Let’s preview what Baseball’s Act II might give us

Whatever purpose baseball’s faded and essentially irrelevant all-star game still serves, it unquestionably brings the curtain slamming down on the first act of the grand olde game’s long, long – some might say “too long” – theatrical exercise called the “Regular Season.” It’s a ceremonial moment, giving us enough pause to draw some conclusions about where we’ve been and where we might be headed. So, here goes:
Always an elusive business in baseball – far more than in other games – predicting form and performance has been folly this season, especially in the American League where it could be argued that half the teams have so far failed, in varying degrees, to match pre-season expectations, or even get close, in several notable cases.

Leading that parade of under-achieving deadbeats are the Mariners, Tigers, and your own immortal Carmine Hose, New England’s Town Team. Nipping on their heels are the Indians, White Sox, A’s, and Orioles, nor do the Rangers and Blue Jays have that much to boast about. Can anyone in the AL play this game consistently well? So far, only the Royals are beyond dispute, although the Yanks, Rays, Astros, Twins, and maybe the Angels, get passing grades for solid effort.

Arousing somewhat from their dreary slumbers about three weeks before the mid-summer break, your Red Sox managed to slice the appalling deficit they’d cleverly woven in their silent spring nearly in half. Credit for this rather modest awakening probably should be accorded as much to the league’s mediocrity as to any upgrade in the team’s act. Whatever the explanation, your lads are getting cheeky again. It’s not enough yet to revive all that happy talk about their invincibility and invulnerability that rumbled through spring training, leading the cocky owner to officially declare things have never been better. If they’re not yet in the catbird seat their temperature is rising, unmistakably.

Swell! But unless they have a full-scale metamorphosis up their sleeve and plan to run away with the bloody gonfalon the second half – an obvious possibility given that rampant mediocrity previously cited – the Townies will have to live with much snickering when their off-season bombast gets churned-up and mocked upon by those eager to see the owner eat his haughty pre-season declarations. And if this oddly configured team doesn’t go nuts in the second half, that will happen, nor does it bode well for the manager.

After all, rich guys who own baseball teams have to blame disappointment on somebody and/or make someone pay for their embarrassment. Bank on it, for ‘tis ever been thus!

As for the rest of the AL East, who can figure? Everyone is in awe of Toronto’s offense but they hit the break with a losing record and a battered pitching staff. Though healthier than last season when they almost got to the World Series, Baltimore has also lost as many as they’ve won. Plucky Tampa remains viable and nobody can explain how or why. Is young and unheralded Kevin Cash, the ex-journeyman catcher given the thankless task of succeeding Joe Maddon, even better than Joe Maddon? If the Rays’ rookie skipper keeps that ragtag and beat-up collection of cast-offs in the race the rest of the way, he may well be.

And then there are the Yankees. At the break they are the only team in the greatly diminished AL East with a winning record. They have a four-game hold on first place and a six-and-a-half game lead on their much loathed arch foes from Boston. They have the league’s third best overall record, only four behind the Royals and one behind the even more improbable Twins. Yet if you have watched them play much the last three months, you can only wonder if they’re doing it with mirrors.

Among a glut of misfortunes the Yankees lost three of their key performers for extended periods; Jacoby Ellsbury for 43 games, Andrew Miller for a month, and Masahiro Tanaka for five weeks and upon his return Tanaka has been by and large ordinary. C.C. Sabathia remains a punching bag. The infield is a hodgepodge. Their winningest pitcher’s ERA is almost 5.00. And Brett Gardner is their all-star and MVP.

What has saved them is a pair of wacky factors no one anticipated, let alone dared predict. One is the revival of Mark Teixeira, dramatically retrieved from the boneyard just when everyone had given up on him; the other is the dawning of a born-again A-Rod, whose latest transfiguration has been for the Yankees both happy and near miraculous. Together they have anchored what would have been otherwise a scrappy but ordinary lineup. Deserving of particular credit is Joe Girardi, who has so far negotiated the unlikely Bronx high-wire act with remarkable aplomb. Dag Hammarskjold could not have handled the Rodriguez conundrum with greater tact.

It can be said the Yankees over the first half over-achieved in roughly equal measure to the degree the Red Sox under-achieved. That, of course, is a scenario that could easily flip-flop in the second half. Had Boston beaten New York in the series immediately preceding the break I’d have been inclined to bet on that happening. But The Red Sox didn’t. The Bombers, in a display of the sort of grit they inexplicably feature this season, held serve. A season as goofy as this one can turn on a single series, or game.

One can imagine the ultimate winner in the AL East prevailing with a record only three or four games over break-even, say something like 84-78. The once high and mighty AL East is that ordinary. But it could be exciting, which is preferable. Excellence can be boring. The Cardinals won a World Series a few years ago after only winning 83 games in the regular season.

As for the rest of the league: Is Houston, suddenly quivering, still for real? Is the bash brothers’ act of Pujols and Trout, projecting to full-season totals of about 50 homers apiece, sufficient to carry the Angels? What’s wrong with the Tigers or did allowing Max Scherzer to escape terminate their dynastic presumptions? Did Billy Beane prove too clever by at least half in his latest Oakland make-over? In Seattle, is Robinson Cano a $240 million bust? In Texas, will Josh Hamilton ever be well enough to make three consecutive appearances? Is the Twins‘ Paul Molitor, a memorable magician as a hitter just as terrific as a manager? Is the party over for Terry Francona in Cleveland, or Robin Ventura in Chicago? Will the Royals win the World
Series even without the miraculous intercessions of a Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo? Countless are the questions that Act II will resolve.

Over in the NL, pre-season wisdom holds up better, although less than perfectly. Just ask the Marlins and Padres, whose manic off-season spending renders them still pathetic. Though too often sputtering, Washington looks solid in the East although their lead over the unimposing Mets fresh from a horrible June is slimmer than it should be. The Cardinals – perennial models of consistency – and the Dodgers – finally jelling under Don Mattingly thanks to a historic payroll that would embarrass even the Yankees – appear equally solid in the Central and West. That leaves the Giants, Pirates, and Cubs thrashing it out for the two wild-card berths.

Just what baseball most yearns for: an epic battle for bloody wild-cards.

Mind you, however, these are observations not predictions. It took only three months for Joe Maddon, with the crucial assistance of Theo Epstein’s bandwagon of budding prospects, to cast his charming spell over Chicago where, after 107 years of Cubbie pratfalls, the good burghers are quite vulnerable to being charmed. Untouched by all that so far is Jon Lester, expatriate lefty, who is 4-8, making him only a slightly better investment than Rick Porcello.

Nonetheless, this doubtless amuses the Red Sox front office, which saved nearly $200 million by snubbing Lester, which, you’ll recall, allowed them to invest in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval.Baseball savants keep telling us pennants are won in the winter. Count me as dubious.