Baseball

Pujols, pennant races on tap for MLB's 2nd half

The race for the post-season and a star slugger's run at the elusive triple crown are poised to take centre stage as the second half of the Major League Baseball season begins Thursday.

The race for the post-season and a star slugger's run at the elusive triple crown are poised to take centre stage as the second half of the Major League Baseball season begins Thursday.

With all 30 teams already a few games past the mathematical halfway marker of 81 contests, the Los Angeles Dodgers own baseball's best record at 56-32 coming out of the all-star break.

Top 5 overall records in MLB
Team Record
 1. Los Angeles Dodgers  56-32 (.636)
 2. Boston Red Sox  54-34 (.614)
 3. New York Yankees  51-37 (.580)
 4. Los Angeles Angels  49-37 (.570)
 5. Philadelphia Phillies  48-38 (.558)

Despite losing top slugger Manny Ramirez for 50 games after he was suspended for testing positive for a banned substance, L.A. also boasts the largest division lead, with seven games separating them from the relatively weak competition in the National League West.

In the NL Central, the Cardinals — led by triple crown threat Albert Pujols — hold a 2½-game lead over Milwaukee.

Widely considered the best player in baseball, Pujols tops the NL in home runs (32) and runs batted in (87), and ranks fourth with a .332 batting average. That's a manageable 17 points behind leader Hanley Ramirez of Florida, who for the moment appears to be the biggest obstacle to Pujols' becoming the first man since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead his league in the three major batting categories.

The defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies look to be on pace for a third consecutive post-season appearance as they lead the NL East by four games over the surprising Marlins.

The three American League races are a little tighter. In the West, the Los Angeles Angels cling to a 1½-game advantage over Texas. The Detroit Tigers lead the Central by 3½ games, while the Boston Red Sox have a three-game cushion in the East thanks partly to the hot hitting of AL RBI leader Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., who has driven in 72.

Baseball's most cutthroat division is shaping up for a heated race. The New York Yankees, who made off-season headlines with the high-priced acquisitions of pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira, are nipping at Boston's heels despite playing the first month without Alex Rodriguez as the controversial star recovered from hip surgery.

The defending AL champion Tampa Bay Rays, lurking 6½ games back, bear watching as their plus-76 run differential is the third-best in baseball behind the Dodgers and Red Sox.

The Toronto Blue Jays, meanwhile, have squandered their red-hot 23-12 start, falling to 44-46 as they ready for a nine-game homestand starting Friday against the Red Sox.

With a whopping 11 games separating the Jays from Boston, and five teams standing between them and the Wild Card leading Yankees, general manager J.P. Ricciardi figures to be a seller leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Ricciardi has already admitted that he's shopping ace Roy Halladay, and the AL's starting pitcher at the all-star game indicated he'd be open to waving his no-trade clause for the chance to play for a contender.

Veterans Scott Rolen and Marco Scutaro, both enjoying strong seasons, could also draw interest from clubs with designs on the post-season.

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