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Season gets serious for Nationals



Published: Thu, July 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Story lines abound for baseball's second half.

NEW YORK (AP) -- From opening day through the All-Star game, they were baseball's feel-good story.

Now it gets serious for the Washington Nationals.

"It was tough in the first half, and it will be even tougher in the second half," manager Frank Robinson said. "Everybody's going to be coming for us."

For the NL East leaders and everyone else in the majors, the races resume today. So do the chases -- Rafael Palmeiro needs two hits for 3,000, Roger Clemens is aiming at his eighth Cy Young Award and Derrek Lee might make a run at the Triple Crown.

Barry Bonds could make his season debut, coming back from knee surgery and just 52 home runs short of Hank Aaron's record of 755. At Fenway Park, Curt Schilling is off the disabled and ready to return -- as a closer -- tonight when the World Series champion Red Sox take on the New York Yankees.

This is the first time in 10 years that Boston has led at the break. The Red Sox tried to boost their bullpen Wednesday with a trade, getting reliever Chad Bradford from Oakland for outfielder Jay Payton.

"I think our best baseball is ahead of us," catcher Jason Varitek said. "We've had some good stints, we've been OK. To be where we are and not have everything completely click yet is fortunate."

Still on deck: Resolution of Kenny Rogers' 20-game suspension and $50,000 fine. Plus, the July 31 trading deadline to make deals without waivers, with lots of big names sure to be in the mix.

National trade for Stanton

The Nationals got an early jump, signing reliever Mike Stanton on Wednesday after he was cut by the Yankees. Washington might do something a lot bigger soon, perhaps trading for Colorado outfielder Preston Wilson.

While Washington tries to bring the first World Series to RFK, the St. Louis Cardinals hope to bring one last Series to Busch Stadium before their new park opens next season.

"We started this spring with the steroid issue and everything else, and I love the way the second half of the season is set up," commissioner Bud Selig said during the break. "We're going to have some great, great races right down to the end."

Of the 14 teams in the AL, 10 are at .500 or higher. The best race might be in the NL East, where all five clubs are at least .500 and within eight games of first place.

The Nationals -- who finished last in 2004 as the Montreal Expos -- lead the Braves by 21/2 games in their first season in Washington.

Seeking its 14th straight division title, Atlanta leads the wild-card race despite having three starters on the DL. Because of the injuries, a rotation that once boasted Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine has lately featured the likes of Roman Colon and Jorge Sosa.

Clemens eyes 8th Cy Young

Back in the wild-card race is last year's winner. With Clemens owning a major league-best 1.48 ERA and emerging as a favorite for his eighth Cy Young award, Houston has pulled within five games of the Braves.

There also are individual achievements to watch for in the second half.

Palmeiro is set to become the fourth player with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Along with Miguel Tejada, MVP of the AL's 7-5 win in the All-Star game Tuesday night, Palmeiro and the Orioles will play at Seattle tonight.

Lee, leading the majors with a .378 average, tied for the major league lead with 27 homers and second in the NL with 72 RBIs, can become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Bonds hopes to get a few swings. The seven-time NL MVP has 703 homers, trailing only Aaron and Babe Ruth (714).

Minus Bonds, San Francisco has gone 37-50. Pitcher Jason Schmidt has been mentioned as a trade possibility, but with the Giants only 10 games out of first in the weak NL West, they may choose to hang on.

"I don't think we get ourselves in better position by trading Jason Schmidt," assistant general manager Ned Colletti said.

Minnesota made a move during the break, acquiring second baseman Bret Boone from Seattle. Nine games behind the major league-best Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, the Twins probably will be forced to concentrate on the wild card, where they are slightly ahead of the Orioles and Yankees.

The Twins have made three straight postseason appearances, the Red Sox two, and the Yankees nine in a row.

"If you're playing well, you don't concern yourself with how many games you have to win," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

"I just hope the way we've been doing it carries over."




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