Baseball division races taking shape

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WALLA WALLA — Seeing as we are now unofficially into the dog days of August, it seems like an appropriate time to assess the big league divisional baseball races.

Determine which teams have thus far met expectations and which teams have fallen short. What’s gone right and what’s gone wrong.

With just over one fifth of the regular season remaining, there’s just one team in total control of its division. The Atlanta Braves’ 76-48 record as of this morning was the best in all of baseball. And they lead the National League East by a commanding 16 games over the disappointing Nationals.

After winning 98 games and the division title in 2012, many considered the Nats a potential World Series team. But they are four games under .500 (60-64) and a distant fourth among wild card contenders. Washington will have to make up 10 1/2 games to overtake the Cardinals and the Reds, who are the front-runners for the NL’s two wild card playoff tickets.

Of course, St. Louis and Cincinnati still have a divisional title in their cross hairs.

In what is clearly the best divisional race in baseball, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds are in a tense three-way scrum for the NL Central title. Pittsburgh moved to the top of the standings by taking four of five games from the Cards in a recent showdown and hold a one-game lead over St. Louis and a 2 1/2-game edge on the Reds.

The Reds are the defending division champion and the Cards claimed one of last year’s NL wild card playoff slots. And St. Louis proved in 2011 — ala Boston (2004), Anaheim (2002) and Florida twice (2003, 1997) — that the wild card is enough of an opening to cash in a world title.

As for the Pirates, they look like an absolute lock to earn their first postseason berth since 1992, either as division champs or via the wild card.

The Rangers, meanwhile, who also lost to the Giants in the 2010 World Series, are caught up in a harrowing two-team duel for the American League’s West Division crown. Texas leads the division by a mere half-a-game over the efficient Oakland A’s, who continue to find ways to win on a shoestring budget and a no-name roster.

The fact that Texas and Oakland are 1-2 in the division is hardly a surprise, however. Oakland won the division title in 2012 and the Rangers finished second by a game and claimed one of the AL’s wild card spots.

But a lot of folks expected a lot more from the Los Angeles Angels, who beefed up their offense during the off season by signing free agent Josh Hamilton and adding him to a lineup that already featured future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and young sluggers Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. But Hamilton has struggled mightily, Pujols is hurt and the Angels find themselves in fourth place, 16 1/2 games off the pace.

As of today, the gradually improving Mariners are holding down third place in the West, two games ahead of the Angels.

Detroit entered the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the American League Central, and the Tigers are doing so even though their seven-game lead over Cleveland is hardly a stranglehold.

But with Miguel Cabrera enjoying another out-of-this-world season (.360 batting average, 40 home runs and 120 runs batted in) plus the deepest pitching staff in baseball (led by Max Scherzer’s 18-1 record), it’s highly unlikely that either the Indians or the much-improved Kansas City Royals (third place, 8 1/2 games back) will cause the Tigers much angst.

Nobody is surprised that the AL East race is as congested as it is. But the standings seem almost upside down.

Toronto made big splashes during the off season by acquiring National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, top-five shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers from Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the Marlins and then signing free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera. In the eyes of many, the Blue Jays became the consensus pick to win the division.

But for the Jays, much like the Angels, all of the additions haven’t translated into additional wins as Toronto is holding down last place in the East, 10 games under .500.

Boston, meanwhile, which finished dead last a year ago with a 69-93 record, has surged to the top of the division. And the Red Sox’s key addition could be one of subtraction when they fired unpopular manager Bobby Valentine and replaced him with former pitching coach John Farrell.

The Red Sox are hardly a lock, however, as they lead the ever-present Rays by one game and the for-real Orioles by 5 1/2. Baltimore earned a wild-card berth last year while the Rays finished out of the running despite a 90-win season.

And then there are the Yankees, the defending East champions who lurk 8 games back and are finally getting healthy after a horrific season of injuries.

The Yankees acquired Alphonso Soriano from the Cubs and inserted him into their depleted lineup on July 26. He has hit eight homers and driven in 25 runs since arriving in New York, and he is hitting .313 in the month of August.

Curtis Granderson came off the disabled list on Aug. 2 and has contributed a pair of homers, five RBIs and a .288 batting average. And three days later Alex Rodriguez joined the team and has hit .319 while homering twice and driving in six runs as the Yankees have surged to win seven of their last 10 games.

Derek Jeter, the Yankee’ all-star shortstop, is expected to come off the disabled list sometime this week. So with the exception of first baseman Mark Teixeira, who is out for the season, the Yankees will be back at full strength with Jeter’s return.

So don’t sleep on the Yankees.

But really, is there any better story in baseball than the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When the Dodgers consummated a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox late last season that brought Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to the West Coast, there were many who believed the team would overtake the Giants for the NL West Division title.

That didn’t happen, of course, and San Francisco went on to win its second World Series title in three seasons. And then the Dodgers got off to a miserable start in 2013.

When the sun rose on the morning of June 19, the Dodgers were 29-40 and dead last in the NL West. Furthermore, Beckett and fellow starting pitcher Chad Billingsley were lost for the season with arm injuries, Crawford was on the disabled list and star center fielder Matt Kemp was in the midst of a miserable season that would eventually lead to two stints on the DL.

Enter 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, a Cuban rookie who was called up on June 3 and lit a fire under the Dodgers offense.

Puig’s hot bat — a .351 average, 11 home runs, 27 runs batted in, seven stolen bases in 259 at-bats — has been the perfect complement to Gonzalez, who is currently hitting at a .295 clip and leads the team with 16 homers and 76 RBIs.

Mix in Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw’s stellar pitching (12-7 record, 1.80 earned run average) along with rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu (12-4, 2.95) and Zack Greinke (11-3, 3.02) and it’s little wonder that the Dodgers have been on a tear.

Los Angeles now leads the division by 7 1/2 games over Arizona and at 72-52 is 20 games over .500. At one point the Dodgers won 40 of 50 games, the first team to do so since the Reds did it in 1975.

Of course, there’s still time for teams to rise and fall before this year’s playoff field is decided. And that’s an altogether different handicapping adventure.

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