In the toughest year for hitters since 1972 and a season in which five no-hitters were thrown in the first 11 weeks, it's the youngest of stars who are leading the resistance. Rookie outfielders Bryce Harper, 19, of the Nationals and Mike Trout, 20, of the Angels have quickly emerged as among the game's most exciting players.
Rarely does a player so young break into the big leagues with so immediate an impact. Almost never do two such players come along at the same time. At week's end, Harper (eight home runs) and Trout (nine) are on pace to become only the third pair of 20-or-younger players to hit 15 homers in the same season, joining Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews, in 1952, and Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton, in 2010.
The first half of the season was defined by what's new. The Nationals, White Sox, Reds, Pirates, Mets, Braves and Orioles are serious playoff contenders (combined postseason series wins over the previous five years: zero). Attendance is up 7.1%, and nowhere more than at the lavish new playpen in the aspiring baseball town of Miami. The Dodgers and the Mets have emerged from financial abyss into contention, with New York even getting its first no-hitter in its golden-anniversary year. And one of the best rookie classes in years is loaded with players who are as fascinating as they are good: Harper, Trout, Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, Diamondbacks pitcher Trevor Bauer, Rays pitcher Matt Moore, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
What will the second half bring? One of the safer predictions for an unpredictable season is that Harper and Trout will win the Rookie of the Year awards, with apologies to the other aforementioned players, as well as Oakland pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook, Arizona pitcher Wade Miley and Colorado catcher Wilin Rosario.
July 9, 2012
Trout will also get support for even greater recognition, but the AL MVP belongs to Robinson Cano, the Yankees' second baseman. The NL MVP award will be a runaway for Joey Votto, the Cincinnati first baseman who leads the league in on-base (.471) and slugging percentages (.632), times on base (156), WAR (4.8), walks (60), extra-base hits (47) and doubles (33)—so many doubles, in fact, that he will threaten the record of 67 by Earl Webb that has held up since 1931.
It has been almost that long—since 1933—that Washington saw postseason baseball, but the district's wait ends this year when the Nationals win the NL East. Borrowing from the 2010 Giants' version of tortured baseball, the Nats have the pitching to overcome an offense that is feeble but figures to improve.
The club will have to make do down the stretch and the postseason without its ace, Stephen Strasburg (9--3, 2.81 ERA). He'll make only about 12 more starts before he reaches the same limit the Nats gave fellow Tommy John patient Jordan Zimmermann last year: about 160 innings. One big difference is that the Nats were 22½ games out of first when Zimmermann threw his final pitch of 2011 on Aug. 28; they are 3½ games ahead now.
Forty miles up the beltway, the Orioles (42--36) can't hold up in the AL East but will reach .500. So will the Pirates (42--36), and their first winning season in 20 years will set off celebrations in Pittsburgh.
The White Sox (42--37) are a true contender thanks to Comeback Player of the Year Adam Dunn, but the Tigers are due to make a run and will win the AL Central. They play their final 16 games against also-rans Oakland, Minnesota and Kansas City.
The Dodgers, under new ownership, will make the biggest splash at the trade deadline to keep their season from unraveling. Los Angeles (44--36) is wobbling after a schedule-friendly 30--13 start; L.A. still must play 19 of its 23 Eastern-time-zone games and won't catch the Giants. Among the potential gems on the trade market are pitchers Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster and Francisco Liriano and hitters Carlos Lee and Carlos Quentin.
The Marlins face even more urgency because their entire business plan is imperiled in the next month or so. Miami counted on putting a winning team into a splashy ballpark to create a loyal fan base. But the Marlins have an ominous run differential (--58) and a lousy record against teams .500 or better (20--34). The pressure is on to play well quickly: Dolphins training camp opens July 27.
Finally, if you thought the final night of the regular season last year was wild, get ready for triple the drama. Thanks to a second wild card in each league, which makes for more-crowded races and a greater possibility of tiebreakers, baseball will get three consecutive nights of win-or-go-home games on Oct. 3--5: the last night of the regular season, at least one regular-season tiebreaker game and two wild-card knockout games. October Madness? Now that's a whole new ball game.