The second half is underway and there are a handful of teams looking to get back to the post season, some waiting longer than others.
The National League features a pair of teams who find themselves shockingly in first place. Meanwhile, the American League has an early three-team race for the Wild Card with one newcomer in the second half post season race.
Here are a list of five teams to watch heading into the second half of the season.
SURPRISING CONTENDERS OF THE NL
There are two teams right now that haven’t had post season success in a long time.
Both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals headed into the break in first place in their respective divisions. With a handful of young talent that hasn’t really been battle-tested in this scenario and the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see if these two teams can keep it going in the second half and make their respective fanbases very happy.
Pittsburgh Pirates (48-37, 1st in NL Central): The Pirates haven’t been in first place in the NL Central this late in the season since they last made the postseason in 1992.
Heading into the second half of the season with a one-game lead on Cincinnati and 2.5 game lead on St. Louis, the Pirates have a lot of work to do if they want to break that two-decade slump.
A lot of people think the Bucs will be buyers at the trade deadline. Andrew McCutchen has been having an MVP-caliber season but can’t be the only one in the lineup consistently producing. The pitching, lead by James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, can also get better at the deadline.
If the Pirates part with some young talent for an immediate boost, they will be the favorites in an NL Central that’s turned into a three-team race.
Washington Nationals (49-34, 1st in NL East): Washington also finds themselves in a precarious position: first place and on the path to the franchise’s first playoff berth. (The Montreal Expos last made the postseason in 1981, their only appearance.)
With the Phillies having a year to forget, the young and talent Nationals are making their mark in a division that has been dominated by Philadelphia for the last five years.
A couple problems face Washington. For starters, Stephen Strasburg could get shut down by year’s end as he’s in the middle of his first full season since Tommy John surgery. That will put a lot of pressure on fellow All-Star starter Gio Gonzalez to lead a young staff.
A boost to the offense will come by next month when outfielder Jayson Werth returns from a broken wrist as well as the bullpen getting back closer Drew Storen.
Along with Werth, rookie phenom Bryce Harper, outfielder Michael Morse and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will have to step up and carry the offense into the post season.
Things are looking very good for the Nats, who hold the best record in the National League.
AL WILD CARD RACE
Three teams head the Wild Card in the American League race heading into the second stretch: Los Angeles, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.
The Rays and Angels are familiar to the playoff scene. The Angels are looking to win their first ring since 2002 and the Rays just want their first ring, hoping to get back to the Fall Classic after being their in 2008.
The wait has been a little bit longer for Baltimore, who last made the post season in 1996 as a Wild Card.
Los Angeles Angels (48-38, 1st in AL Wild Card): There is a lot of excitement out in LA with the addition of Albert Pujols at the beginning of the season and the coming-outparty by rookie/MVP candidate Mike Trout.
The Angels may sit four games back of the Texas Rangers, one of baseball’s elite teams that is all too familiar with this situation, but that doesn’t mean the Angels count themselves out. The Wild Card only guarantees a team one playoff game, not five, and the Angels certainly won’t put all their eggs in the WC basket.
That being said, expect them to really make a push within their own division. They can very well lock up a Wild Card spot in the process of that division race though.
Baltimore Orioles (45-40, 2nd in AL Wild Card): Winning the AL East is the hardest gig in the Majors. That’s why Baltimore has its eyes set on the Wild Card.
They will be more than happy with nabbing one of the two Wild Card berths, playing for a chance to face the top team in the AL (currently the Yankees).
The Orioles will need starting pitcher Jason Hammel (snubbed of an All-Star selection) to continue the dominance he displayed in the first half. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen is the only other starter to display any sort of consistency within in the rotation.
The offense has to keep mashing home runs and driving in runs at the same rate. Matt Wieters, MVP candidate Adam Jones, Nick Markakis when healthy and J.J. Hardy have to keep the offense alive.
They’re a young team enjoying it’s first taste of success. Keeping it up will be the true test.
Tampa Bay Rays (45-41, 3rd in AL Wild Card): Many picked them as the favorites in the AL East. But with the Yankees holding a sturdy 7.5-game lead in the division, the Rays will look to focus on the Wild Card.
Currently Tampa rests in third place within the division and Wild Card race, only half a game behind the O’s.
Pitching is Tampa’s strong point. David Price has been a Cy Young candidate. Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields and Matt Moore have been solid. But the latter three need to be better in order for Tampa to take one of the available Wild Card spots.
Offensively, they’re a wreck. They sit 16th in total runs and 28th in team batting average. A major part of this is due to Evan Longoria’s absence (expected to return until August at the earliest), and Matt Joyce (late July).
If they can get their two best players back and stay even with the Orioles, the Rays have a chance to get the 5th playoff spot.