Breakthrough youngsters, surprising playoff contenders stir MLB intrigue


MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Trout is burning up the base paths in Los Angeles. Bryce Harper is rocking and rolling in D.C. And the standings in both leagues are dotted with newcomers like the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates who surprisingly are in the hunt for the playoffs.

Suddenly the Grand Old Game has a fresh-faced new edge to it as the season passes the halfway point and heads into the All-Star break.

As the big leagues prepare to convene in Kansas City, Mo., for the midsummer classic, the 20-year-old Trout has electrified the Angels and brought them back into contention in the American League West, the Orioles are within shouting distance of the mighty New York Yankees in the AL East, and the young Pirates finally are playing a brand of ball worthy of that gem of a ballpark in Pittsburgh.

One of the dusty old arguments used to criticize baseball is that the same teams and same stars too often dominate the game. Derek Jeter and the Yankees still lead the AL East, but David Ortiz and the Red Sox are looking up at Adam Jones and Baltimore in baseball's best division, the veteran Philadelphia Phillies are buried in the cellar in the National League East, and the defending champion Cardinals don't look like themselves yet in the post-Pujols era.

It's no wonder that baseball officials are seeing rising attendance this season. Charismatic young stars are giving fans new reasons to get off their couches and head to the ballpark to see what all the fuss is about.

It starts with Trout, who is hitting .343 with 11 homers and 26 stolen bases in 63 games this season, becoming the rare power/speed dual threat.

"He's been a game-changer, offensively, defensively," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "The kid has got a lot of talent, a ton. Usually when you see a guy that fast, you don't anticipate him hitting the ball that hard. What he's doing at 20, it's really pretty amazing. You think about it, most guys don't hit triples down the left-field line."

And Trout isn't even the youngest star setting the league on fire these days. Harper rocketed through the minor leagues to reach the big time at just 19, doing it his own way with a cocky attitude that rankled some of the old guard. Cole Hamels even drew a suspension for hitting Harper in the back early in the season.

Harper stole home an inning after being hit by Hamels, and he's hitting .283 with eight homers and has shown off his rocket arm in the outfield to help the Nationals to the top of the division. He and Stephen Strasburg are giving the Redskins a run for their money as the town's most popular athletes. Attendance is up 32 percent in an area that hasn't seen a first-place baseball team since 1933.

"When you go into restaurants, fans are coming up to you and shaking your hand," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said, "saying we appreciate what you've done for us and done for the city."

Andrew McCutchen, the 25-year-old speedster in center field, is hitting .359 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs to help revive the Pirates.

So as the pennant races heat up and the stakes rise in the second half, will these kids be intimidated?

That's a clown question, bro.

Here are other notable performances from the first half:

STARS

■ Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers: Hitting .313 with 27 homers and 75 RBIs to help the Rangers lay claim to title of the second-best team in the AL.

■ Jered Weaver, RHP, Los Angeles Angels: Is 10-1 with a league-leading 1.96 ERA and a no-hitter.

■ Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds: Showing the 2010 Most Valuable Player season was no fluke, has emerged as one of the game's finest hitters, batting .349 with 14 homers and 48 RBIs.

■ R.A. Dickey, RHP, New York Mets: Knuckleballer has been the feel-good story of the season, going 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA and 123 strikeouts.

SLUMPS

■ Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox: Hitting .284 with 27 doubles, but he's hit only six home runs for a Red Sox offense that needs more runs with their pitchers struggling.

■ Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, RHPs, Tigers: Detroit was supposed to be the class of a weak division after signing Prince Fielder, but Justin Verlander's sidekicks have been mediocre.

■ Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies: Had a pedestrian 3.98 ERA and just one victory in his first 14 starts. Absences of sluggers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard haven't helped.

■ Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies: Looking every bit of his 38 years, hitting .239 with seven homers for last-place Colorado.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

■ Perfectos from Humber and Cain: White Sox journeyman Phil Humber was perfect against Seattle on April 21, while San Francisco's Matt Cain cemented himself as one of the best in the biz with his gem against Houston on June 13, making 2012 the second season that multiple perfect games have been pitched.

■ Johan's no-no: The two-time Cy Young winner has battled arm problems in recent seasons, but Santana was back to his old self on June 1 against St. Louis, throwing 134 pitches to deliver the first no-hitter in Mets history.

■ Hill's cycles: Arizona's Aaron Hill hit for the cycle twice in 11 days, against Seattle on June 18 and at Milwaukee on June 29, joining Brooklyn's Babe Herman in 1931 as the only players to do it twice in the same season.

■ Papi's blast: David Ortiz hit his 400th career homer in a loss at Oakland last week, providing one of the few bright spots in another down year in Beantown.

 

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