In season of surprises, Nationals are capital

July 14, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

Chad Cordero sensed it much earlier than most fans and so- called experts.

The Washington Nationals" closer said he knew this was going to be a great season in the nation's capital when his team started with nine road games against three division rivals - and escaped with a 5-4 record.

"That's when we realized we were going to be a lot better, after that first road trip." Cordero said.

Maybe it was just youthful naivete, but the 23-year-old All- Star closer was right. The Nationals" turnaround in their first season in Washington was clearly the best overall story of baseball's first half.

At the 2004 midseason break, the old Montreal Expos had baseball's second-worst record. As of today, the Nationals (52-36) are in first place in the rough National League East and tied for the game's third-best overall mark.

"We don't think it's a fluke." Cordero said. "We"ve got a lot of good players and we"ve got a lot of veteran guys who help out the younger players and keep us loose and keep us focused."

The upstart Nationals may be the current darlings of the sport, but there are plenty of compelling story lines heading into the second half. Like the Chicago White Sox, a team predicted by most to finish second or lower in the American League Central.

With a high-energy manager in Ozzie Guillen, the hard-charging, fleet-footed White Sox (57-29) took a .663 winning percentage and nine-game lead into the All-Star break. It was the highest midpoint winning percentage since the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won an AL- record 116 games that year.

Chicago's domination has relegated the Minnesota Twins (48-38) to the AL wild-card leader role.

Perhaps the biggest shock this season has been the amazing inconsistency of the New York Yankees (46-40) and their $200 million payroll. The Bronx Bombers have had four streaks of four wins or more and four streaks of four losses or more in the first half.

They are sitting in an unfamiliar third place, but only half a game behind the surprising Orioles (47-40) and 2M-= games back of the defending world champion Boston Red Sox (49-38). The Toronto Blue Jays (44-44) are also lurking in the shadows, trailing the Red Sox by 5M-= games.

"I don't think anybody is going to run away with it." said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "I don't think there is going to be a 10- or 12-game lead anytime soon. That's for sure. There are too many good teams [in the AL East], so I would highly doubt it, but who knows?'

The Nationals are the only other division leader with a padding of fewer than five games. In fact, in the National League East all five teams are at .500 or better. Only eight games separate worst from first.

"Everyone in the division has a chance to win it." said Florida Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis. "It's just a matter of who wants it more."

The Atlanta Braves (50-39), who are 2M-= games behind the Nationals, are pushing for their 14th straight division title and should be helped soon by the return of injured stars Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones and Mike Hampton.

Besides the White Sox, the team in the best position to hit cruise control into the playoffs is the 2004 National League champion St. Louis Cardinals (56-32), who hold an 11M-=-game lead over the surging Houston Astros. After a terrible start, the Astros (44-43) have recently emerged as an NL wild-card contender - battling with the rival Chicago Cubs (43-44) and whoever finishes second in the NL East.

San Diego (48-41) and the Los Angeles Angels (52-36) each have at least a five-game cushion in their respective divisions and are expected to hold on.

Yet history isn't totally on their sides. Since 2001, only 17 of 32 teams that were leading their division or the wild-card race at the All-Star break made the postseason. And with the non-waiver trading deadline looming in less than three weeks, plenty of teams could be reconfigured. Early rumors suggest that big-name pitchers such as Houston's Roger Clemens, San Francisco's Jason Schmidt and Oakland's Barry Zito might be available in the right deal.

Now, however, it's unlikely those aces will be dealt. Instead the players most likely to change addresses include Florida starter A.J. Burnett, Colorado outfielder Preston Wilson, Tampa Bay slugger Aubrey Huff and its closer Danys Baez.

The White Sox and Orioles would like to add a solid starter, the Red Sox and Yankees need to bolster their bullpens and the Dodgers and Padres want another potent bat. As for the Nationals, their general manager Jim Bowden always dives headfirst into the trade market, looking to refine his club any way he can.

"He's definitely going to make some kind of move." Cordero said. 'We are not sure whether he is going to go out and get pitching or hitting. We all know something is going to happen. ... It's just a matter of when, and who we are going to pick up."

Even if it is a slow trade market, there will be some stars making noise in the second half, starting with the Orioles" Rafael Palmeiro.

The 40-year-old first baseman needs just two hits to become the fourth player in history to have 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

Others worth watching: Chicago first baseman Derrek Lee, who leads the NL in batting average, is second in RBIs and is tied with Atlanta's Andruw Jones for the home run lead. He's attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Plus there is Boston's Curt Schilling, who is returning from an ankle injury and will pitch in relief when he comes back. Will it be temporary or could he seize the closer's role?

And, of course, San Francisco's Barry Bonds, whose return from knee surgery would be the game's biggest story - with apologies to the Nationals and the White Sox. He is just 12 homers from passing Babe Ruth for second on the all- time list, but he's still not ready to play.

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