Ten baseball story lines worth following over the final 10 weeks of the regular season:
1. Chris Davis’ pursuit of the single-season homer record.
With 37 homers at the break, the Orioles slugger needs 25 in Baltimore’s final 66 games to surpass Roger Maris, who set the “natural” — which is to say, pre-steroid era — mark of 61 in 1961. “Crush” Davis considers Maris’ achievement more authentic than the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit 40 years later, and while many fans agree with him, Bonds remains baseball’s official record holder.
Should commissioner Bud Selig organize a committee empowered to expunge reputed steroid users from the record book, he’ll get no objection from me. Until then, Bonds is both the season and career home run king.
Sorry, Crush. It’s unfortunate that two of the most glamorous records in sports are held by an unrepentant jerk, but I can’t rewrite history. And unless you finish with 74 home runs, neither can you.
2. Miguel Cabrera’s quest to become the first player to win consecutive Triple Crowns.
The Tigers’ third baseman leads the AL in batting average (.365) and RBI (95), and his 30 homers rank ahead of everybody but Davis. Cabrera’s bid to make history is a long shot, but remember: He went on a long-ball tear after last summer’s All-Star Game, hitting 26 in 75 games.
However the home run derby shakes out, Cabrera almost certainly will earn a second straight MVP trophy, which would put him in position to win three in a row next season. That’s never been done, either.
3. Nick Franklin’s bid to become AL Rookie of the Year.
The Mariners second baseman joined the race late — he wasn’t called up from the Tacoma Rainiers until May 27 — but the league’s rookie crop is thin. Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia was hitting .290 on July 2 and appeared to be a front-runner, until a 1-for-24 slump found him demoted to Triple A.
Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias is now the favorite. Iglesias doesn’t have Franklin’s power, but the Havana-born émigré — he bolted from the Cuban national baseball team in 2010 — is hitting .367.
Franklin began the month flirting with .300, then fouled a drag-bunt attempt off his knee. He’s sitting at .268, with six homers in 42 games.
4. Non-waiver deadline deals.
The Twins are listening to offers for Justin Morneau, who is well south of his 2006 MVP season but still capable of providing a contending team (Yankees? Rays?) with an infusion of offense.
Cubs starter Matt Garza is another name that will be bandied about this week. The Rangers are obvious suitors; they need pitching, and they’ve got the farm system depth to swing a deal with a Cubs team that needs, well, you name it.
As for the Mariners, don’t expect general manager Jack Zduriencik to make any trades more substantial than getting a prospect or two for left-handed reliever Oliver Perez.
5. The Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Red Sox’s ability to come back from a pair of 5-1 deficits was impressive, but the best-looking team to visit Safeco Field before the All-Star break? The Pirates. They’ve got the whole package: hitting, speed, defense, a solid rotation and a turn-out-the-lights bullpen.
All that’s impeding Pittsburgh from its first playoff berth since 1992 is an accumulation of baggage: The Pirates haven’t finished over .500 since, yep, 1992.
With a 56-37 record, the winning-season milestone is virtually assured, but anything short of the playoffs will be disappointment.
6. The two-base hit waiting to happen whenever Manny Machado steps to the plate.
Chris Davis isn’t the only Orioles hitter on a spree. Machado has 39 doubles, which puts him on pace to break the season record of 67, set by Red Sox outfielder Earl Webb in 1931.
Webb and his record remain an obscurity, but then again, how many of us were familiar with George Sisler’s hits-in-a-season record before Ichiro Suzuki broke it?
7. The pinpoint control of Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals’ 6-foot-7 right-hander throws a curveball best called nasty: If you lay off in the belief that it’s prudent to resist a pitch your bat can’t reach, it still ends up in the strike zone.
Wainwright has won 12 games, worthy of an All-Star Game invitation but not remarkable. Here’s what’s remarkable: He has walked 15 batters.
Only one pitcher, Bret Saberhagen for the 1994 Mets, has finished a season with more victories (14) than walks allowed (13). And Sabes’ 1994 record requires an asterisk because the schedule was truncated by a labor stalemate in August.
8. The Biogenesis mess.
The names of players associated with the infamous performance-enhancing lab in Miami are expected to be revealed this month. Suspensions will be in line, but not before appeals are heard — and appeals won’t be heard until September.
But it’s naive to presume those implicated in the Biogenesis scandal won’t be affected. A mind cluttered with fears of an imminent suspension is not a mind equipped to hit baseballs thrown by the likes of Adam Wainwright.
9. The free-for-all in the AL East.
The Red Sox rolled into the break as the team to beat, but the Rays, Orioles and Yankees have legitimate playoff aspirations. A deal before the trade deadline fortifies any of them.
Early September figures to rock and roll in Boston, where the Red Sox will confront a 16-game gauntlet that includes the Tigers, the Yankees, the Rays, the Yankees again and then the Orioles.
10. Another fantastic finish in the AL West.
The A’s own a two-game lead over the Rangers. Both have the talent, experience and makeup to get to the World Series, yet both are flawed: Oakland is short on hitters, and Texas is short on pitchers.
If we’re living in a perfect world, the schedule would find the contenders facing each other on the final weekend. This just in: The world ain’t perfect.
In lieu of a showdown series with the division title at stake, the A’s are at Safeco Field for their last three games. Which is to say, the Mariners could specifically determine the fate of the AL West, and the playoff picture in general.
It’s not much of a consolation prize, granted, but there’s always the possibility Nick Franklin goes 5-for-5 in the finale, with two homers and eight RBI, sealing his Rookie of the Year credentials while reminding the rest of us about the most uplifting number of the 2013 baseball season in Seattle.