Four months into the season and every division is up for grabs

To make the postseason, Tampa Bay needs James Shields to roar back into form for the final two months.

Despite being over 60 percent of the way through this 2012 season (wow, this has flown by) there still isn’t much separation between first and second in any division. The largest lead still belongs to the Yankees in the American League East, but even that lead was trimmed down to five and half by the end of July. The largest lead in any of the other divisions is three games.

It’s safe to say this race for the postseason will be fun to watch as over half the league still has a legitimate chance at making the postseason. At this point there actually seems to be more separation in the NL than the AL, which would have sounded crazy at the beginning of the season with all the “powerhouse” teams in the AL.

As we try and look towards the future here at Through the Fence Baseball, let’s focus on a few teams that could make a push for the playoffs if a couple top of the rotation pitchers return to form.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays were my pick to finish second in the AL East and first in the two wild card spots. I still believe that’s possible, even though their pitching staff hasn’t lived up to expectations. They only sit two and half games back of the last wild card spot.

Matt Moore has struggled in his first full season and not delivered the numbers I thought he would after looking so dominant last season. David Price has held up his end of the bargain and is putting together a solid Cy Young resume. Jeremy Hellickson has been what I expected, a number three starter.

But the player who needs to step up in the second half, to make sure they secure that wild card spot, is James Shields. While there was much speculation he might get traded before the deadline, I believe he’s the key who could help them in the second half. He’s been fairly bad, by his standards, posting a 4.52 ERA through his first 21 starts before a complete game shutout against the Athletics to end the month of July. That was his first complete game of the year after throwing an incredible nine in 2011. If the Rays continue to get starts like that from Shields, I believe they’ll start to run away with a wild card spot.

Boston Red Sox

The other team I think has a shot at the postseason also resides in the AL East. Now I could have said the Detroit Tigers here, but I think we all believe it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them runaway with the AL Central. The Red Sox are three and half games back of the last wild card spot and are just starting to get healthy.

They’re fist in the league in runs, so it’s pretty obvious where this team’s struggles lie. The Red Sox’ best starting pitcher this year has been Felix Doubront whose ERA sits at 4.37. I just mentioned Shields hasn’t had a great year and his ERA is at 4.24. Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester have a combined ERA of 4.94 on the season. Amazingly, their combined record on the year is 19-20 despite giving up all those runs.

If just one of those pitchers — mainly Lester — starts pitching to his potential, the Red Sox get back in the wild card hunt. Buchholz already has started doing his part, as his ERA of 2.43 over his past eight starts attests. If Lester returns anywhere near form in the final two months, the offense on this team is good enough to help them get into the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Before the second half started, I thought the Diamondbacks would be the one team in the NL that could make a great second half push. They overachieved in 2011, but based on the rest of the competition in the National League West, I think they have a chance to win some games down the stretch. They’re currently six and a half games back of a wild card spot, but only three and a half out of first place in the west.

While the pitching staff hasn’t been much worse in 2012 than it was in 2011, there is one glaring difference: Ian Kennedy. I knew he wouldn’t be able to repeat his numbers from a year ago, but for a guy who should be the ace of this staff, he’s pitched more like a fourth starter posting an ERA of 4.20 through July.

The good news is he’s coming off three solid performances that have all resulted in wins for the Diamondbacks, and he has a 2.44 ERA in that span. Last year Kennedy was allowed to work deep into games, pitching eight-plus innings nine times. He hadn’t done that this year until July 18, and then he did it again in his next start. So the signs are there that Kennedy is beginning to turn things around, and if that’s the case, this Diamondbacks team is no different from last year’s team that was able to win the West.

St. Louis Cardinals

I recently wrote an article about the Cardinals being able to make a late season push, and despite dropping two games to the Cubs after that story posted, I still believe this team has a run in them. They’re just too well-rounded to not overtake the Pirates and maybe even the Reds.

They sit seven games back in the NL Central, but only four back of the Pirates. In that article, I said all the Cardinals really need to do is go out and add a bullpen arm; they did just that in one of the most underrated deadline trades in grabbing Edward Mujica from the Marlins. While Mujica hasn’t been as solid in 2012, he is still holding right-handed hitters to a .211 average. He’ll immediately have an impact on this bullpen.

But the player I think will be key down the stretch for the Cardinals is Adam Wainwright. The 30-year-old right-hander is back to dominating a lineup. He finished the month of July with another quality start, going six innings and only allowing two runs to give him a 2.76 ERA for the month. If he can be Cy Young caliber, which is not outside his realm, for the rest of this season, I believe this team will overtake one of the remaining wild card spots.

Still a lot left to play for in these final two months, and as we saw last year, it’s not over until the final out of the season is made, or the final run is scored. This already has been a great year of baseball and I can’t wait to see how things play out.

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