Big finish would lift MLB season out of the shadow of doping investigation
Close division races and prospect of record-setting exploits a ray of hope for MLB season tainted by drug probe potentially involving big names
Tight division races and the potential for historic individual exploits could offer a rousing finish to a Major League Baseball season being played under the cloud of a doping scandal.
The second half of the season begins after a four-day All-Star break, though actually only about 40 per cent of the gruelling 162-game campaign remains.
Among the surprises this season are the Pittsburgh Pirates (56-37) who have a chance to end their 20-year run of losing with a bang, as they trail the St Louis Cardinals by just one game in the competitive National League Central.
The Cleveland Indians (51-44), meanwhile, have become a factor in the American League Central just 1-1/2 games behind the defending league champions Detroit Tigers.
Detroit's Miguel Cabrera is threatening to produce an unprecedented back-to-back Triple Crown season, one that could be blocked by record-chasing home-run hitter Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles.
There is much to look forward to, though the clock is rapidly ticking down on the resolution of a probe into the alleged procurement of performance-enhancing drugs that could involve some 20 major league players.
Although the prospects of players being expelled this season appears to be slim, MLB commissioner Bud Selig and Players Association chief Michael Weiner gave clear indications that the Biogenesis doping investigation was coming to a head.
Hearings, appeals and arbitration were expected to delay possible action on big names like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon, who have all been implicated in the probe.
On the field, competition is heating up with power hitters Cabrera and Davis getting back in the swing of things.
Last year, Cabrera became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown by sweeping the home run, runs batted in and batting average crowns. The Tigers third baseman is on an even faster pace with 30 homers, 95 RBIs and a .365 batting average.
But he trails Davis, 27, by seven home runs as the Orioles first baseman tries to stay on track for an assault on the American League record of 61 home runs by Roger Maris in 1961.
Supremacy of all six divisions could come down to the last games of September with the AL East and NL West looking like the hardest races to handicap.
The Boston Red Sox (58-39), who lost 93 games last year, lead the AL East by 2-1/2 games over the Tampa Bay Rays, with the Baltimore Orioles a further two games back and the injury-hit New York Yankees just six off the pace.
The Yankees have been getting great pitching, but have been anaemic at the plate, while they await the 2013 debuts of shortstop Derek Jeter (broken ankle) and slugging third baseman Rodriguez (hip surgery), who are both expected back soon.
Nearly as tight is the NL West with four teams within 6-1/2 games, although the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks (50-45) would trail all four AL East contenders.
Revived by the sensational debut of Cuban rookie Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers are within 2-1/2 games of Arizona, with Colorado following two games ahead of World Series champions San Francisco Giants. They are 23-15 in games played by Puig since his June arrival.
Last weekend's no-hitter by Tim Lincecum could be a sign of a wake-up in the Giants. AL West looks to be a battleground for the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers, who trail by two games, but could soon be getting Colby Lewis back.
Most comfortably in a division lead are the Atlanta Braves, who rule the NL East by six games over the Washington Nationals with the dangerous Philadelphia Phillies another half-game back.