First look at the second half
You don't know. You might think you know which teams will meet in the World Series, or whether Curt Schilling will thrive out of the pen, or which players will win the MVP and Cy Young Awards -- but there's really no airtight argument in any of these matters. Every question has many plausible answers. An awful lot of bows remain delightfully untied. With that in mind, here are nine innings of questions that open the second half and will take us to the end of the season:
First Inning: Can the White Sox and Nationals hang on?
The White Sox are nine games ahead of the Twins in the American League Central and are on pace for 107 wins. The Nationals kept the magic going throughout the first half and finished with a prediction-obliterating 50 wins. But one half does not a season make.
Chicago still doesn't appear particularly imposing because the White Sox don't have overpowering pitchers (resembling last year's Cardinals) and their lineup doesn't have a monster masher. While it's unlikely, larger leads have been lost in less time. White Sox players aren't about to coast.
"We have a lot of work to do before anyone says we're in the playoffs -- we haven't won anything yet," leadoff man Scott Podsednik said. "A lot of things can go wrong. Our strong point has been our pitching. Our starters have kept us in the game, and our bullpen has been tremendous. The offense has been scoring just enough runs to win. Our record in one-run games has been pretty good."
Indeed, the White Sox have gone 22-9 (.710) in one-run games, which usually leads to a correction. But it probably won't be enough to knock them off. The Twins have their own problems and the Indians still feel a year away -- but it's something to watch.
Speaking of one-run games, the Nationals had a 23-7 record in those affairs before, rather predictably, losing three of their last four one-run games -- winding up just 2½ games ahead of the crazily resilient Braves. Washington's relievers have been used brilliantly but liberally by manager Frank Robinson, and could soon look like the Venus de Milo.
The poor lineup (having scored just 357 runs, worst in the league) leads to a ton of close games. Then again, those 50 wins are in the books, and won't go away. The Nationals would have to fall apart fast to not remain relevant in the race till the final week.
"You have to play at a high level against these kids -- they're excited to be out of Montreal, and you can see it," Phillies reliever Billy Wagner said. "I don't think they're gonna slow down. The only way you can even make a move on them is to beat them when you have the opportunity."
Second Inning: What relief will Curt Schilling provide?
When the Red Sox open the second half against the Yankees -- a perfect kickoff to the second half, even if New York is technically in third place -- they hope to do so with Curt Schilling in the bullpen. Atlanta ace John Smoltz, himself a former starter-turned-reliever, sees no problem with Schilling's making the switch.
"I think he's going to be as dominant as he wants to be in that role," Smoltz said. "If anybody doubts that he won't do well -- doesn't understand what he's been through as a starter -- a lot of that will contribute to his success. He has the right frame of mind, the right demeanor."
Schilling's four-pitch mix is especially deadly for a starting pitcher, particularly when he's thoroughly warmed up following his superstitious schedule. Boston catcher Jason Varitek expects to be calling different pitch patterns with Schilling's entering under these different conditions.
"We'll have to see what he has to offer," Varitek said. "Who's coming up, how he feels, how his fastball is, how his slider is. Probably all four, but which two any given night will probably depend. Or three."
Third Inning: What will the Rogers effect ultimately be?
Forget the sanctimony. Forget the legal issues. Kenny Rogers' absence from the Rangers, whenever it begins, could make a huge difference in the Rangers' postseason hopes.
Texas is five games behind the Angels in the AL West and among four clubs within two games of the wild-card front-running Twins. And they're going to lose their rotation ace for 20 games, or whatever amount after commissioner Bud Selig -- the man who handed down the penalty in the first place -- hears the appeal.
"It'll be tough -- that's four or five starts from our best pitcher," Rangers shortstop Michael Young said. "I'm sure he feels like he let the guys down. It'll kill him to miss those starts. Hopefully when he comes back there'll be plenty of baseball left to play and Kenny will help us on the field."
Not that Angels outfielder Garret Anderson would ever do public backflips over Rogers' impending banishment, but he did appear sincere when he said, "It's more enjoyable when everybody's on the field. Because then you know you won (against the best)."
Fourth Inning: When will the big trades begin?
There's a symmetry in the standings right now that could stunt the trade market for another week or 10 days. After the six division leaders, there are 24 other clubs. Those 24 are split evenly -- eight AL teams within six games of the wild card, eight NL clubs just 7½ games out, and eight clubs with little hope of a postseason spot.
Only eight identifiable sellers at this point makes for few obvious deals. The Mariners are almost certainly going to deal outfielder Randy Winn and possibly closer Eddie Guardado. The dreadful Rockies could move All-Star lefty reliever Brian Fuentes because he's arbitration-eligible after the season, but after looking for competent relievers for so long, they would prefer to keep him. And Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney would make a ton of sense for the Mets, who have terrible first base problems and consider themselves buyers at 44-44.
Those Mets are a half-game behind Philadelphia, but the vibe around Philly is far from optimistic. Wagner, who has publicly questioned the Phillies' ability to compete, could become the biggest name on the market if he's proven correct. In fact, if the Phillies start dealing veterans, Wagner hopes he's one of them.
"I definitely would," Wagner said. "Because Ed Wade and Dave Montgomery, these guys brought me in to win and compete. They didn't bring me in to pitch for a seller team. It would be unfathomable to think I wouldn't be traded if we fell out of it."
Fifth Inning: Double Triple?
Lee, batting .378-27-72, leads the National League in batting average (by 41 points over Albert Pujols), is tied for tops in home runs (with Andruw Jones) and is second in RBI (four behind Carlos Lee). Luis Gonzalez loves Lee's chances -- "It's only getting warmer in Wrigley," he says -- and that 41-point lead is a pretty hefty one, even for someone enjoying a career year competing against a proven .340-type hitter.
Lee looks at his statistics and isn't that shocked. "It's not like I'm like, 'Who's that guy?'" he said. "I knew he was in there somewhere."
Rodriguez isn't leading any category right now but don't count him out. He's only eighth in batting average at .318, second with 23 homers (two behind Mark Teixeira) and fourth with 72 RBI (eight behind Manny Ramirez). But Rodriguez has won all three titles before and has a way of scorching his way to the top of leader boards.
Rodriguez said the batting title would be the hardest, and not necessarily because he has seven others to catch.
"Because you have little guys that are gonna specialize in getting hits," Rodriguez said. "When you're expected to drive in runs, over 125 runs every year, you kind of have to play with your swing a little bit and do what's best for the team."
Sixth Inning: When will Palmeiro do it?
The Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro needed seven hits in his last three games before the break to get to the renowned 3,000 mark in front of his home Baltimore fans, and almost did it -- he got five. So he stands just two away from becoming the 26th major leaguer to reach 3,000.
"I thought the way he was swinging the bat he was gonna get the seven hits in three games," Orioles reliever B.J. Ryan said. "I say he gets it in the first game."
The Orioles open the second half with four games in Seattle.
Seventh Inning: Will the real A's and Astros please stand up?
On June 1, the A's and Astros each awoke 19-32, suffering through their characteristic slow starts but with little hope for a rebound. Oakland's rotation was too young, Houston's injuries were too severe, and both scored about as often as a longshoreman at a sorority hop.
Since that day, each clubs has gone exactly 25-11 to return from the dead. Each now stands at 44-43, their eyes barely above .500, and expecting not to submerge after the break.
"We have a better team than people gave us credit for," A's reliever Justin Duchscherer said. "Everyone was saying the A's were so terrible, and we came back. I think it shows a lot about our guys that we could get into that kind of funk and come back. If we get into another funk, we'll know we can come out of it."
The Astros returned from a huge deficit in the standings last year, of course, roaring through the end of the season to reach the playoffs and to fall one win short of the World Series. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg said that experience applies, but only to an extent.
"I think that forever will leave me with the idea that there's always a chance," Ensberg said. "But last year was worse than this year's April. Last year you had arguably four or five Hall of Famers on the field, and you're not .500? And you're losing going into the All-Star break? It was embarrassing."
Eighth Inning: When will Felix Hernandez be promoted?
He didn't debut before April 8 and become the first 18-year-old pitcher since Jose Rijo 21 years ago, but the Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the best pitching prospect in baseball, could soon be on his way to Seattle.
Hernandez, a polished three-pitch soon-to-be star, was sent to Triple-A after spring training understandably to gain maturity and experience after spending only half of last season as high as Double-A. He had control problems early but caught fire in May and June and was on the verge of being a potential call-up when bursitis in his right shoulder set in. The Mariners immediately shut him down and only recently returned him to action in the bullpen to gradually regain strength.
Seattle will be extra careful with the best pitching prospect in franchise history, but don't be surprised if he's in a Mariners uniform in about a month, at worst after the Sept. 1 roster expansion.
"Nothing rattles him," said Mariners shortstop Mike Morse, who played behind Hernandez at Double-A San Antonio last year. "I think he is going to be a big, big thing to Major League Baseball when he breaks in."
Ninth Inning: Will Roger Clemens win only 14 games?
He has a 1.48 ERA. He's given up one run on the road all season, and that was a solo homer in Colorado. And yet Roger Clemens' record is just 7-3 thanks to horrible run support.
It's not quite as bad as some think -- his average of 3.91 runs of support per game almost doubles Zack Greinke's simply absurd 2.03 -- but Clemens could wind up with the fewest wins for a great season we've just about ever seen.
Since the Deadball Era ended in 1920, only 10 pitchers have finished full, nonstrike-shortened seasons with ERAs less than 2.00 but 16 wins or fewer. Almost all of them played during the modern deadball era of 1963-68. (For example, Sam McDowell had 15 wins and a 1.81 ERA for the 1968 Indians.) And all of them had ERAs from 1.81 to 1.99.
Clemens could very easily finish with a sub-2.00 ERA and just 13-14 wins to show for it, making him one of the hardest-luck pitchers of all-time. His Astros had better start breaking out the sticks for him.
"We feel terrible about it," Ensberg said. "It's a crime that Roger Clemens has only seven wins and a 1-point-what ERA. I feel terrible about that, and I know the other guys offensively feel horrible, too."
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
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