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By Michael Rushton, MLB Contributor - Archive - Email
Down is up in the National League
Ian Desmond is pacing the Washington Nationals with a career-high 17 homers.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you had both the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates leading their respective divisions at the All-Star break, you are either a liar or could be making a killing in Vegas.

Yet, that is where we stand at the unofficial halfway point of the season. The Pirates edge in the National League Central is slim -- one game over Cincinnati and 2 1/2 up on defending World Series champion St. Louis -- while the Nationals have been holding court atop the National League East for most of the season. Their advantage is four games ahead of Atlanta and 4 1/2 up on another surprise team, the New York Mets.

And while Washington and Pittsburgh are surprise winners, the NL has also seen its share of disappointments. Philadelphia, five-time defending NL East champions, finds itself in last place, right behind the big-spending Miami Marlins.

Fresh off a division title of their own, the Milwaukee Brewers are five games under .500 at the break, while San Francisco Giants ace and two-time former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum has pitched like the exact opposite of Tim Lincecum.

As we look forward to the second half of the season, let's take a quick look by division on how the first half has shaped up.

NATS AND PHILLIES SWITCH PLACES

Most knew that the Phillies would struggle when it was revealed they would open the season without both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the lineup. Losing former Cy Young Award-winning starter Roy Halladay in early May didn't help either.

Still, no one thought that the club would be this bad as it enters the break 14 games out of first place. After winning a franchise-record 102 games last season, Philadelphia is 13 games under .500 for the first time since the end of the 2000 season and its 37-50 record is the worst for the club at the All- Star break since going 24-61 in 1997.

The Phillies recently got both Utley and Howard back in the lineup and hope that Halladay can return this month, but none of that provided a spark as they lost 10 of 11 before the break.

If Philadelphia was to be dethroned this season, the Marlins were the favorites to do it. After all, they landed one of the top offensive free agents this past winter in Jose Reyes, signed Heath Bell to be their new closer and bolstered the rotation with Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano.

However, Reyes is hitting just .264, Bell has blown six saves and has an earned run average close to seven, while both Buehrle and Zambrano have been inconsistent at times.

Making matters worse, struggling Miami lost All-Star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for the next 4-to-6 weeks due to knee surgery. The Marlins hope that the addition of slugger Carlos Lee from Houston before the hiatus will help, but the Nationals aren't making things easy, leading the division for 85 of the season's 95 days,

At 49-34, the Nationals own the best record in the NL despite having not posted a record above .500 since 2003 while still in Montreal. With former No. 1 picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper added to the mix, the Nats were viewed as an up-and-coming team, but the future came earlier than expected.

Strasburg has returned from Tommy John surgery to lead a starting staff that has the best ERA in the NL at 3.25. Three of Washington's five starters have ERAs under three, including Jordan Zimmermann's staff-best 2.61. Gio Gonzalez won 12 games before the break and both he and Strasburg have topped 100 strikeouts thus far.

Harper, meanwhile, has lived up to the hype since joining the lineup in late April. He was selected to the All-Star team at the age of 19, hitting .282 with eight homers and 15 RBI to spark the offense.

Harper hasn't been alone either. Fellow All-Star selection Ian Desmond is pacing the team with a career-high 17 homers, while Adam LaRoche has been a surprise with 15 home runs and a team-leading 53 RBI.

People have been waiting for the Nationals to fall out of contention and it will be interesting to see if the club sticks to its plan to limit Strasburg's innings by shutting him down early. Even without Strasburg, the rotation has been good enough to contend down the stretch and the bullpen ranks fourth in the league with a 3.13 ERA.

Between the surprising Nationals and disappointing Marlins and Phillies sit the Mets and Braves. Atlanta has stayed in contention in what is scheduled to be the last of Chipper Jones' career, while the Mets have had perhaps one of the best individual stories in All-Star R.A. Dickey.

Dickey is tied with Gonzalez for the major league lead with 12 wins to go along with a 2.40 ERA. The knuckleballer is one of the big reasons that the Mets have held opponents to one run or less in an MLB-high 23 games.

That stat, of course, includes Johan Santana's no-hitter on June 1, the first in Mets history.

CAN THE PIRATES FINISH STRONG?

The Pirates teased us with a strong first half last season, but faded after the break en route to their 19th straight losing season. But their are reasons to believe in 2012.

It starts with star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, an MVP contender who is batting .362 with 18 homers, 60 RBI and 14 steals. But the best part about McCutchen is he doesn't have to worry about where he will be playing in the near future as he signed a six-year extension with Pittsburgh in April.

That is a commitment from a franchise that usually is forced to deal away its rising stars before the become too expensive.

The Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored, but have still gone 22-11 in their last 33 games and 11-1-1 in their past 13 series. Also, their 29-14 record at home is the best in the majors.

If it isn't the offense that is winning games for the Pirates, it must be the pitching.

Many praised the Yankees for finding a sucker to take A.J. Burnett off their hands, but New York's trash is now Pittsburgh's treasure. Burnett has gone 10-2 with a 3.68 ERA in 15 starts with the Pirates, who have won each of his last 12 outings with the right-hander 9-0 in that span.

No staff can ride the arm of just one guy and James McDonald has given the Pirates a solid 1-2 punch. The emerging 27-year-old is 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA and has struck out 100 over 110 innings.

With both the Reds and the Cardinals on their heels, it would still be a shock to see the Pirates win the division. Still, their first winning record since 1992 would be a big accomplishment.

At 47-38, the Reds are off to their best start at the All-Star break under manager Dusty Baker and are led by former MVP Joey Votto. The first baseman is hitting .348 with 14 homers and 48 RBI, and leads the NL with 35 doubles and 65 walks.

The Reds, who haven't been lower than second place since April 24, are looking to take advantage of Albert Pujols' exit to the American League, but the Cardinals haven't gone away quietly. Even with ace Chris Carpenter not expected to pitch this year because of a right shoulder issue, Lance Lynn has come out of nowhere to win 11 games and Kyle Lohse has a staff-best 2.79 ERA.

St. Louis signed outfielder Carlos Beltran to try and help replace Pujols' production and he has been as good as hoped. Beltran leads the Cards with 20 homers and 65 RBI and is batting a solid .296.

Another bright spot for the Cardinals has been the play of Allen Craig. Though limited to just 46 games due to injury, he has slugged 13 homers.

The Brewers have been less successful in replacing their offseason loss, first baseman Prince Fielder, and sit eight games off the pace. Reigning MVP Ryan Braun is putting together another solid season and free agent addition Aramis Ramirez has done his part with 52 RBI, but the club's collective team ERA of 4.24 and bullpen ERA of 4.60 are both fourth-worst in the league. NL Central

The could have the Brewers, owners of pending free agent ace Zack Greinke, joining the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros as big sellers before the deadline.

DODGERS, GIANTS LEADING NL WEST

Things are less crazy in the NL West, a division that is being challenged by expected contenders in the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Arizona Diamondbacks are also in the mix, while the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies are both 13 games out of first place.

The Dodgers, perhaps sparked by new ownership, got off to a quick start, but lost 15 of 20 before the break and own just a half-game lead over the Giants. Still, they have stayed afloat despite both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier on the disabled list. Kemp looked like an MVP lock after hitting .417 with 12 homes and 25 RBI in April before a hamstring ailment derailed his season.

Both Kemp and Ethier, who have combined for 22 homers and 83 RBI, are expected back to kick off the second half. That duo, plus a hopeful continuation of catcher A.J. Ellis' solid season, should pace the offense.

The Dodgers have also seen a pair of players step up for the pitching staff. All-Star snub Chris Capuano was signed to be the fifth starter and has responded with a 9-4 mark, while his 2.91 ERA matches that of staff ace Clayton Kershaw.

Kenley Jansen has also kept the bullpen motoring as the closer in place of the struggling Javy Guerra.

With stability in the ownership department, the Dodgers will likely be big players at the trade deadline.

The Giants might not need to make a move if Lincecum can rebound. The right- hander is a horrid 3-10 on the season with a 6.42 ERA, and San Francisco is just 4-14 when he starts.

A resurgence could give the Giants the best rotation in baseball. The current group is led by Matt Cain, who is 9-3 with a 2.62 ERA on the season with a perfect game under his belt, while Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have also been solid.

Still, the Giants' first-half MVP was outfielder Melky Cabrera. He matched a San Francisco-era club mark with 51 hits in May and leads the team with 119 hits and a .353 average. He also picked up MVP honors at the All-Star Game.

Even with Buster Posey returning to solid form following a season-ending leg injury last May, the Giants have struggled to score at times. Pablo Sandoval is hitting .307, but has only popped eight homers while missing time with injury.

The Diamondbacks hope those struggles leave the door open for them. Arizona ended the season with three wins in a row over Los Angeles following six straight setbacks to get within four games of first place.

Offseason additions Jason Kubel (.293, team-leading 15 homers and 60 RBI) and Trevor Cahill (7-7, 3.64 ERA) have panned out, and both Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt are hitting around .300. Rookie Wade Miley has also jolted the rotation and made the All-Star team after going 9-5 with a 3.04 ERA.

Miley, who shifted from the bullpen to the rotation, has helped ease the loss of Daniel Hudson to Tommy John surgery as well a down season from Ian Kennedy (6-7, 4.26 ERA) following a 21-victory campaign last year.

One thing to keep an eye on in Arizona is the rumors of a possible trade of outfielder Justin Upton. Though he is hitting .273, Upton's seven homers come as a disappointment.

Injuries have kept the Padres down on the mat, especially to a starting staff that has been forced to add the likes of Jason Marquis, Ross Ohlendorf and Kip Wells to the rotation.

Carlos Quentin has added some power after missing the start of the season due to injury, but is a candidate to be dealt at the deadline.

The Rockies have played a chunk of their season without star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki because of a groin injury and own the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26.

Manager Jim Tracy has juggled the rotation with a four-man group that has been on a pitch limit, but with Colorado facing a large deficit in the division race it may be time to give the starters of tomorrow some experience today.


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