The Baseball Notebook

July 15, 2010 7:09 AM

Four To Focus On

It's time for games that count again, as the second half gets underway with a partial schedule on Thursday night. There's four teams that should draw particular focus as we enter a crucial 2 1/2 week period between now and the July 31 trade deadline. Boston, Minnesota, the LA Angels and San Francisco are all teams that are still squarely in the mix, but also just close enough to the edge that the coming games need to played with a playoff-style intensity.

BOSTON: The Red Sox are five back of the Yankees in the AL East and three back of the Rays for the wild-card. The two frontrunners are playing this weekend, so if Boston can win their games they know they'll pick up ground on somebody. The team's injury problems are well-documented and it's no media exaggeration. Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Bucholz, Josh Beckett and Manny Delcarmen are on the disabled list. The world-class health care facilities in the Hub are working overtime supplying services to the local baseball team. On the positive side for Terry Francona, all these players are scheduled to return in either late July or early August, so if he can keep his team afloat, help is on the way. But it won't be easy--a four-game series with Texas this weekend starts tonight.

: Only 3 1/2 games back, but with two teams in front of them and the wild-card not a realistic option, the Twins have no time to lose in stopping their recent slide. They host one of their rivals this weekend, as the White Sox come to town for four games starting tonight. This is the most consequential series of the weekend, and the Twins are not entering it in top physical shape. Joe Mauer will play, but is having shoulder problems. Justin Morneau has a concussion and no timetable is set for his return. The scrappy Twins will have to fight some more.

: They've already been written off for dead with Texas' acqusition of Cliff Lee, but the standings tell us if they have shot. They're 4 1/2 games out and the fact the Rangers were swept at home by Baltimore to end the first half does suggest that Lee's addition doesn't make them an unstoppable force. LAA's mostly healthy and with Texas up in Boston, a three-game home set for the Halos against the Mariners is a good chance to chip away at the lead.

SAN FRANCISCO: Four games out in the NL West, the GB column isn't their problem, but the glut of teams they're fighting with is. They're in fourth place in the West, which would currently produce the wild-card. The East promises to have two teams in the wild-card picture and perhaps the Central runner-up might be in the mix as well. No room for a slump on the Bay. San Fran starts it off with a juicy four-game series against the Mets, with a good pitching matchup tonight as Tim Lincecum takes the mound against NY's surprising R.A. Dickey.

On the trade front, Atlanta swapped shortstops with Toronto, getting Alex Gonzalez in exchange for Yunel Escobar. In the short-term, I like this deal for the Braves. Gonzalez is a remarkable defensive shortstop and hits for some power. He doesn't get on-base consistently, making him a bottom-of-the-order guy, but his defensive skills alone are worth the price of admission. He makes Atlanta tougher defensively right away. I did like Escobar, even though he's having a bad year. A change of scenery in a town not playing with playoff urgency right now might be a good place for him to get his career back on track.

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