The Week Ahead: The song remains the same
Many similarities exist between this season and last at this point in the campaign
We are nearing the century mark in the 2012 season. We are eight days from the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
We are in the middle of a year that has brought the unforgettable rise of the incredibly young and gifted (Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, to name two), some impressive breakouts (Andrew McCutchen, Mark Trumbo) and the timeless grace of Hall of Fame-bound veterans (Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter). We've seen the unexpected (R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, the Pirates, the A's) and the always-expected (Justin Verlander, David Ortiz).
But are fewer than 100 games enough to gauge where we'll be after 162? Can we predict which 10 teams will make it to the postseason based on what we've seen in roughly 60 percent of the games?
As we head into Monday's schedule, let's do our weekly reboot with an eye on the past -- specifically one year in the past, when play began on July 23, 2011, with a mixed bag of contenders. By October, some had bolted ahead of the rest of their divisions. Some rode an even keel, sticking around until the end and squeezing into the playoff fray on an unforgettable final day. Some faded, and some sunk out of the mix with a resounding thud.
That probably means, as usual, that we shouldn't be surprised to see it play out that way again.
Last year's eventual World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, were 52-47 a year ago today. They were in a virtual tie in second place in the National League Central with the Pirates, one game behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers would run away with the division and finish 96-66, and the Cardinals looked out of it until storming through September to finish at 90-72. Pittsburgh, which was 51-46 a year ago today, went 21-44 the rest of the way.
And when the Atlanta Braves, who had a 59-41 record and were in second place behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East but held a six-game lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Wild Card standings last year, went 9-18 in September, St. Louis clinched a postseason berth on the last day of the season.
This year is somehow remarkably similar for some of those teams. So far.
While Arizona has some work to do to get back in the race, the Cardinals are still in the thick of the Central fight, with a 50-45 record entering Monday's games. They didn't have Adam Wainwright last year, but they don't have Chris Carpenter this year. They don't have Albert Pujols this time around, but they've got Carlos Beltran. They're five games behind division-leading Cincinnati and only two games out of the Wild Card lead.
"We know the talent is here," Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay said. "You go through streaks where nothing goes right. But when you look at the character of guys on this team and just the talent level, there's no reason why we shouldn't be [winning]."
Meanwhile, the Pirates are even better than they were at this point in 2011. Fortified by McCutchen's incredible year (.372 batting average, 22 homers, 66 RBIs) and key contributions from A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and a beefed-up bench and bullpen, Pittsburgh seems deeper and more prepared for a pennant run -- so much so that it shouldn't surprise anyone if general manager Neal Huntington is a buyer on or before the July 31 Trade Deadline.
The fans believe it, too. PNC Park packed in more than 34,000 of them on Sunday as the Pirates won again.
And what about Atlanta? The Braves are in a situation a lot like the one in which they found themselves at this stage of the game last year. They've got a 52-43 record that has them 3 1/2 games behind the division leader (which is pitching-rich Washington this time around, with last year's division winner, Philadelphia, suffering from a banged-up roster).
Starter Brandon Beachy went down, but Ben Sheets has come back healthy and strong. Jason Heyward is enjoying a much better offensive year than the one he experienced in his sophomore season. Things are looking up at Turner Field. Losses on Saturday and Sunday marked the team's first and second in its last 10 against division opponents.
"That's the way you make hay," Jones said. "Winning games within your division."
This week, we'll see a lot of that. The Cardinals take on the Dodgers and Cubs, the Pirates play the Cubs and Astros and the Braves meet the Marlins and Phillies. We'll see if they can keep their positions strong as the pressure begins to build.
In the NL West, aside from Arizona not quite getting on a roll so far, 2012 is starting to resemble 2011, too. Slightly, that is.
The Giants are in control of the division again by 1 1/2 games, taking a 53-42 record into Monday's slate on the strength of their pitching staff and their astute offseason pickups, including All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera. Last year on this date, San Francisco was 57-43 and four games up on the D-backs before stumbling down the stretch to finish out of it at 86-76.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, are right in the thick of things this time around, standing at 52-44. Last year at this time they were 43-56 and in last place, but a stirring 39-23 finish, buoyed by Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, portended well for 2012. Now Kemp is back from injury, and Kershaw seems to be rounding into midseason form. They could be a formidable opponent for the Giants as we move forward.
The American League isn't much different -- except at the top of the East.
That's where the Boston Red Sox stood last year, with a 60-37 record and a two-game lead over the Yankees. Of course, Boston collapsed in September and missed out on the postseason while the Yankees pulled away for the division title and Evan Longoria homered the Rays into the Wild Card slot.
Now the tables have turned. The Yankees are leading the AL East with the best record in baseball (57-38) and the Red Sox are in last place in an otherwise tight division at 48-48, although they got stronger recently when Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury returned from the disabled list. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay isn't out of the picture. The Rays are 49-47 and only 2 1/2 games out of the Wild Card.
The Central (Detroit) and West (Texas) are just as they were last year, with the Tigers surging of late to bring a 52-44 record into Monday's play. They were 53-46 on this date last year.
Much like last year, the Rangers are leading the West and the Angels are in pursuit, although this year's Angels team appear to be better equipped to pull off a late challenge since they have been so energized by Trout and Trumbo. And if Pujols ever gets as hot as he did in last year's World Series, watch out.
Then again, the A's are the best story in baseball over the past few weeks. Sunday's walk-off win over the Yankees, which capped a four-game sweep, was Oakland's 11th walk-off win of the year and eighth in its past 16 home games. The A's are only a half-game behind the Angels for second place.
Crazy game, huh? And there's still 40 percent of the season to go.