I suppose you have to be a real fan to appreciate this year’s baseball season but it has to rank as one of the most interesting first-half seasons in a long time. At the All-Star  break, which is actually a little more than half a season in terms of the games played, the leaders in the National League (NL) were not the favorites coming into the season. And in the American League (AL) two of the leaders were not the favorites. And one of the more amazing things about this season has been that pitching is back and I mean really good pitching. Two perfect games and one no-hitter, plus another perfect game lost to a blown call by a very good umpire who just messed up. As a lifelong fan I love it. Great defense and good pitching wins ball games and the real drama of the game is back without the taint of drugs and drug-juiced home run hitters. “Chicks may dig the long ball,” as the corny ESPN ad put it, but real fans dig great pitching!

In the NL the San Diego Padres have to be the great surprise. Who would have thought they would be in first place in mid-July? I think either the Rockies or Dodgers will pass them but then they have the Pads best bullpen in the league. Then there are the Cincinnati Reds. Dusty Baker is justly criticized at times but he can motivate and manage a team and keep the respect of his players. But, the Cardinals should overtake them given their big pitching talent with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and the big bat of a slugger like Albert Pujols, who had a mediocre first-half and is due to break out big time. (Pujols is another big-time good guy and a Christian!)

bobby-cox Then there are the Atlanta Braves, the team that remains first in my heart since 1957. I thought they would compete for a wild card this year (if everything went right) but they are exceeding my expectations. Is the fact that this is Bobby Cox’s final season the reason? Of course it helps but pitching again is huge. Tim Hudson is as good as he was in Oakland. Jair Jurrjens is a young ace and back from a bad injury and showing his old form. Kris Medlen is a rising young star coming out of nowhere who just starts games that his team always wins. Tommy Hanson has already proven, with one full year in the game this last month, that he can dominate in big games. Throw in the veteran Derek Lowe as a fifth-starter and this is a good, if not the very best, rotation in baseball, at least top-to-bottom. (The best single starters in the NL are, in no order here, Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum and Mat Latos but Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens are not that far behind!) And the Braves’ pen is solid as can be with Billy Wagner looking like the guy who once dominated this part of the game in what is his 

One thing I love about the Braves as an organization is that they will not put up with players who have talent but who lack a clubhouse presence and who do not go 110% on the field. They proved it again last week when traded the more talented Yunel Escobar for the older Alex Gonzalez at shortstop. Insiders know why this was a good trade even if Escobar has the bigger upside in age (six years younger) and talent (he is loaded with talent) to Gonzalez. I would love to see Bobby Cox win in his final year but I admit I am more than a little biased. The Phillies still scare me when they get everyone back but why did they let go of Cliff Lee in the off-season?

In the AL the Yankees are still the team to beat in the East. Joe Girardi knows how to manage and the Bronx Bombers can still hit. But will their pitching (both starters and pen) hold up? Will A.J. Burnett get it together? Will Mariano Rivera still be the best closer in baseball history? They are not a lock. The wild card winner is likely to come from the AL East, being either Boston or Tampa. Odds are Red Sox win but the Rays are a solid team with some big time talent. Too bad they play in a less than impressive park.

In the AL West Texas only got better by acquiring Cliff Lee days ago. They would be my favorite sleeper to upset the Yankees and win their first ever AL pennant. (Why did Atlanta let them have Elvis Andrus at short?) I hope it happens. I think they are a lock to win the AL West division. And Josh Hamilton provides a great story for Christians who celebrate redemption and family.

In the AL Central the Chicago White Sox (my favorite AL team) are in first place after being something like 10 games out just six weeks ago. 25-5 in a 30 game stretch! Utterly amazing. Even without Jake Peavy I think they can still win this division. And they have the pitching to compete in the post-season. (Remember 2005 if you wonder about this one. Pitching carried them to win 12 of 13 post-season games and the World Series!) The Twins are good but losing Joe Nathan will tell down the stretch. And the Tigers are likely to challenge the White Sox but pitching is still going to make the difference I believe. “You can put it on the board, yes.” (A favorite line of Hawk Harrelson, the Chicago TV announcer.)

So who meets in the World Series? The Yankees and the Braves! I will hold off on my prediction of a winner until we get there but it will be fun. And thanks to Brian McCann Atlanta has home field in the World Series if they can get there. Fitting justice, in my view, for as good a young catcher as we’ve had in some years. He is truly a guy who flies under the media radar even though he has made five All-Star games in his first five years! McCann is a humble guy and, as his teammates said in the All-Star game, he can “flat out rake.” Go Bravos!