Five MLB storylines to follow in second half of season after Rangers rout Astros

By Sports Desk July 11, 2019

MLB eased into the second half of the season as the Texas Rangers shut out the Houston Astros 5-0 in the lone game of the day.

The second half begins about a week earlier than normal this year as the All-Star break was moved up this season, so there is still plenty of baseball left to be played.

With a lot of baseball comes a lot of storylines and we put together five for you to watch in the second half of the campaign.


Will the Indians catch the Twins

It seems like an odd question to ask, especially considering how good the Minnesota Twins have been in the first half of the season and how seemingly mediocre the Cleveland Indians have been, but the storyline has flipped on its head as of late. The Indians sit five-and-a-half games back of Minnesota for top spot in the American League Central as of Thursday.

That may seem like a big lead but considering the fact the Twins led the division by more than 10 games at several points this term, that is a dangerous and a gettable number for the Indians. And, Cleveland are close to getting Corey Kluber back, Mike Clevinger is returning to form and Trevor Bauer has been more consistent of late. If Jose Ramirez figures it out, that may be all the Indians need to take this division back.

Who will win the wild-card race in the American League?

Unlike in the National League, this race matters. Any of the main teams fighting over the two wild-card spots in the American League (Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, Indians, Boston Red Sox and Rangers) could win the World Series. OK, the Rangers are a bit of a stretch, but with that line-up and Lance Lynn and Mike Minor atop that rotation, they could certainly win a playoff series.

But in all honesty, while the Los Angeles Dodgers boast the best record in baseball, the argument could be made the next six best teams are in the AL. The Yankees are awesome, the Astros are great, the Indians still have a great rotation, the A's are pesky, the Rays horrify everyone and the Red Sox are the defending champions. The AL's best are great this year, and you can bet the current division leaders are watching the wild-card race closely to see who reaches the playoffs.

Can any team keep the Dodgers from getting to the World Series?

While the Dodgers' record could be dissected a bit (they are 23-20 on the road, Hyun-Jin Ryu is out pitching his peripherals, Clayton Kershaw is not the Cy Young winner of old and the bullpen is suspect) they are the best team in the NL. There is little disputing that.

And, apart from Los Angeles, the rest of the National League is wallowing in mediocrity as only the Atlanta Braves have more than 50 wins (there are six in the AL) and after that the next best team is five games over .500 (Nationals, 47-42). There is not exactly a lot of teams that suggest they could keep the Dodgers from getting back to the World Series for the third year in a row. Maybe the Braves could do it, but they have had to demote one of last year's All-Stars in Mike Foltynewicz and they are awfully young across the board.

There are very few teams who look like they can beat the Dodgers right now, and if we were betting, we would not put money on any of them to get past Los Angeles.

How many more home runs will Verlander give up?

Justin Verlander has been fantastic for the Astros this season holding opponents to a .168 batting average against (a career best) while allowing just 107 batters to reach base in 126.6 innings pitched.

But, the Cy Young winner has been destroyed by the long ball this year. Of the 76 hits he has allowed this season, 26 have been home runs. That is four shy of the most he has ever allowed in his career in a single season. He complained that MLB has been changing the ball to force more offense into the game this season and the homer is clearly on his mind.

Will he adjust in the second half and limit the long ball? We will find out.

Will the Mets sell?

The New York Mets are once again in an odd position of limbo as they are seven games back of the second wild-card spot, still seemingly have a solid roster that could go on a run and not a very good farm system. All of that puts them in a weird "do we sell or do we not?" position they seem to be in every year. But if the Mets do decide to sell, and we mean seriously sell, that could have an impact on the playoff races across the board.

The main factor here is Noah Syndergaard. If the Mets decide to trade him, he is instantly the best pitcher available on the market. Yes, he has not been good this season and might not be the player he was when he pitched in the World Series, but not a single pitcher has his talent and stuff and with his two years of control and ripe young age of 26, he is a highly valuable commodity. Whoever acquire him have an instant jolt to their roster. Again, if they decide to move him.

This is a big if. The Mets could very well decide to hold onto Syndergaard and they could hold onto Zack Wheeler, as well, if they so please. But if New York trade either player — or even more seriously, they trade both — the playoff race will be impacted, like Verlander to the Astros in 2017 when he helped them in their first World Series. So, this is something that has to be watched down the stretch.

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  • Rugby Championship: How the four nations measure up ahead of 2019 tournament Rugby Championship: How the four nations measure up ahead of 2019 tournament

    The Rugby Championship begins this weekend, with the four nations keen to find form ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan.

    New Zealand have won the tournament in each of the past three years and the All Blacks are favourites to once again finish above Australia, Argentina and South Africa.

    We run the rule over the quartet ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship, where teams will only face each other once in a World Cup year.


    The All Blacks are chasing more than just a fourth successive title and third consecutive World Cup in the coming months, with a slice of history also on the line. No team has ever won the Rugby Championship - or the Tri-Nations, as it was previously known - and also lifted that year's World Cup.

    New Zealand were beaten by South Africa in Wellington during last year's Rugby Championship - the first time in nine years the Springboks had won an away game against the All Blacks - while a 16-9 defeat to Ireland in November will have given the rest of the rugby world further encouragement.

    Sonny Bill Williams, who will not feature against Argentina on Saturday, has had an injury-hit Super Rugby season and Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will be rested for the Pumas clash. However, this is a star-studded team regardless - one that contains 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett - and they remain the gold standard.


    The Springboks were runners-up last year and might have finished top of the pile had they not thrown away a 30-13 lead against New Zealand in Pretoria after beating them in their own backyard. They ended the year with seven wins from 14 games so consistency will be the key.

    A home Test series success over England was a sign South Africa could be a team to fear under Rassie Erasmus, whose decision to relax the rules on selecting European-based players has paid dividends.

    Fly-half Handre Pollard was brilliant during the Super Rugby season, finishing as the league's leading point scorer, though he will be rested against the Wallabies in the opener and Aphiwe Dyantyi is sidelined by a hamstring problem.


    The Wallabies endured a horrendous 2018, losing nine of their 13 Tests. They suffered three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and were beaten by both Argentina and South Africa.

    Australia slipped to their lowest-ever ranking of seventh following their first loss to the Pumas on home soil since 1983 and then lost two of their three November internationals, against Wales and England. They have not played a game in 2019 but former star full-back Israel Folau has already been making headlines, having been sacked by Rugby Australia following a controversial social-media post in which he wrote "hell awaits…drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

    Coach Michael Cheika, who has left Quade Cooper out of his squad, made clear he will walk away if Australia do not lift the World Cup in Japan, so this competition should give an indication to his long-term future. Cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano could make his first appearance in three years at this tournament, though he will miss the South Africa clash with a shoulder problem.


    The Pumas' 2018 did not start well - two home defeats to Wales preceding a 44-15 thrashing at the hands of Scotland in Resistencia - and coach Daniel Hourcade vacated his post, replaced by Mario Ledesma.

    Having never won more than once in a single Rugby Championship campaign before, Argentina claimed two victories in 2018 by overcoming South Africa 32-19 in Mendoza and then beating the Wallabies on Australian soil, but they were winless in November Tests against Ireland, France and Scotland.

    The Jaguares, who provide the bulk of this Argentina squad, reached their first ever Super Rugby final this year, only to be beaten by the Crusaders, but translating that club success on the international stage is an altogether different challenge.

  • Astros look set for playoffs but still desperately need a starter Astros look set for playoffs but still desperately need a starter

    The Houston Astros reminded everyone why they are the best team in the American League (AL) West, beating the Los Angeles Angels again in MLB.

    Houston dropped the Angels 6-2 on the road on Thursday to win their second straight game over Los Angeles, forcing a split in a four-game series.

    The Astros outscored LA 17-4 in those two games.

    The Astros got a much-needed win when the Oakland Athletics lost, stretching their lead to 5.5 games in the West. It also made a point both for the good and bad. The Astros are the best team in MLB when their top three pitchers (Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley) are on the mound, but they also need desperate help at the back end of their rotation.

    Houston are 42-19 (.688 winning percentage) when those three are on the bump this year (Miley got the win on Thursday). That would be the best winning percentage in MLB. Without them, however, they are 19-19. That could be good enough to earn a wildcard spot in the National League (NL), but in the AL, it absolutely is not. So, Houston's top priority will be going after a pitcher at the deadline.

    Who have the Astros been linked to? Just about everyone from Noah Syndergaard to Robbie Ray to Matthew Boyd to Madison Bumgarner. They could also be eyeing some under-the-radar players like Caleb Smith of the Miami Marlins.

    The Astros have to add and the past 20 games are a perfect example why. Houston are 11-2 with their top three on the mound and 2-5 in the others. In that time, the Athletics have cut significantly into Houston's lead atop the division. In this series against the Angels, the Astros went 0-2 with all other pitchers and 2-0 with Cole and Miley.


    Splendid Strasburg

    Stephen Strasburg was good on the mound in the Washington Nationals' 13-4 win over the Atlanta Braves as he tossed 5.1 innings while allowing three earned runs. He also went three for three at the plate with a three-run homer and five RBIs.

    Chris Sale struck out 12 in six scoreless innings while allowing two hits in a 5-0 Boston Red Sox win over the Toronto Blue Jays.


    Goldschmidt goes hitless

    Paul Goldschmidt went 0 for four with four strikeouts but the St Louis Cardinals did come away with a 7-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds.


    Cain's catch

    Lorenzo Cain made a difficult catch look remarkably easy.

    Thursday's results

    Miami Marlins 4-3 San Diego Padres
    Philadelphia Phillies 7-6 Los Angeles Dodgers
    Boston Red Sox 5-0 Toronto Blue Jays
    Kansas City Royals 6-5 Chicago White Sox
    New York Yankees 6-2 Tampa Bay Rays
    New York Yankees 5-1 Tampa Bay Rays
    St Louis Cardinals 7-4 Cincinnati Reds
    Cleveland Indians 6-3 Detroit Tigers
    Washington Nationals 13-4 Atlanta Braves
    Minnesota Twins 6-3 Oakland Athletics
    Houston Astros 6-2 Los Angeles Angels
    Milwaukee Brewers 5-1 Arizona Diamondbacks
    San Francisco Giants 3-2 New York Mets


    Athletics at Twins

    This is an important game for several reasons. The Indians are charging hard at the Twins in the AL Central and the Athletics are not only trying to keep pace with the Astros, but they are also in the middle of a heated wildcard race. Every single game matters from here on out.

  • Smith doesn't want to be traded by Mets Smith doesn't want to be traded by Mets

    Dominic Smith does not want to leave the New York Mets.

    The 24-year-old's name has begun to surface in trade rumours because he is behind star Pete Alonso at first base on the Mets' depth chart.

    But, Smith said he hopes he is not moved.

    "I don't pay too much attention to stuff I can't control," Smith told reporters. "I know baseball is a business at the end of the day. It's just how the game is. I love New York. I only want to play for the Mets. This is all I know.

    "This is home for me and my family. I love it here and I'm just trying to establish myself and just get better every day."

    Smith is having a breakout season for New York as he is slashing .294/.376/.536 with nine home runs and 18 RBIs in 81 games. The team have even started to play him in left field in order to get him more at-bats.

    Mets manager Mickey Callaway praised Smith when he spoke with reporters after a 14-4 win over the Minnesota Twins.

    "Offensively, we knew he was capable of this," Callaway said, via Newsday. "You could see the sweet swing, the plate discipline, his ability to go the other way, his ability to pull the ball. I think his ability to move around and play multiple positions and do it pretty well is the surprising part and the thing that we're kind of proud of right now."

    The Mets are expected to be sellers before the July 31 trade deadline and they are reportedly exploring moving Zack Wheeler, Jason Vargas and Todd Frazier, among others.

    New York, however, entered play on Thursday on a four-game winning streak and just five games out of the second wildcard spot with a 44-51 record.

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