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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2008

What to watch for in second half from A to Z

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Is there anything more clich than an A-to-Z column?

Well, you win some, you lose some.

Since Batting Around has yet to ring that particular bell, here's an A-to-Zer on the names, teams and themes to watch in baseball's second half.

Enjoy.

Albert Pujols scares me with his talent. Alex Rodriguez has the same kind of game. But Madonna, A-Rod? Really?

Barry Bonds probably won't play this season. Though a likely steroid user, a clubhouse cancer, and certainly accused of perjury, it's still hard to imagine someone couldn't use his bat in their lineup. He had 28 homers, 66 RBIs and a .565 slugging percentage last year, but clubs don't seem willing to take a chance on him.

Chicago vs. Chicago in the World Series? Entering play Friday, the Cubs were 57-38, tied for the best record in baseball. The White Sox led the American League Central by 1 1/2 games over Minnesota and 6 1/2 over the Tigers. The Cubs look like the National League's favorite. The Sox the Tigers hope they have something to say about them.

Dontrelle Willis is still working through his control issues at Single-A Lakeland. Considering he signed a three-year, $29 million contract extension this offseason, the Tigers would like to see him return to major league status. He'd probably be in favor of that, too.

Edgar Renteria has a lot to play for. The Tigers have an $11 million option on him for next season. He was batting a disappointing .258 through Thursday, which would be a career low if it continues. Meanwhile, Jair Jurrjens, one of two players traded to the Braves to acquire Renteria, was 9-4 with a 3.00 ERA as a member of Atlanta's rotation before last night's start.

Fair or foul? Home run or not? Can't figure it out? Sounds like baseball will have instant replay in place to clear up some of those issues - maybe by the start of this year's playoffs.

Grady Sizemore is worth watching even when the Indians stink. He's trying to become the second Cleveland Indian ever to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season and the first to lead the AL in homers since Albert Belle hit 50 in 1995.

Hanley Ramirez and the Florida Marlins continue to impress. Ramirez, an all-star shortstop, was batting .311 with 23 homers and 45 RBIs entering the weekend. The Fish were only 1 1/2 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East.

Ian Kinsler is the best Texas Ranger you haven't heard of. How do a .337 average, 14 homers and 58 RBIs sound?

Josh Hamilton is the best Texas Ranger you have heard of. Incredible comeback against a battle with drugs, a bunch of tattoos, and 28 homers in his opening round at the Home Run Derby. Too bad the Rangers play in the Los Angeles Angels' division.

K-Rod, or Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, entered the break on pace to set the major league record for saves. He had 38 entering play Friday. The record is 57, set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990.

La Russa, Los Angeles, LaPorta. Can Cardinals manager Tony La Russa keep underrated St. Louis charging toward the playoffs? Will the Dodgers overcome a sluggish start in manager Joe Torre's first season? Will Matt LaPorta, traded to the Indians in exchange for CC Sabathia, reach Cleveland from Double-A Akron in September? For now, LaPorta is headed for the Olympics.

Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Marcus Thames. They had combined for 46 of the Tigers' homers through Friday. Detroit will need more of the same from them to contend.

New York, New York. The Yankees are trying to get healthy, could pull a trade, and still have some ridiculous talent. The Mets started really slow, fired Willie Randolph, and are all of a sudden neck and neck with Philadelphia.

Overrated were the Indians and the Tigers. Cleveland, the AL Central's reigning champ, is way out of it, despite being picked by some to repeat and go to the World Series. The Tigers, with their $139 million payroll, were supposed to win 100 games and score 1,000 runs. They won't accomplish either, but they could make the playoffs. If not, they're a flop.

Pronk, calling Pronk. Travis Hafner is out with an injured shoulder. He's hit 28 homers the last two seasons, but only four this year. He hit at least 28 homers a year from 2004-06. The Indians need "Pronk" to get back to his old form by next season.

Quentin, as in the White Sox's Carlos Quentin, is a reason Chicago shocked everyone in the first half. The left fielder had 22 homers and 70 RBIs at the All-Star break.

Red Sox Nation is fretting over the Tampa Bay Rays, but perhaps it should be at ease. Manny's having a solid season, J.D. Drew has emerged and David Ortiz is getting healthy.

Should the Tigers stick with Gary Sheffield? Was the batting tip he received from Tigers manager Jim Leyland, which led to a homer Thursday night, enough to wake him from a season-long slump? Or will he continue to be a hole in Detroit's lineup.

Tampa Bay won its 56th game Friday night. How many will it take for the Rays to finish their run as baseball's brightest surprise and make the playoffs as a division or wild card winner?

Upton brothers B.J. (Tampa Bay) and Justin (Arizona) could meet in the World Series. Anyone put any money on those odds in Vegas around March 31?

Virgil Vasquez. Virgil is a starting pitcher for the Mud Hens. The Hens are trying to win their division for the fourth straight season. Their top hitters keep getting called up to Detroit, and two of their other really good players - Mike Hessman and Blaine Neal - are Olympics-bound. If Toledo is to reach the postseason again, its starting pitchers will play a key role.

Winning all three of next weekend's games against the White Sox is almost a must for the Tigers. It's not an end-all, but time is running out for Detroit to make up ground.

X-ray machines all over the U.S. have been working overtime because of the Tigers' injuries. Contending also depends on Detroit's top players remaining healthy - which would be something new.

Yankee Stadium is closing its doors for good after this season - its 85th as the Bronx Bombers' home park. Was the All-Star game - a classic, by the way - the last meaningful game on those hallowed grounds?

Zach Miner is going to be the Tigers' starting pitcher tomorrow night. This is not what Detroit had in mind when acquiring Willis.



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