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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

First half's uncertainty sets up spectacular stretch run

First half's uncertainty sets up spectacular stretch run

First half's uncertainty sets up spectacular stretch run play video for First half's uncertainty sets up spectacular stretch run

Rays and Dodgers in the World Series. Book it. This guarantee has an expiration date of, oh, Tuesday.

But seriously. One of the best things about this era of baseball is that there's only a teensy difference between the top 10-15 teams. At least 18 teams still have a very decent shot at the postseason. And what decides the playoff berths may be things that haven't happened yet -- a trade or an injury.

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For instance, if Matt Garza winds up with the Rangers, how do you like their chances? Pretty good, right?

Or if the Tigers land Jesse Crain? Suddenly, the Tigers might be the popular pick in the American League.

Perspective on playoff races changes by the week, especially in the AL East. The Red Sox have spent 92 days atop the division despite some adversity. At some point, we may have to acknowledge they're the best team in the best division.

But not yet.

Let's push the pause button for a brief tribute to the Reds and Tigers. Those teams are gifted physically and tough-minded mentally. They're expected to win and have demanding fans.

Neither club had a spectacular first half, but they soldier on, Detroit staying atop the AL Central and Cincinnati positioned for a third playoff appearance in four years.

When you play those two teams, you know what you're going to get: a good team that plays hard, a team that reflects its manager. Tigers skipper Jim Leyland and the Reds' Dusty Baker have more yesterdays than tomorrows in the game, but both are the gold standard for preparing teams and riding out the highs and lows.

But back to the 2013 World Series.

Right now, it's the Dodgers and Rays.

There's an easy case to be made for the Cardinals, Pirates, Nationals, Tigers, Reds, A's and Rangers, as well. There's a tougher case to be made for the Orioles, D-backs, Yankees and Braves. If you look at the Indians, Phillies and Rockies just so, you can be convinced they've got a shot, too.

In recent years, we've seen teams come from way back.

First, the Rays. They've got David Price back and pitching at a high level. He has a 1.08 ERA since his return from the disabled list. Alex Cobb may also contribute in the second half. All season, we've been waiting on Tampa Bay to get its rotation straightened out. Consider it done.

The Rays also playing terrific defense and are scoring more runs than a lot of us expected. To watch Yunel Escobar and James Loney is to be reminded that no general manager is better at what he does than Andrew Friedman.

Tampa Bay has the best record in the Majors since May 8 (41-23), which means nothing. But it tells you the Rays are capable of playing at a very high level over a long period of time. They play more road games than any other AL team the rest of the way, so if they get in, it won't be a fluke.

Now the Dodgers.

Some of us wondered if all the large personalities assembled with a sledgehammer approach to spending money could coexist, and for a long time, the Dodgers were a mess.

But Yasiel Puig began spraying line drives all over the field, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez got hot, and the rotation looks terrific with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

The D-backs have fought their tails off and been pretty much what general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson hoped they'd be. Their rotation is potentially good enough to take control of the race, especially if Towers adds a bullpen arm or two.

The All-Star break could be a reset button for the Giants and Matt Cain. They, too, are still capable of winning.

At the moment, though, the Dodgers have the most talent, and in the end, it's talent that usually prevails.

On June 21, they were 30-42 and 9 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West. If you told their fans they were about to take off, you'd be laughed out of the room.

Los Angeles sprinted into the All-Star break on a 17-5 run and cut its division deficit by seven games to 2 1/2. Even with the lack of production at third, the Dodgers are solid everywhere else, and like all championship teams, they're getting contributions from all around their clubhouse.

Now they're starting to feel it. Gonzalez and Ramirez and Matt Kemp and the others seem to be having fun, with their confidence growing by the day.

If these past few seasons have taught us anything, it's to be careful about these kinds of predictions. At various points this season, the A's, Rangers, Red Sox and Orioles have looked like the AL's best team.

And that's a good thing. That means these final 10 weeks could be spectacularly wonderful, with good teams punching and counterpunching. Here's to enjoying another great ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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