Tony La Russa "apologized" for his All-Star game blunder, but it still didn't make any sense. What he said was that he should have hit Pujols for Rowand "because it's an exhibition, and that's what the fans wanted to see" (paraphrasing). But the implication there is that, if it had been a regular-seasn game, he would have done exactly what he did, which was leave the best hitter in baseball on the bench while a career league-average hitter makes the third out with the bases loaded. There were four times that inning when Pujols should have batted, in my opinion; first, he should have hit for the pitcher instead of Dimitri Young; second, he probably should have batted for Derrek Lee (this one is debatable, though, because Lee is almost as good as Pujols and this would have limited the NL's flexibility); third, he should have hit for Orlando Hudson; and finally, he absolutely had to hit for Rowand. I think Deadspin had the best take on the game: "As tends to be the case with La Russa anymore, he's so busy thinking about how he's three steps ahead of everyone else that he walks smack dab into a pole."
One more note from the All-Star game - I still haven't gotten an answer as to what was up with Billy Wagner. Wagner's fastball usually touches triple digits, enabling him to post a ridiculous 11.95 K/9 for his career. But on Tuesday, his fastball was at just 95, including the one that V-Mart took deep for the eventual game-winning homer. When I get a chance, I'll look through his recent outings and see if this is a problem for Wagner or if he just wasn't using his best stuff.
All that said, let's preview the division and wild card races for the second half of the year:
AL East: Look, the Red Sox have this won, so there's no use wasting any more time on that. They're 20 games above .500, and their run differential backs it up, so there's no reason to expect their performance to change. Plus, they've had a couple people performing below expectations (I'm looking at you, Coco Crisp and Julio Lugo), so it's not like all their players are having career years. There's just no way the Sox lose the division, unless an asteroid levels the team jet sometime in August. Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay are all below .500, and they all suck; no need to waste more words there. The Yankees are the really interesting case. I'm anything but a Yankee fan, but the Yankees are far from done, despite what many people would like you to believe. I don't really care about their history; when I look at that team, I see a team that's been really, really unlucky. Their record is just .500, but their run differential is that of a 50-36 team. Plus, they've suffered tons of injuries to their pitching staff and their outfield. I know the popular thing to do right now is to pile on the Yankees, but there's no reason they can't play at least .600 ball from here on out. That would put them at 90 wins, which still probably isn't enough. But give them a little luck, and they could definitely get to 93-95. The AL's really tough this year, with a lot of really good teams, and it's very possible that 95 wins is good enough for the WIld Card. And, if that isn't enough, the Yankees' first 28 games out of the break are all against teams currently below .500. Don't believe my random speculation? CoolStandings.com gives them a 17% chance of making the playoffs, and Baseball Prospectus puts the odds at 23%. Sure, those odds aren't great, but they're much better than most people would lead you to believe.
AL Central: Best division in baseball? Well, the bottom two teams are very bad (Chicago and KC), but Minnesota is a good team, and Cleveland and Detroit are two of the top three teams in baseball (see below). Ultimately, I don't think the Twins have a shot - they're already seven games back, and they just aren't good enough to overcome that deficit. Starting Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz instead of their more talented youngsters certainly hurt, but this team wasn't going to make the playoffs this year anyways. Morneau, Mauer, Hunter, and Cuddyer give them a solid middle of the lineup, but the rest of their position players aren't good at all. So this one is a two-horse race between the Indians and Tigers. The loser should still get the wild-card, but they will have to hold off the Yankees and possibly the Mariners, if they keep their pace up. I would expect both teams to make the playoffs. Detroit's run differential is much better (their 514 runs scored are easily the best in baseball, despite playing in a big park; the Indians are second, with 471, and the Yankees are in third with 463), but I'm really not sure their offense can keep this up - Magglio Ordonez is playing way over his head, Curtis Granderson hasn't proven he can keep this up for a full year and his high strikeout rate combined with his low walk rate is troubling, and a lot of their other players are aging veterans who may not be able to keep up their performance for a full season. Their pitching should contnue to be strong and maybe even better as Kenny Rogers returns, although I'm still not sold on Verlander staying healthy and strong for a full season, and I don't know that rookie Andrew Miller can succeed his second time through the majors. For some reason, I've really taken a liking to the Indians over the last couple years, so I find myself being a little biased here, but I'm taking the Tribe to win the division. This team is filled with offensive stars; Hafner has been playing below his potential, but is still getting on base 40% of the time, rady Sizemore and Victor Martinez are great, and the rest of the lineup is filled with solid hitters. C.C. Sabathia is one of the ten best pitchers in the game, Fausto Carmona has been a pleasant surprise, and the uncharitable Paul Byrd has been effective (six total walks this year). I'd be lying if I said I was confident in their bullpen, but the Tigers' pen has some problems, too. I do think the loser wins the Wild Card, though again I'm not counting the Yankees out.
AL West: This is the Angels all the way. Seattle's only two games back, so you certainly can't count them out, though they've been very lucky this year. They've barely scored more runs than they've allowed, and they've hit extremely well in the clutch (not typically a repeatable ability) also. You can make a good case that the Mariners will be in it to the end, but I'm not buying it. Oakland certainly has the potential to improve, but they're 9.5 games back, and the Angels aren't going anywhere. The Angels' pitching is solid, their lineup is solid, and their bullpen is the best in the game...it's hard to pinpoint any weaknesses here. I'm not sure I trust their bats enough to win three playoff series, but they're certainly among the elite teams in the game.
NL East: Unfortunately, the Mets haven't played as well as we thought they would before the season. Fortunately (for them), neither have the Braves or Phillies. The standings right now are oddly symmetrical; the Mets are 10 games above .500, the Braves are 5 games above .500, the Phillies are right at .500, the Marlins are five games below .500, but the Nationals ruin the trend by being 16 games below .500. I don't know...I still think the Mets win the division, but nothing would surprise me much. The Phillies are still only five games back despite the fact that their pitchers not named Cole Hamels have been terrible, but even though I would expect their pitching to get better, Jimmy Rollins and Aaron Rowand are playing significantly above their pre-2007 levels. I don't really know what to make of the Braves...if Andrew Jones and Brian McCann can turn things around, they'll certainly stay in contention, but I'm just not sure they have enough to contend (John Smoltz and Tim Hudson have had minor injury problems this year, too). The Braves will be right in the mix with the NL West teams for the wild-card, but I think they'll end up a couple games short.
NL Central: The Cardinals are done. Is everybody with me here? Because I've heard a couple people saying they're in contention, and they're not. They're 7.5 games back, Milwaukee isn't going to collapse, and they just don't have any great players other than Pujols, Carpenter (injured), and Chris Duncan (who mashes righties, but can't hit lefties). The Cubs and Brewers are the only playoff contenders in this division, and although the Cubs aren't bad, I fully expect the Brewers to take this division fairly easily. Their lineup's good, but their pitching's even better - Jeff Suppan has the highest ERA of anybody who's started a game, at 5.00. (By the way, can we stop calling the Brewers a "surprise"? Anyone who had a brainin their head knew the Brewers or maybe the Cubs were going to win the division at the start of the season). The Cubs' pitching has been incredibly surprising - Marquis, Lilly, Hill, and Zambrano all have ERAs in the threes - but I don't think they'll keep it up. The Astros have a nice nucleus (Oswalt, Pence, Lee, Berkman, Lidge) but don't have anything around it. The Pirates have to be pleased with the starting pitching they've gotten from Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, but that's not a good team. The Reds are going to end up wasting Ken Griffey's last years and Adam Dunn's prime years, as they're not a good team now and they've got nothing in the farm system besides Jay Bruce.
NL West: The toughest of the six divisions. The Padres have to be the favorite, seeing as they've given up just 298 runs, more than fifty fewer than anybody else in baseball (a somewhat deceiving figure, as they play their home games in spacious PETCO Park, but their pitching is great nonetheless), and their lineup is solid if not spectacular. The Dodgers are just a game back, and they're finally starting to give playing time to their youngsters, such as Matt Kemp and James Loney, something they should have done in April. The Diamondbacks have possibly even more young talent, although most of them haven't played particularly well thus far; they're still in the hunt at 3.5 games back, though. And you can't yet count out the Rockies, 5.5 games back. I'm taking the Padres to win the division and the D-Backs to win the Wild Card, but nothing would really surprise me in the NL.
Power Rankings (sort of):
There's really no reason to do power rankings 1-30, because they would have no purpose. But I'll give you my view of the teams in playoff contention in groups, because there's not much separating each team within each group.
Group 1: Boston, Detroit, Cleveland
These are the three best teams in baseball, in my mind. All three teams have great hitting and great pitching. If I had to order them, I'd probably go Boston-Cleveland-Detroit, but it's really close. No major flaws on any of the teams, though Detroit and Cleveland could use a little bullpen help.
Group 2: Anaheim
Or whatever they want to be called, anyways. I just don't think they're quite at the level of the first three teams; their bullpen is excellent, but their pitching is somewhat inconsistent and I'm not 100% sold on their offense.
Group 3: New York Mets, Milwaukee, San Diego, New York Yankees
Hello, NL! No, I didn't forget about you...you're just not as good as the AL is, at least at the top. I think all three of the NL teams are pretty much even...I'll probably go SD-Mil-NY, but there's not a meaningful difference between the three teams. And go ahead and ridicule me for putting the Yankees here if you want...but are you telling me you'd really take one of the lower teams in a series over the Yankees? If you do, you're crazy.
Group 4: Minnesota, Atlanta, Arizona, Los Angeles
The Twins don't have a chance at contending in the loaded AL, but they'd be a good team in the NL. Atlanta, Arizona, and LA will be fighting for the wild card, and any of them could win it. Chicago probably could belong in this group as well; I'm just not sold at all on their pitching, and they're not a good defensive club.