Here are a couple of six packs to celebrate one of the best weeks on the MLB regular-season calendar - from the fourth of July through the All-Star festivities in Kansas City:
1. New York Mets: You can make an excellent case for either Terry Collins or Clint Hurdle as leader in the clubhouse for NL Manager of the Year. But we'll lean to the former, mostly on the basis of team shock value.
Yes, the Pirates lead the NL Central, but they flirted with contender status late into July last season. The Mets? No need to recount how far ownership's dire financial situation dragged them down last year, and things didn't look much better this spring after $50 million was slashed off the payroll.
The Mets' lineup doesn't wow you, but somehow, they're third in the NL in runs scored despite being eighth in OPS, 10th in slugging percentage and 12th in home runs.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates: Hurdle and his Pirates sat in first place through Wednesday, and at 45-36 were one game better through 81 games than the 1992 Pirates - the last Pirates team to finish above .500.
And they've started hitting, too - averaging 6.56 runs per game and reaching double figures three times in a 13-5 run through Wednesday.
Andrew McCutchen and Joel Hanrahan will be in Kansas City, and there's a case for James McDonald, too. No token Pirate All-Star this season.
3. Baltimore Orioles: Even now, few are buying the notion of the Orioles staying ahead of the Rays and Red Sox in the AL East. Run differential tells you so, as the Orioles are at -26 through 81 games, yet somehow are seven games over .500.
But ultimately, this season should be measured by the developments of the 26-under core stars. And in the cases of Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Wei-Yin Chen, it's thumbs-up. Not so much at this point, though, for Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter (all with 5-plus ERAs). And we'll see about Chris Tillman and Zack Britton.
4. Chicago White Sox: Picked by most for a second-division finish in a bad division, the Sox instead lead the AL Central halfway through Robin Ventura's first season. Ventura's calm, solid leadership is a big part of it, but here are four more reasons:
- It could be a clean sweep for the Sox in the AL Comeback Player of the Year balloting - Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn.
- Chris Sale's emergence as a dominant force at the top of the rotation.
- One more All-Star-level season from Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski.
- Addison Reed's quick development in the closer role.
5. Washington Nationals: It's always nice to watch a young, emerging team take that step from potential to reality, and that's what the Nats have done under 69-year-old manager Davey Johnson.
And a likely Stephen Strasburg shutdown notwithstanding, there's a good chance things can get better in the second half. Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder isn't bothering him anymore, Drew Storen will be back later this month, Jayson Werth likely by August, and you figure GM Mike Rizzo will make a key addition or two.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers: It's been a painful comedown from a 30-13 start, but what do you expect without Matt Kemp, and now Andre Ethier? But don't discount this team as a first-half flash-in-the-pan just yet.
Kemp, Ethier and Mark Ellis will be back soon enough, and there's plenty of money (and pitching prospects) to add a quality bat or top-level arm for the rest of this season, and possibly longer term.
1. Philadelphia Phillies: Their 9-19 June removed all doubt; the Phils' run of playoff relevance has ended. The step-by-step decline since their 2008 World Series title - 2009 NL champs; 2010 NLCS losers; 2011 first-round losers - will reach a new low, out of the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Free-agents-to-be Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino should be traded before the end of the month, because it's re-loading time. After Cliff Lee picked up his first win of the season on Wednesday, he said: "I never thought I'd have to wait until July 4th for my first win, but it's been a weird year like that.'' Yes it has, Cliff.
2. Detroit Tigers: Below .500? Halfway through the season? In the AL Central? Has this really gone on for 82 games? There's no bigger underachieving team in the majors than Jim Leyland's bunch.
Doug Fister's problems continue, nobody else in the rotation behind Justin Verlander has stepped up, the bottom of the order produces precious little offense, and guess what? The defense isn't very good.
3. Miami Marlins: They finally spent some money instead of turning revenue-sharing checks into profits, but this grand plan - financed in part by the new ballpark - isn't working.
Their -59 run differential through Wednesday is 12th-worst in the NL, Hanley Ramirez and Heath Bell are dragging this team down, Josh Johnson hasn't bounced back to ace-level effectiveness, and Carlos Lee isn't going to make much of a difference.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: Don't say we didn't warn you about teams that jump up out of nowhere and post 29-game improvements from the previous season, as the D-Backs did in 2011. That said, a hot streak puts them right in the midst of a crowded playoff picture.
5. Kansas City Royals: The good news is they've played better-than-.500 baseball since that disastrous 3-14 start, Salvador Perez is back, Jonathan Broxton has bounced back from surgery for 20-plus saves, and Alcides Escobar is blossoming.
But that 3-14 start, coupled with continuing rotation weakness and Eric Hosmer's sophomore struggles are keeping the Royals buried in a winnable division.
6. Colorado Rockies: Nobody was expecting much here - maybe something close to .500 if everything went right. But nothing has. Troy Tulowitzki's string of injuries looks like a pattern now. Todd Helton's back has diminished him to part-time status.
And bottom line, no matter how they are used, there simply aren't enough quality starting pitchers here, especially after injuries to Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio. Put it this way: There was no talk about 75-pitch limits, and two-tiered rotations when the Rockies were in the 2007 World Series. It comes down to talent, and the organization hasn't produced enough lately.