Monday, July 1, 2013

50 wins on July 1: Playoffs likely for Boston, Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox each have 50 wins on July 1. History says that means each will last to at least the playoffs. History also says the World Championship is an unlikely outcome for either club.



Boston's Dustin Pedroia, left, and Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen, right (Keith Allison/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

At the start of business on July 1, we note two major surprises on top of the baseball standings. The Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates not only are both in first place, but both already have banked at least 50 victories.

The Pirates are, 51-30, the best record in the game. The Red Sox, 50-34, hold the best record in the American League.

Neither team has significantly invested in free agent signings. Nor has either team been through what we might call a phased rebuilding.

The Pirates have lurched along without a winning record for 20 years. In 2010, they won 57 games for the whole season. However, in the last few years, after going on nearly two decades of drought in their player development system, they have produced quality performers such as Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. They have improved themselves around the edges by adding in the likes of Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano. The Pirates brought in a firm rotation anchor with the A.J. Burnett acquisition, in which they helped the New York Yankees dump part of a salary. They really have improved by inches, rather than miles. And they finally found a manager, Clint Hurdle, who has a winning touch. Put it all together and the Pirates lead a very competitive National League Central division.

The Red Sox were a force in the American League from the start of the present divisional alignment until September 2011, when they had their infamous collapse with a 7-20 finish. They figured out last year, when they won 69 games, that their clubhouse was too wealthy and complacent. They shed salaries and brought in veteran war horses like Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli, really not exciting anyone. But all of those players have a little bit of magic this year, and huge contributions from bit players like Daniel Nava, Jose Iglesias and Mike Carp have made the Red Sox a deep club. And they have two stars, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, who are playing like it.

Neither team walked in with blue prints making so much sense that anyone could see that they just had to work. But the standings tell us they're working. And history suggests something more: they're probably going to keep working. At least to the playoffs. Starting with 1996, the first full season under the present divisional alignment, 23 teams have arrived on July 1 with 50 or more wins. Only four have failed to reach the playoffs. All but six ended up winning their divisions. Of those 17 division winners, nine reached 100 or more victories.

Once the playoffs begin, though, it's a different story. Of the 23 clubs starting from 1995 that reached 50 wins by July 1, only six reached the World Series. And only two of those won it. In 1998, the New York Yankees had an incredible year, finishing 114-48 and winning their first of three straight World Series. Then, we saw a flash in the pan, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who started strong and ended strong, sweeping the Houston Astros in a four-game World Series, little to be heard from again.

Here's the list, year by year.

1996: The Atlanta Braves were 50-30 on July 1, but only three games ahead of the Montreal Expos in the National League East. The Braves ended 96-66, won the NL East, then lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in six games after winning the first two in New York by a combined score of 16-1.

1997: The Baltimore Orioles were 51-27 in July 1, 5 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in the American League East. The Braves were 52-29, 3 1/2 up on the Florida Marlins in the NL East. The Orioles held on and won their division by two games over the Yankees at 98-64. But the Orioles lost the American League Championship Series (ALCS) in six games to the Cleveland Indians. The Braves continued their surge to finish 101-61, nine games ahead of the Marlins in the NL East. However, the Marlins got the better of the Braves in the National League Championship Series (NLCS), then beat Cleveland in a seven-game World Series.

1998: The Braves, again, were dominant, 54-29 on July 1, 8 1/2 games ahead of the New York Mets in the NL East. But the Yankees were legendary, 56-20, 10 games ahead of Boston in the AL East. Both teams continued their dominance through the regular season. The Braves finished 106-56, 18 games in front of the Mets. But they lost to the San Diego Padres in a six-game NLCS. The Yankees finished 114-48, the best 162-game record in history to that point, 22 games ahead of the Red Sox. The Yankees went on to enjoy an 11-2 postseason, including a four-game sweep of the Padres in the World Series.

1999: The Indians were 50-26 on July 1, leading the AL Central by 12 1/2 games over the Chicago White Sox. They finished 97-65, 21 1/2 games ahead of Chicago, but fell in a five-game divisional series to the wild card Red Sox.

2000: This time, it was the White Sox turn to start fast in the AL Central, reaching 50-29 on July 1 for a 9 1/2-game lead on the Indians. The Indians surged in the second half, but the White Sox still won the division at 95-67 before losing the first round of the playoffs in a three-game sweep by the wild card Seattle Mariners.

2001: It was all about the Mariners, who were 58-21 on July 1, a full 20 games ahead of the Oakland Athletics and the Anaheim Angels. The Mariners did not let up in the second half and finished 116-46, the best record ever for 162 games. But the Athletics were even better in the second half, 64-19, ending with 102 wins and the wild card berth with the AL's second-best record. Both teams knuckled under to the Yankees in the playoffs, the A's in the first round and the Mariners in a five-game ALCS. But the Yankees couldn't complete the run in the shadow of Sept. 11, falling to Arizona in a seven-game World Series.

2002: A very strange year, with four teams hitting 50 wins before July 1. Two of them didn't even reach the playoffs.

In the American League, it was the Yankees (50-31) and the Mariners (51-30). In the National League, it was the Braves (51-30) and the Dodgers (50-31). With their great start, the Mariners still led the Angels by only 3 1/2 and the Athletics by only five games in the NL West. Both teams rallied in the second half. The A's put up a 57-24 and took the division with 103 wins. The Angels claimed the wild card with a 52-30 second half and a 99-63 overall record. The Mariners were only 42-39 after July 1, finishing 10 games behind the Athletics and missing the playoffs completely. The Yankees led the Red Sox by only two on July 1, but kept it up and finished at 104-57, winning the division by 10 1/2 games. The Minnesota Twins beat the Athletics in the first round of the playoffs, while the Angels cut out the Yankees. The Angels beat the Twins in a five-game ALCS before defeating San Francisco in a seven-game World Series.

In the National League, the Braves were off to their typical start and led the Expos by 8 1/2 games in the NL East on July 1. The Dodgers were a similar story to Seattle, leading the NL West by only 1 1/2 games on Arizona and 4 1/2 games on the Giants on July 1. The Dodgers were 42-39 in the second half, during which the Giants and Diamondbacks each won 50. Arizona won the division and San Francisco claimed the wild card. The Dodgers finished third in the division at 92-70. The Braves put up another 50 wins in the second half and finished 101-61, 19 games ahead of Philadelphia. However, the Giants beat the Braves in the divisional round and ultimately lost the World Series to the Angels.

2003: A lot of themes that we've seen in these last few years repeated themselves one final time here. On July 1, the Mariners (53-28), Yankees (52-30) and Braves (51-29) were cruising with comfy divisional leads. Once again, it was not to be for the Mariners. Oakland, down seven games on July 1, were 50-31 from that point, while the Mariners were 40-41. The A's won the AL West at 96-66, three in front of the Mariners, who again  missed the playoffs. The Yankees kept it going, though, winning the AL East by six games at 101-61. The Yankees ultimately won the AL pennant,  beating the wild card Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS. The Braves finished 101-61, winning the NL East by 10 games over the wild card Marlins. But the Braves lost their first playoff round to a Chicago Cubs team that finished the regular season only 88-74. The Marlins, for the second time in seven years, took the wild card to the World Championship, beating the Yankees in a six-game World Series.

2005: The White Sox were 53-24 on July 1, leading Minnesota by 10 1/2 games in the AL Central. Cleveland played a 51-34 second half and put a scare into the Sox, but it was only temporary. The White Sox won the division at 99-63, then finished off an 11-1 postseason by sweeping the Houston Astros in a four-game World Series.

2006: A super hot race took place in the AL Central. On July 1, the White Sox were back at 52-27, but they trailed 55-25 Detroit by 2 1/2 games. The Twins sat in a distant third, 11 games down. But the Twins were 53-31 in the second half and won the division at 96-66, one game ahead of the Tigers. The White Sox fell out of it completely at 90-72. The Tigers went to the World Series, where they lost in five games to an 83-78 St. Louis Cardinals club.

2007: The Angels were the hot starters, 50-31 on July 1 with a four-game lead on Seattle in the AL West. The Angels also had the division's best record for the remainder of the season and won it at 94-68. But the Angels lost in their first playoff round to the Red Sox, who ultimately beat the Colorado Rockies in a four-game World Series.

2008: A new team made the scene here. The Tampa Bay Rays were 50-32 on July 1, 1 1/2 games ahead of Boston in the AL East. In the National League, the Chicago Cubs were 50-33, 2 1/2 up on St. Louis in the NL Central. Both clubs continued their winning ways through September. The Rays won the AL East at 97-65, while the Cubs won the NL Central at 98-64. But the Cubs lost to the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs. The Rays went all the way to the World Series, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in five games.

2011: It was all Phillies through September. On July 1, they were 51-31. At the end of the regular season, they were 102-60, winning the NL East by 13 games on Atlanta. But the Phillies fell to St. Louis in the divisional round, then the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers in a seven-game World Series.

2012: The Rangers were tearing it up on July 1, 50-29, 6 1/2 games ahead of the second place Angels. But the Athletics were 57-26 after that point to finish 94-68, one game ahead of Texas for the AL West title. The Rangers settled for the second wild card and their dismal finish ended with a one-game loss to the Orioles.

Where we've seen clubs win 50 by July 1, only to lose the division, the circumstances usually involved close competitors who heated up in the second half. As far as the Pirates and Red Sox are concerned, the close competitors part of it is in play. The Pirates are only two games ahead of St. Louis in the NL Central, while the Red Sox are only 2 1/2 ahead of Baltimore in the AL East. Furthermore, the Red Sox and Pirates also have to watch for real challengers from down in the division. The Cincinnati Reds are positioned as the NL's second wild card, though they're 5 1/2 behind Pittsburgh in the NL Central. In the AL East, there is no team that can be counted out.

Thus, the Pirates and Red Sox both are susceptible to being caught. But history says it is unlikely. Until the World Series. If they get that far.


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