Friday the 13th offers potential second-half omens

Friday the 13th offers potential second-half omens

Friday the 13th offers potential second-half omens
The no-hitter silent treatment. The sacred baseline. A helmet with an inch of old, crusty pine tar on it. A pair of socks unwashed since the last oh-fer.

Baseball is such a superstitious sport, Friday the 13th might as well be a national holiday for the national pastime.

This year, Friday the 13th does fall on a landmark occasion, at least. This year, it's the day that sets off the second half of the season. Whether that's some sort of omen of eerie consequences remains to be seen, but the first half has foretold plenty already.

Perhaps these superstitions are pure silliness. But, just to be sure it doesn't jinx anything, let's call this a dozen or so telling signs from the first half, and what they might portend as Friday the 13th heralds the remainder of 2012:

A Washington, D.C., team holds first place in the National League East at the All-Star break for the first time since ... 2005? That 2005 team finished 81-81 in baseball's first season in the nation's capital after 33 years away, but the 2012 version appears better built for the long haul. The Nats boast the Majors' top pitching staff and a lineup that is finding its pop in the middle with both Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy. They, along with Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper, make for a formidable run of hitters.

In the end, D.C.'s team could have enough staying power this time to hold off the Braves and the rest of the NL East.

R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball are making history. Already the NL leader in wins, complete games and WHIP, Dickey and his fluttering offerings have been practically unhittable every time out. He's among the top candidates for the Cy Young Award, and he'd be the first knuckleball pitcher ever to win it if he closes the deal.

Will he hold up? The physics of drag and air density under hotter conditions aside, this guy has done just fine in the summer in the recent past -- he had a 2.56 ERA in the final three months last year, and a 2.78 ERA down the stretch the year before that.

Tim Lincecum has an ERA that looks more like a late-evening train departure time. How Lincecum got stuck on the tracks of the 6:42 out of San Francisco is becoming a fog-shrouded mystery by the bay. But where he's been matters less to the Giants than where he's going.

Lincecum's worst month as a professional was August 2010, when he had a 7.82 ERA, so maybe this is a good omen for Giants fans, after all. Matt Cain leads what remains one of the top staffs in the NL, and the 2012 Giants are more balanced than their 2010 World Series-winning counterparts with Melky Cabrera leading the way on offense. Having the Freak back to normal could only help the Giants' cause.

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are redefining rookie expectations. Angels outfielder Trout, 20, is conjuring comparisons to Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki, the last two players to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same year. Nationals outfielder Harper, 19, has been every bit worthy of the hype that has followed him since he was 16.

They're both extraordinarily talented, blessed with speed, power and baseball IQ. Is there a limit to what these two phenoms can do with their rookie seasons? To quote Harper, that's a clown question, bro.

The Pirates are in first place with 48 wins, yet that doesn't exactly conjure up good memories. Yes, it was only a year ago you could say the same thing about the scrappy Bucs, and the perennial low-budget team actually went out and did some Trade Deadline shopping. But the 2011 Pirates went from being 47-43 before the All-Star break to 25-47 after, finishing well below .500 and well out of the running in the NL Central.

But with Andrew McCutchen proving to be one of the league's prime-time all-around players and an MVP candidate, the Pirates appear to have a lot of wind in their sails this year.

Josh Hamilton has a solid season's worth of homers and RBIs already. Remember, this is a guy who won an MVP in 2010 despite missing the last month of the season. Whatever the second half holds, the stretch run -- with the two-time defending AL champs' hopes and Hamilton's pending free agency hanging in the balance -- is going to be something to watch in Texas, especially with Hamilton starting it out with 27 homers and 75 RBIs.

Justin Verlander, last year's AL Cy Young and MVP, might be neither this year despite his best efforts. It was hard enough to make a case for winning both awards, but Verlander's performance in 2011 was transcendent. This year, it'd take a Herculean effort to repeat as MVP, and he's got competition for Cy Young from the likes of left-hander Chris Sale of the first-place White Sox and Angels no-no man Jered Weaver. The third-place Tigers haven't performed as well as they should, but their ace isn't the reason why.

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is not the one to decide the AL East right now. It'll take a rally in Boston to change that, because not only are the pesky Rays in the way as the Yankees have built a comfortable seven-game lead, but the Orioles are a half-game ahead of them in second place. The Red Sox share last place in the division with the Jays at .500 -- joining the 2005 Mets as the only three .500 last-place teams at the break since three divisions debuted in 1999.

The good news for Boston? The Red Sox have recovered from a 4-10 start and are only 2 1/2 games out of the Wild Card.

The Marlins' new uniforms are still more glaring than their results. Heath Bell is now part of a closers' committee, Jose Reyes hasn't provided the anticipated spark and there has been not a whole lot to celebrate in Miami's new ballpark aside from Giancarlo Stanton's power -- now on the shelf for 4-6 weeks following knee surgery.

This is not how they drew it up at the Winter Meetings, where the Marlins stole the show with their player-acquisition binge. But they're still just five games removed from a playoff spot.

The Phillies are less of a factor at the All-Star break than they've been since 2006. That doesn't mean their chances of extending the Majors' longest active streak of playoff appearances beyond five are through, but it's going to be an uphill battle, thanks to their worst record at the break since 1997.

It all began going south with their last playoff game, when Ryan Howard went down with an Achilles injury. Now, the Phillies are looking at the next few weeks as key to determining where they land in Trade Deadline discussions, with All-Star lefty Cole Hamels among the players who might be dangled.

The Trade Deadline rumor mill is quiet fewer than three weeks out. Conventional wisdom suggests that there might be less trading this year before the deadline because fewer teams will be willing to give up star players and ostensibly give up on the season. Then again, there's a theory that more teams are going to want to get that one thing to improve their chances, so perhaps that's a catalyst for more moves. Tick-tock to July 31 at 4 p.m. ET.

The playoff picture is less clear than ever at the All-Star break -- and that's a good thing. There are 21 teams within five games of a playoff spot, and with the possible exception of the AL East, every race is tight for division titles that now have more importance than they did before. But, then, it will only matter in September, when we'll really see how many teams have their postseason opportunities extended by the new Wild Card format.

In 13 weeks, the playoffs will be under way and we'll know who's in the postseason party with a chance to win the World Series. Whoa, there's that number again. Only on Friday the 13th, huh?

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