Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2022

Half A Season To Go Means There’s Still Time For Hope

We’re halfway home.  A few days later than usual, thanks to the delayed start of this year’s campaign resulting from the owners’ lockout of players, the longest season has reached its midpoint.  After Wednesday’s schedule of contests, MLB franchises averaged 82 games played, with 80 more to go.  As always happens when baseball’s calendar achieves this symmetry, fans are being flooded with a wave of midseason predictions about how things will look come October, from projected final standings to forecasts of individual achievements. 

Will the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets and Astros all win more than 100 games, as each is on track to do?  Will the Royals, A’s, Nats, and Reds all counterbalance that by running up triple-digit losses?  Will Aaron Judge outslug both the Babe and Roger Maris, setting a new franchise home run record in the Bronx?  Will Houston’s Justin Verlander continue to defy time and win his third Cy Young Award at the advanced age of 39?  Everywhere one looks there are pundits opining on these and similar topics.

But in between the high flyers, franchises with fans already making plans for the playoffs, and the cellar dwellers, clubs whose faithful are learning to accept that this season is a lost cause, lies the vast middle class of MLB.  Going into Thursday’s play, there were eleven teams with records no more than seven games above or below .500.  That mark is important for two reasons.  First, because a single weeklong winning or losing streak can restore to respectability a team on the bottom of that range or send one on its upper end crashing back to earth.  Second, because the expansion of the playoff field to twelve teams, with three Wild Card entrants from each league, means that any record with more wins than losses will give a club an excellent chance of making the postseason.  If today’s standings were the basis for determining the playoff field, only two such teams, the National League’s Cardinals and Giants, would be left out of the postseason tournament.  And as plenty of clubs have shown, including Washington, a Wild Card in 2019, and current defending champion Atlanta, the lowest 2020 seed based on regular season records, once the short series of the playoffs begin, anything can happen. 

All of which means fans of each of those eleven clubs – more than one-third of MLB’s franchises – have plenty of reason to hope.  For some teams, those that have done a bit better than expected so far, such optimism surely counts as a bonus.  But for others, squads that have failed to meet preseason predictions, those hopes take on a greater sense of urgency with each turn of the calendar.  Two teams the clearly fall into that latter category are the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels.   

This campaign began with huge expectations on Chicago’s South Side.  The White Sox ran away with the AL Central title last year, posting 93 wins to lap second place Cleveland by 13 games in the final standings.  A relatively young squad led by a 76-year-old manager in Tony LaRussa appeared overmatched against Houston in the ALDS, but Chicago was a popular preseason pick to repeat as Division champ and, with an added year of experience, make a deeper playoff run this autumn. 

So far though, this year has been a harsh reminder that Spring Training’s best laid plans seldom unfold exactly as drawn up.  Veteran right-hander Lance Lynn was expected to anchor the starting rotation after finishing third in the 2021 AL Cy Young voting and just missing enough innings pitched to qualify as the league leader in the ballpark-adjusted ERA+ stat.  Instead, he suffered a knee injury during this year’s abbreviated Spring Training and didn’t take the mound until the middle of last month.  Lynn is emblematic of this year’s White Sox, which rank fourth on the decidedly undesirable list of most contract dollars committed to players on the IL.  Injuries of course don’t account for some of LaRussa’s odd decision-making, highlighted by his order to intentionally walk Trea Turner only after the Dodger shortstop was down to his last strike in a game last month.  Max Muncy, the next man up for Los Angeles, promptly smashed a three-run homer, and L.A. went on to win 11-9.

That call along with Chicago’s underwater record of 39-41 have some fans screaming for LaRussa’s firing.  Given the manager’s close relationship with team owner Jerry Reinsdorf that seems unlikely, and besides, the schedule suggests that the most critical period of the franchise’s season is already upon it.  From last Monday through the team’s first series after the All-Star break, the White Sox play 19 straight games against AL Central opponents.  The Twins or Guardians, the two teams Chicago trails in the standings, are the opponent for all but four of those contests.  Before July is out the White Sox can be right back in the thick of the division race or facing very long odds of making the playoffs.

The road to respectability is longer for the Angels, which entered Thursday’s game against Baltimore at 38-45.  It has been a brutal fall for L.A., which peaked at 24-13 in the middle of May.  The Angels then dropped four straight, rallied for three consecutive wins, and then imploded, losing the next 14 games.  The futility cost veteran skipper Joe Maddon his job, but the elevation of Phil Nevin hasn’t really changed the team’s dynamic.  Since taking over on June 7, Nevin has seen L.A. go 11-16. 

With the immensely popular two-way star Shohei Ohtani and three-time AL MVP Mike Trout, the Angels command a fan base far beyond the club’s aging home ballpark in Anaheim.  The team’s fast start thus fueled widespread hopes that for just the second time in Trout’s career, and the first since Ohtani joined the team in 2018, L.A. would make the playoffs.  Now that thought seems almost silly, with Fangraphs giving the Angels just an 11% chance of playing in the postseason.  Losing the left side of the infield to injury has hurt – third baseman Anthony Rendon is out for the year after wrist surgery and shortstop David Fletcher is in the middle of at least a six-week absence due to a hip injury – but poor pitching has hurt L.A. the most.  Other than Ohtani, the starters rank among the AL’s worst, and after some impressive early showings the bullpen has regressed badly.  The Angels pitching woes are embodied in Reid Detmers’ season.  The left-hander threw a no-hitter on May 10, but then pitched so badly in his next several starts that he was briefly demoted to Triple-A.

L.A. has a lot of teams to pass to get back in the Wild Card conversation, but the schedule does give the Angels a number of head-to-head matchups against some of those squads, especially in the first weeks after the All-Star Game.  The flame of hope may be flickering out in Anaheim, but it hasn’t been extinguished quite yet.

The history of the Great Game is filled with stories of teams that rallied from miserable starts to storm through the summer months, turning what looked to be lost campaigns into seasons of joy.  So in Chicago and L.A., and in all the other cities with teams on the edges of the American and National League playoff races, hope, the constant currency of the longest season, is still alive.  Still, the pressure increases with each turn of the calendar. As Yogi Berra said when asked about the challenges of tracking fly balls through the lengthening afternoon shadows in left field at the old Yankee Stadium, “it gets late early out there.”

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