Back on track: Stars return to excellence

Back on track: Stars return to excellence

Back on track: Stars return to excellence
Halfway and then some into the 2012 season, several star players are serving notice that they're all the way back to their normal high form after a year or more off-track. More often than not, their teams are benefiting from those players' return to their standards of excellence.

The AL Central-leading White Sox, for instance, had a pair of All-Stars in Kansas City who are back to doing what became expected of them in years past, with Jake Peavy twirling ace stuff after a unique surgical procedure and Adam Dunn whacking homers again after his debut season on the South Side that was such a whiff. Throw in Alex Rios and his own rebound season, and the Sox have a trio of guys back on the beam.

Of course, the White Sox stars are not alone in turning things around. The Mets, holding on tight to stay in the postseason race, have David Wright back at Most Valuable Player-caliber levels after a 2011 that was the nadir of his career, and former Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana firing the Mets' first no-hitter after missing last year because of shoulder surgery.

And how about Joe Mauer being much more recognizable as a force on the field for the Twins, as opposed to being a guy with great hair?

For Dunn, the return to bashing baseballs -- and, yes, whiffing on them a lot -- meant a return to the All-Star Game after an 11-year hiatus, joining Wright, Peavy and Mauer as prominent Midsummer Classic returnees. Last year, Dunn had an unimaginably rough season, his first on a four-year, $56 million contract with the White Sox.

His manager then was Ozzie Guillen, now with the Marlins and in Chicago this week to visit the Cubs. Last year, Guillen kept writing Dunn's name in the lineup and Dunn kept struggling all the way to a .159 average and a mere 11 homers in 496 at-bats.

"What Dunner went through last year, he took it like a man. He was the same guy in the clubhouse and dugout every day," Guillen said of the 32-year-old slugger. "He just had a bad year. It takes a very strong man mentally to go through what he went through last year. I'm very happy for him and his family for what he's doing right now, and he knows that."

The White Sox are certainly happy with the turnaround as well.

Through Wednesday, Dunn had 28 homers to put him just seven shy of the 400-homer milestone. While he has a huge lead in the Majors with 141 strikeouts, the rest of the stats tells the story of Dunn being back to being Dunn. He has a Major League-leading 73 walks, just two fewer than he had all of last year, and he has raised his average by 51 points, his on-base percentage by 66 points and almost has doubled his slugging percentage of a year ago at .511 -- still not up to his highest career standard, but a whole lot better than in 2011.

Rios, meanwhile, has matched or exceeded his 145-game 2011 season totals for homers, RBIs and steals through 88 games, and is poised to pass up many of last year's totals.

It's much the same story for Wright and Mauer.

Through 87 games, Wright is either right on or past last year's 102-game totals, standing among the Majors' leaders in average (.351), hits (113), OPS (1.009) and is clearly once again one of the most valuable assets in the sport. He spent much of last season dealing with a stress fracture in his lower back, leading to career lows practically across the board.

Mauer, meanwhile, played in 82 games a year ago. Through his first 83 games this year, he has 17 more hits, 10 more runs and 14 more RBIs while leading the American League with a .415 on-base percentage -- oh, and most important, he has more than two months remaining to build on those numbers.

That said, getting an All-Star nod after last year's non-star season was a treat for Mauer.

"Obviously, with all the things that happened last year and the hard work that I put in to get back, it's a nice little reward midway through the season," Mauer said in Kansas City.

And then there's the 31-year-old Peavy, who underwent experimental surgery to reattach his lat muscle to his right shoulder two years ago and, after some difficulty getting through 2011, is again one of the top starters in the game, eating innings like the old days. With four complete games and a 3.12 ERA, Peavy's next start will be his 19th -- the most he has been able to deliver since 2008, when he was with San Diego, one year after he won the NL Cy Young.

You see career rebounds elsewhere, too. Santana's and Wright's former teammate Carlos Beltran, while not exactly coming off a down season, is coming off a multimillion-dollar contract to which he didn't live up to expectations and is now crushing baseballs out of the park with regularity for the Cardinals. Barry Zito, whose stay with the Giants has been hardly similar to the type of dominance he showed with the A's, including the AL Cy Young Award a decade ago, is back to being a factor in the rotation. A.J. Burnett couldn't quite get on track in the Bronx, but he's been right there in the center of the Pirates' rise to contention in the NL Central.

These may or may not be Comeback Player of the Year stories by the time the season is through. But already they're among the biggest Back to Normal stories of the year.

Having gone through some down times but now firmly back on the horse, these veterans know one thing: Their return to form isn't complete until they complete a season up to the lofty standards they've set in the past.

"There's two halves in the season," Wright said earlier this month. "Individually, it's kind of the pessimistic side of me, I always think I can improve on some things. I think there's a lot of things I can work on for the second half. But the biggest thing is you can't get complacent with where you're at. It's a humbling game."

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