Almost a third of the 162-game baseball season is complete, with each team having reached the 50-game plateau.  Here’s a list of five story lines to follow as MLB teams get into full summer-time swing, contenders rise and pretenders fall.

 

“Real Deal” Holyfields? Or Jock Teasers?

The Pirates are the kings of futility in MLB over the last 20 years. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a winning season since 1992, when Barry Bonds was catching pre-steroids wreck and they won 96 games.

No other major US professional sports team boasts a better track record of ineptitude. This season things are different. Pittsburgh is 31-20 and in the thick of the NL Central race, just 2.5 games behind the Cardinals.  

In an April Shadow League article, we wrote about the positive energy and winning attitude outfielder Andrew “Ice” McCutchen and manager Clint Hurdle have brought to team.

“McCutchen’s rise to elite status coincides with the arrival of manager Clint Hurdle in ‘11 and GM Neal Huntington’s savvy in transforming the Pirates into buyers instead of sellers, while sticking to the philosophy of developing the farm system.

Under “Big Clint”, the Pirates have increased their win total each season from 57 wins in ’10 to 72 wins in ’11 and 79 last season. In fact, the Pirates have been amongst division leaders and had a winning record at the midway point the past two seasons.”

Is this just another early-season Pirates tease?  Or is Pittsburgh back in the mix for real?

 

Coming for That No. 1 Spot!

When the Washington Nationals met the Baltimore Orioles in interleague play on Monday, it was supposed to be a matchup featuring two of MLB’s rising young superstars—outfielder Bryce Harper, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 MLB Draft against third baseman Manny Machado, the No. 3 pick.

While Harper was on the pine hampered by bursitis in his left knee, Machado seized the moment going 3-for-5 with a run scored, a stolen base and his MLB-leading 23rd double.

Harper began his career with all of the hype, but since emerging in the Orioles everyday lineup last season, Machado has elevated to equal footing with the Nats celebrity basher.

Machado’s 75 hits tie him with Miguel Cabrera for the MLB lead. The five-tool infielder from Miami also holds the record for most hits before the start of June for a player under the age of 21, surpassing the incomparable Ken Griffey Jr. (66 hits in 1990).

If Machado continue his seamless transition to MLB play, then Harper and Mike Trout beware. This cat is playing on a championship caliber team, snatching titles and challenging idols. 

 

Back in the Driver’s Seat

Tigers ace Justin Verlander has been a heat slinging, CY Young monster the past few seasons. The term “shutdown” starter was tailor-made for him. This season has been more up-and-down than normal for the usually-consistent ace

Verlander’s vintage 13-K performance means he’s bounced back from his worst starts of the season (including one in which the Rangers ripped him for eight runs and six hits in just 2 2/3 innings). Since that game he’s won his last two starts to improve to 6-4.

Despite Verlander’s early-season kinks, Detroit has assumed first-place in the AL Central and moving forward, look to put surprising Cleveland, further in its rear view as Verlander rounds into shape.

The Tigers are starving to correct last season’s World Series blunder and they’re going to need the Verlander who went 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA in his first seven starts. Not the one who's given up 16 runs in his last 14 innings.

 

Guess Who’s Back?

The MLB doctor’s have taken the LA Angels off of life support.

On May 6 they had an 11-20 record and the bottom was falling out fast. Since then, they’ve gone 12-8 and sit just 5.5 out of the wild card race.

Arte Moreno didn’t panic and fire Mike Scioscia because his high-priced vets weren’t cutting the mustard. He chilled and let his money work for him. Now the tide is turning a bit.  

Josh Hamilton’s still hitting .222 and Albert Pujols is hitting just .254, but Mike Trout is back to his all-star self.

With ace Jered Weaver set to return from a fractured elbow in June—if these rich geezers can put up some numbers—what was once a lost season may be salvageable after all.

 

Time to Turn it UP

The Upton Brothers came to Atlanta with much fan fare. The prospect of teaming the multi-tooled bro’s with Justin Heyward and creating “The Soul Patrol”— Atlanta’s first all-black outfield since its ‘90s title days — even had Hank Aaron hyped.  

The talent infusion has helped, as evidenced by Atlanta’s NL East-leading 30-20 record, but Justin Upton is the only “Soul Patrol” member that has flashed the brilliance fans were hoping to see. Hewyard has only played in 26 games, has two homers and just eight RBIs. He has injury as an excuse for his lack of productivity. B.J. Upton has been mired in a nightmare, batting just .148 and has looked lost for the majority of the season.

For Atlanta to remain a “Beast of the East” and go for a World Series title, B.J. will have to snap out it and have a hell of a last 100 games.