Big second half ahead for many contenders

Big second half ahead for many contenders

The contrails of airplanes carrying baseball's best to their various destinations following the All-Star Game in Kansas City spread from coast to coast and from north to south on Wednesday, as players returned to their teams for the second half of the season.

As the players who earned the trip to Kansas City, and their teammates who didn't, made their way to their respective homes or next destinations on the 162-game marathon, most were heading into mid-July with their postseason hopes very much intact.

There are 21 teams within five games of a playoff spot as the first season featuring two Wild Card berths per league turns toward a thrilling conclusion.

Following a few of those different flight patterns leaving Kansas City, here's a look at some of the All-Stars who have been shooting across the sky to their destinations to begin the second half, and what's in store for them:

• The All-Star Game's winning pitcher and MVP head home to San Francisco hoping to get their club back on top in the National League West after a pre-break slip from the top. With the Giants behind the Dodgers by a half-game in the NL West and behind the Braves by a half-game in the Wild Card race, Matt Cain and Melky Cabrera have some work to do.

Cain has been perfect once and close to it several times, and after his two shutout innings in Kansas City, he'll be facing the Astros -- his opponent in his June 13 perfecto -- in Sunday's finale of a three-game weekend set at AT&T Park.

Cabrera, whose exploits already have fans in San Francisco dressing up in all-white Melk Man outfits, simply mirrored what he did the first three-plus months of the season on Tuesday night.

"He's hit from wire to wire," catcher and fellow All-Star Buster Posey said of Cabrera. "He's been consistent, played great defense in left, stolen bases. He's been a great addition for us."

The Melk Man will have to continue delivering the offense, along with fellow All-Stars Pablo Sandoval and Posey, to push the Giants past All-Stars Clayton Kerhsaw and Matt Kemp and the rest of the Dodgers.

The NL West, which always delivers something interesting down the stretch, is setting up to be an old-fashioned barn-burner between the two West Coast rivals, with defending champion Arizona lurking close behind.

• Of course, the NL West isn't the only division up for grabs -- and those division titles mean so much more this year because of the one-game Wild Card playoff. When it comes to being in good shape in that department, nobody tops the Yankees.

Having matched the Giants with three starting position players in Kansas City, the Yankees' All-Stars return to their regular jobs looking to improve upon baseball's best record and protect the largest division lead in the Majors.

After going a collective 2-for-6 on Tuesday, the trio of Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson returns to the Bronx as the Yankees host the Angels, who have rebounded to become a strong contender in the American League West. Cano should certainly expect a warmer reception than the one he received in Kansas City as the Yankees will embark on the homestretch with a seven-game lead in the AL East.

• A couple more surprising division leaders send their All-Stars home with high hopes for the remainder of the year.

The Nationals, leading the NL in wins with 49 and the NL East by four games, can certainly say they like where they stand as they start the second half against the Marlins, whose offseason spree hasn't yet paid off.

With four deserving All-Stars in pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, shortstop Ian Desmond and rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, the Nationals got off to a good start and have kept on going.

"We've set new standards here," Desmond said.

And the Pirates, who overtook the Reds just before the break in the tight NL Central race, have to feel equally charged as they start up against the defending division-champion Brewers.

"The times are changing," said closer Joel Hanrahan, who along with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen represented the Pirates on Tuesday.

Of course, leading the division at the break, like the White Sox in the AL Central and the Rangers in the AL West, is one thing. Winning it is another.

• The spotlight in Kansas City was shining brightly on two Rookie of the Year candidates, and that spotlight doesn't figure to fade any time soon.

Harper and the Angels' Mike Trout, teammates last year on the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League and opponents Tuesday in the All-Star Game, headed their separate ways again, both looking at solid playoff hopes and both poised to run away with league Rookie of the Year honors.

Harper, who drew a walk in his first plate appearance as the youngest position-player All-Star ever at age 19, has been a sensation since his arrival with the Nationals, who have been a balanced and consistent threat and a sustained leader in the NL East.

"This isn't the end of the season," Harper said. "The end of the season is the World Series, hopefully, and that's what I'm looking forward to."

Trout, whose single on Tuesday made the 20-year-old the youngest All-Star to get a hit since 1955, returns to action with the first trip to Yankee Stadium for the New Jersey native who has wowed the league with his bat, speed and glove.

• Josh Hamilton, following the most significant toothpick-chewing at-bats in Kansas City since U.L. Washington's day, heads into the second half a front-runner in the MVP race in the AL, his Rangers right with the Yankees with 52 wins to lead all of baseball.

Along with fellow All-Stars Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Yu Darvish heading to Seattle to face the Mariners, Hamilton has quite the run at MVP under way, having already hit 27 homers and collected 75 RBIs.

Now that the festivities in Kansas City are behind him, Hamilton's focus is on helping the Rangers win a third consecutive pennant.

"I think we have to come out making a statement in the beginning of the second half," Hamilton said.

With Hamilton and the rest of the All-Stars heading homeward in all directions from Kansas City, statements all around the Majors are about to be made.

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.