No time to relax as second half is fully under way
By Doug Miller / MLB.com | 07/16/12 10:00 AM ET
Sheets' excellent Braves debut00:01:32
7/15/12: Ben Sheets shuts out the Mets on two hits over six stellar frames, striking out five to earn the win in his debut with the Braves
We now interrupt your relaxing adjustment to post-All-Star-break baseball to bring you an important announcement.
There's no time to relax.
Complacency and comfort just don't work at the Major League level, and for some teams that entered the Kansas City midsummer bonanza with cushy division leads and healthy rosters resting on the deserved laurels of first-half success, it was back to reality for the weekend's three-game return. It's even more real now as we lift the lid on the first full week of the second half.
For some who feel pretty good about things now, October could be a cold, harsh reality. For others grinding it out with eyes fixed on the one game they play each day, the coming of the fall could mean a rise to prominence. It all depends on how you play.
With that, we present you with five of the hottest teams of the moment, all coming to ballparks around the Major Leagues this week and all seemingly putting it together at one of the more pivotal times of the 162-game slate.
Take the Atlanta Braves, for example. They enter Monday's play having won seven games in a row. They got a masterful Sunday outing from Ben Sheets, a former big league star who ran into arm problems and had to be signed with a Minor League deal. The six-inning shutout effort earned Sheets his first Major League win in more than two years, and it served as a perfect example of what's happening with the Braves at the moment.
Who knows how long it will last? The Braves still trail Washington in the National League East standings, but they're visible in the rear-view mirror, only three games back. This week, Atlanta will host the up-and-coming San Francisco Giants (see below) for three games before a crucial four-game weekend set that includes a Saturday doubleheader on the road against the first-place Nationals. Brandon Beachy might be out for the year, but maybe Sheets can replace him.
"We are ecstatic," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said of the veteran right-hander. "For him to come in and build on our winning streak, seven-game winning streaks don't come along very often. We keep the ball rolling."
The second team on our list, the Cincinnati Reds, will try to do the same. They saw the ante thrown at them by the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates before and even after the break, saw it, and raised it. Dusty Baker's team has won six in a row and are making the most out of every bit of its roster. Their staff ace, Johnny Cueto, didn't pitch Sunday night because of a blister on his right index finger, but he figures to get two starts in the coming week as the Reds stay home to take on two teams that played in October last year: Arizona and Milwaukee.
And while the starting pitching has been brilliant, so has the Cincinnati bullpen. Reds relievers lead the Major Leagues in relief wins and remain first in the NL in bullpen ERA.
"We understand we're going to be needed down the stretch," reliever Sam LeCure said. "We've really got to be on top of our game. We really look forward to taking the ball, though."
Now it's time to talk about those Giants. They won the World Series two years ago, in large part because of their starting pitching, which included a very good Tim Lincecum. Well, we haven't seen much of that guy this year, but we saw him Saturday night in his eight-shutout-innings, 11-strikeout turn against Houston. Will we see it again this week?
The Giants have won three in a row to resume control in the NL West, and they'll have to keep playing well now that the second-place Dodgers have Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier back in their lineup. LA has won 10 of their past 13 at home, but this week brings a different challenge: six road games beginning Tuesday, with three against hot Atlanta and three at Citizens Bank Park against the Phillies.
"I thought it was important for us to come out of the chute playing well," manager Bruce Bochy said Sunday after the Giants' sweep of the Astros was complete. "We know we have our work cut out, but it's nice to get a sweep and get some momentum. We're going to need to turn it up a notch with the offense to get this done."
The nearby Oakland Athletics are likely to make the same claim, but they've been doing a bit of everything lately to become one of the biggest surprises in baseball thus far. Oakland won again in Minnesota on Sunday, has taken four in a row and nine of its last 10 to improve its record to 46-43 and move firmly onto the Wild Card radar, and is making the most of a young roster led by breakout hitters Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes and talented arms such as Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker.
The coming week will see Oakland return home for two games against the Rangers and four against the Yankees. Game on, right?
"I think we all know that this is the level we can play at," Parker said Sunday. "We're coming together, and the way we swing it, we can do it a lot, and it's not a surprise to us around here. It's nice to see it come around, and I think it's a good time for it."
And then there's Detroit. Everyone thought they had a good chance to run away with the AL Central after doing so last year, especially after bringing in Prince Fielder. It didn't happen early on this season. It might be happening now.
Justin Verlander dominated the Orioles on Sunday, putting to rest any notion that his All-Star Game loss was anything to be concerned about, and the Tigers cruised to their eighth victory in their last 11 games to move to 46-43 for the season.
This week they'll head back to Comerica Park to take on the Angels, and over the weekend they'll square off with the team they're chasing in the AL Central, the Chicago White Sox.
"I've liked our club all along," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said recently. "I never got off our club, even when we weren't playing good in the first half. I know it's a good club that's going to play good at some point."