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Hartselle Enquirer

Pondering MLB's first half

By Staff
Justin Schuver, Sports Editor
I first became a baseball fan in 1995, in the midst of the Braves' greatest stretch of dominance. I remember the goosebumps I felt when Marquis Grissom caught a fly ball in center field to end Game 6 of the World Series and give Atlanta its first ever professional sports championship. "Loserville" – as Atlanta had been called in an infamous Sports Illustrated article back in the 1980s – had finally become the home of a winner.
Of course, since then it's been nothing but pain.
That pain started in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, when Mark Wohlers inexplicably hung a slider to Yankees backup catcher Jim Leyritz that tied the game 6-6. The Braves would go on to lose that game in extra innings, and lose four in a row after winning the first two games in New York by a combined score of 16-1.
Every year, it's seemed to be the same script. Atlanta starts out slow, gets hot in June and July, cruises to a division title and ends up losing in the first round to a desperate wild card team.
But this season, the Braves have decided to start the pain early. Atlanta is an unbelievable 13 games back of the N.L.-East leading New York Mets, and 6.5 back in the wild card race. The Braves are nine games below .500 and appear in danger of seeing their 14-year division-winning streak come to an end.
Still, I wouldn't count this team out just yet. They've actually been playing much better baseball lately, closing out the first half with a 3-to-1 series win against then-wild card leader Cincinnati. Looking at the teams ahead of Atlanta in the wild card race right now, only two pop out as a real threat – Houston and San Francisco. There's still a lot of baseball to be played, and although the division title might be out of reach, there's no reason the Braves shouldn't seriously think about the wild card. After all, at least one wild card team has made the World Series each of the past four years. It would be quite ironic to see Atlanta – widely considered the postseason choke artist par excellence – win another World Series as a wild card.
Looking at the rest of baseball, some interesting points pop out right away. Firstly, who thought the Detroit Tigers would end the first half as the best team in all of baseball, let alone their division? New manager Jim Leyland has a reputation for doing a good job with young teams, yet his most recent job with the Colorado Rockies was an utter disaster. What is it that has made Detroit so good so quickly?
One word: Pitching. Detroit's entire starting pitching rotation has an ERA under 4.00, which is amazing considering the Tigers play in the hitter-friendly American League. Add in a bullpen that features surprises like Joel Zumaya and a well-traveled closer in Todd Jones, and you've got a pitching staff that is the best in all of baseball.
The Tigers have been a pleasant surprise, but you've also got to be intrigued by the Toronto Blue Jays. While the usual suspects of New York and Boston currently battle for the A.L.-East lead, the boys from above the border aren't too far behind. Toronto currently sits 10 games above. 500 and just two games behind New York for second place in the division. With a pitching staff that includes Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett and a lineup that is full of dangerous hitters like Alex Rios and Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays should continue to stay in the A.L. East race right down to the wire.
In the senior circuit, perhaps the biggest surprise has been the New York Mets. Already leading the N.L. East by 13 games, the Mets have been able to dominate within their own division, to the tune of a 23-12 record against N.L. East opponents. They feature two potential Cy Young candidates in Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez and a plethora of talented young hitters including Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright. Barring a complete collapse in the second half (and that's certainly possible…we are talking about the Mets here), they should become the team to end Atlanta's remarkable run atop the N.L. East standings.

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