on to something. The three greatest rivalries in baseball are
Yankees-Red Sox, Dodgers-Giants and Cubs-Cardinals, and every one
was involved in a battle for first place in their respective
divisions. Moreover, all of those races include third teams,
which adds suspense because the wild card will not be an
automatic consolation prize.

This year teams, not individuals, are the best watercooler
topics, especially surprise contenders such as the Chicago Cubs,
95-game losers last year who have one of the hardest-throwing
pitching staffs ever (story, page 46); the Los Angeles Dodgers,
who couldn't outscore Manchester United; the Montreal Expos, who,
with a closer named Rocky, are the ultimate underdogs; the
Toronto Blue Jays, whose explosive lineup makes the game look
like slo-pitch softball; the Kansas City Royals, who might
execute an unprecedented U-turn in the standings; and the Detroit
Tigers, who are to horrible teams what 100-year floods are to
natural disasters.

Detroit, in fact, has been so bad it is the most fascinating
story line of the season this side of Sosa's Chardonnay Slugger.
If Selig doesn't get the pennant races he needs, the Tigers'
countdown to a record 121 losses will have to do for our
recommended daily dose of September drama. So take your Dramamine
and fasten your seat belt: What follows is a road map to where
the baseball season has been and where it's going, based on the
10 biggest developments of the first half.

1. Sosa's corked bat

REVIEW: You had to have been on Mars to not know the details.

PREVIEW: The Cubs need another bat, partly because Sosa's
undoctored ones haven't done enough damage. "Mike Lowell is the
difference maker," one National League scout says, referring to
the Florida third baseman who led the league in homers (25) but
whom the Marlins may consider trading. "If the Cubs get Lowell,
it puts them over the top. They have enough pitching." Chicago
also has inquired about the availability of Baltimore Orioles
third baseman Tony Batista (15 homers). In the meantime the
pitching staff was on track to blow away the record for
strikeouts in a season, 1,344, set by the 2001 Cubs.

2. Tigers challenge '62 Mets' record

REVIEW: Detroit was on pace to go 37-125, which would smash the
Mets' modern record of 120 losses. The Tigers were so bad they
had lost at least seven games in a row five times, they were on
track to become the first AL team in the 30 years of the
designated hitter to post an on-base percentage worse than .300
in a full season (they were at .288), and they had won only six
home games all year, threatening the record-low of 18 set by the
St. Louis Browns in 1939.

PREVIEW: When the '89 Tigers fell one loss short of the then
franchise record of 104 defeats, manager Sparky Anderson mused,
"We were so bad we couldn't even break the record." These Tigers
will get the job done.

3. Kansas City is a contender

REVIEW: The Royals haven't had a winning record in a full season
since George Brett retired in 1993. They lost a franchise-high
100 games last season, then spent their available free-agent
money on an Albie (Lopez) and a Desi (Relaford), presumably
because they didn't have the big bucks to go after Sleepy and
Grumpy. But rookie closer Mike MacDougal has nailed down games
(20 saves) that K.C. used to give away, earning one of the game's
best new nicknames: Mac the Ninth.

PREVIEW: The 2002 Royals were one of 125 teams since 1900 to lose
100 games in a season. Only 11 had a winning record the next year
(the 1988-89 Orioles were the last to do so), and none of them
ever reached the postseason. The Minnesota Twins, despite a
baffling slump, are the better team in the American League
Central, but manager Tony Pena will keep the Royals in the thick
of the race.

4. Milestones

REVIEW: Sosa and Texas Rangers first baseman-designated hitter
Rafael Palmeiro got 500 (home runs), Bonds got 500-500
(homers-stolen bases), Yankees righthander Roger Clemens got 300
(wins) and 4,000 (strikeouts), and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox got
1,500 (wins as the Braves' skipper, not ejections).

PREVIEW: At week's end Bonds needed 26 homers for 661, which
would move him ahead of his godfather, Willie Mays, into third
place on the alltime list; Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Fred
McGriff and Cincinnati Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. needed
12 and 24 homers, respectively, for 500. The Reds needed one more
fight against a ranked opponent to crack the WBA's light
heavyweight top 10.

5. The great Canadian pastime

REVIEW: The Montreal/San Juan Expos, despite touring more than
Phish, are a wild-card contender. At the same time, the Blue Jays
are making the Yankees and the Red Sox sweat in the AL East.

PREVIEW: The Expos have an unproven bullpen--closer Rocky Biddle
is all they have to show for trading ace Bartolo Colon--and still
need a hitter since Juan Gonzalez refused a trade to Montreal.
(He'd rather stay in Texas with the last-place Rangers.) As long
as the Expos continue to win, look for general manager Omar
Minaya to try to make another deal.

The Blue Jays were playing a game John McGraw wouldn't recognize.
They will break the record for fewest sacrifice hits (they had
four, a dozen fewer than the 1998 Tigers and the 2000 Yankees);
they steal the fewest bases in the league (they had 12 while
being caught 14 times); and they strike out the most (they had
545). Yet they were in contention because they were slugging
.489, which would tie the alltime record set by none other than
the 1927 Yankees. First baseman Carlos Delgado was on pace to
become the first player in 65 years with more than 165 RBIs.
Toronto plays 12 straight games against the Yankees and the Red
Sox beginning on July 8, a stretch that will determine if they
should unload (leftfielder Shannon Stewart to the Oakland A's;
righthander Kelvim Escobar to the Cardinals, the Red Sox or the
Yankees) or load up (righthander Sidney Ponson from Baltimore)
before the trading deadline.

6. Albert Pujols flirts with .400 and the Triple Crown

REVIEW: The last NL player to win the Triple Crown was the
Cardinals' Joe Medwick in 1937. At week's end Pujols led the
league in hitting (.391) and RBIs (72) and had 23 homers.

PREVIEW: The home run race will be Pujols's Belmont Stakes, the
toughest leg, especially when Bonds goes on one of his power
streaks. As for hitting .400, it's become nearly impossible to
accomplish in today's game because of the specialization of
relievers and reporters alike: There are more of them, and they
come at you harder than ever.

7. Detroit pitchers Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth lost 12
games before July

REVIEW: No pitcher has lost 20 games in a season since Oakland's
Brian Kingman in 1980. And if Maroth (2-12) doesn't do it, the
20-year-old Bonderman (2-12) could, establishing a new and
unintended 20-20 club.

PREVIEW: Maroth received only 3.4 runs per start. With that kind
of support and continued good health, he is a lock to be the
first 20-game loser in almost a quarter century. Bonderman got
even less run support, 2.3 runs per game. These guys are in a
no-win situation.

8. The Dodgers are hitless wonders

REVIEW: Los Angeles ranked last in the league in runs but tied
for the lead in the NL wild-card race. No team has ever reached
the postseason with the worst scoring offense in its league.

PREVIEW: Two scouts say that the Dodgers cannot be a playoff team
unless they trade for a hitter--reliever Guillermo Mota has
emerged as L.A.'s most valuable trading chip--or unless
rightfielder Shawn Green and third baseman Adrian Beltre start to
hit. "No team that is so one-dimensional gets through a whole
year like that," says one scout, referring to L.A.'s superior
pitching staff. "At some point you need some offense, and they
don't have any." Without an offensive upgrade, the Dodgers will
be another 90-plus-win team that falls just short of the
playoffs.

9. Hideki Matsui went from a bust to the favorite for AL Rookie
of the Year

REVIEW: In a New York minute the erstwhile Groundzilla, who wore
out infielders in May with his weak hitting stroke, became a bona
fide run producer for the Yankees (61 RBIs, second on the team)
and suddenly showed some pop in his bat.

PREVIEW: No, he won't come close to the 50 homers he slugged in
Japan last year, but Matsui was on pace to hit .304 with 18
homers and 122 RBIs at week's end. The early favorite for rookie
honors in the American League, Tampa Bay Devil Rays free-swinging
centerfielder Rocco Baldelli, won't come close to those power
numbers and, according to one G.M., "should feel good if he
finishes at .275, .280. He's falling fast."

Freewheeling lefthander Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins (8-1), a
joy to watch with his high leg kick and a nightmare to hit, was
pitching his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award.

10. Statistical oddities

REVIEW: The pitching-proud Braves hadn't thrown a complete game
but were threatening the '97 Seattle Mariners' record of hitting
264 home runs.... Boston's Johnny Damon had as many hits in the
first inning of a game last Friday (three) as Cincinnati's Wily
Mo Pena had all year.... Yankees lefty David Wells had more than
twice as many wins (10) as batters walked (four).... Milwaukee
Brewers reliever-DH Brooks Kieschnick had hit more homers (four)
than he'd allowed (three).... Infielder Jose Hernandez of the
Cubs was more than halfway to becoming the first hitter to whiff
200 times in a season.... Seattle was the only AL team to turn a
6-4-3 double play on 6/4/03.... The Red Sox were on track to hit
467 doubles, smashing the major league record of 373 set by the
Browns in 1930 and tied by Boston in '97.... Dodgers closer Eric
Gagne was striking out batters at a record rate of 15.8 per nine
innings.

PREVIEW: When the '62 Mets and the '27 Yankees can be Wite-Outed
from the record book in the same year, expect more oddities.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL [COVER] CHICAGO HEAT Kerry Wood and Mark Prior Fire Up the Cubs COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO RUNNING IT UP After serving his suspension for using a corkedbat, Sosa hit .325 with four home runs in his first 11 gamesback. COLOR PHOTO: DUANE BURLESON/AP (MAROTH) MAROTH COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE (DELGADO) DELGADO COLOR PHOTO: DANNY MOLOSHOK/AP (BELTRE) BELTRE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)