Here are five teams and five players of first-half intrigue worth keeping a special eye on for the second installment of the Major League season:
How could one of them not be the Yankees? Somehow, these guys keep getting it done, despite having lost Andy Pettitte until at least August and CC Sabathia for nearly a month by the time he returns next week. However, it's the offense, and, more significantly, the home run, that's been getting it done for the Bronx Bombers. Even manager Joe Girardi seems somewhat confused that the Yankees entered the break with the best record in the Major Leagues (52-33) and a commanding seven-game lead in the tough American League East.
"It's been a strange first half, I think," Girardi said. "It's been kind of streaky for us; at different times different parts of our game has struggled, but I give our guys a lot of credit. They found ways to win games. It's better than not being where we're at."
Which brings us to the Angels. They started out 6-14, matching their franchise-worst record after 20 games. But everything has changed since they called up Mike Trout on April 28. Now they're 10 games over .500 and winning despite a banged-up rotation. And Albert Pujols still has yet to get "Albert Pujols hot."
"We're moving forward and doing so many things on the field that gives us a lot of confidence," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I don't look at it as looking at the standings or looking where we could be; we're playing good baseball right now, and if we continue to show up and play the way we are, we're very confident in the fact that we'll reach our goals."
Speaking of goals, what about the Pirates? They're 48-37, leading the National League Central by one game over the Reds, riding the wave of a leading NL MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen and believing in themselves and manager Clint Hurdle. Then again, they're aware that last year's Pittsburgh team was in first place in late July before collapsing.
"We'll challenge them," Hurdle said of the second-half plan. "Boys, this is very similar to the position we were in last year. Are we different? Why? How? What's going to be different? Go home and relax, and think about being uncommon in the second half. Let's do something different than what we did last year."
The Tigers were in the process of doing exactly that for much of the first half, but not in a good way. Last year's AL Central champs have finally begun putting it together, though, having won five in a row to take some momentum into the break.
As for the Phillies, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley may be back, but the mojo of the past five years has yet to show up. Baseball may be wondering if the trade rumors will continue to swirl through July up until the non-waiver Trade Deadline on the month's final day. Stay tuned.
Well, they're two players, but considering they play for the same team -- a team that needs them desperately right now -- we'll count Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford as one. The Red Sox haven't been the same without them, but indications are that both will be available very soon. Will it be enough to get Boston back to contention in the AL East?
Though the Dodgers are in contention, the same can be said for Matt Kemp. In fact, the Dodgers are back in first place in the NL West, clinging to a half-game advantage over the San Francisco Giants, and they haven't had a Kemp with healthy hamstrings doing his thing in the middle of the order and in center field since May. His Home Run Derby show will give us a preview of what could be to come in the second half. The Dodgers, understandably, can't wait.
"I've talked to Matt, if he feels anything at all, he's going to step out [of the Derby]," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "We're not worried about Matt getting hurt at all, though. He has been hitting [batting practice] for over a month. We'd know if something was bothering him. From the beginning, the doctor was never worried about him swinging the bat, it's always been about him running."
For the Mets, much of 2012 has been about R.A. Dickey. The knuckleballer has been nothing short of masterful, though he has been hittable in two of his past three starts. Nevertheless, it's difficult to argue with a 37-year-old who entered the break with a 12-1 record, a 2.40 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 120 innings while throwing his trademark pitch.
It's also tough to argue with what Chris Sale is doing for the first-place Chicago White Sox. Yet, it's worth watching as the season moves forward and the string-bean left-hander's innings pile up. He is already at 102 2/3 innings. The most he's ever thrown in a year is the 136 2/3 he tallied in 2010 between college, the Minors and the Majors. The White Sox are going to be careful for the rest of the schedule. We'll see if it pays off.
And in the Pacific Northwest, as the Mariners continue to struggle, we'll see what general manager Jack Zduriencik decides to do with his ace, Felix Hernandez. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner is once again pitching brilliantly and once again has little to show for it. The Mariners are rebuilding with youth and would like Hernandez to be a part of it, but what if the right deadline deal comes along? What if Seattle can get a handful of prospects and maybe a Major Leaguer or two in a Hernandez-worthy haul?
There are plenty of questions out there as we take a Midsummer (Classic) break. Soon enough, we'll have even more answers.