Down the stretch they come

With the MLB All-Star break about over, teams are getting ready to being the second half of the season.

While baseball is a 162-game long grind, it’s the stretch run, the final two months or so of the season, where contenders separate themselves from pretenders.

Some teams will look to wheel and deal while others will stand pat and hope what they’ve got is good enough to land a spot in the postseason.

With the division and wild card races far from decided, the second half of the season is likely to be a thrilling ride for baseball fans, especially fans in the local area.

The Reds, Indians and Pirates are all right in the thick of the playoff race. Can all three make the postseason for the second year in a row? If so, can any of them get further than the first round this time around?

Let’s take a look at some key storylines for each team going into the second half.

Reds: Medic! Medic!

The Reds need to get healthy.

It seems like every key player on the team has been hurt at one point or another this season for the Reds (51-44, 1.5 games back in NL Central). They were very close to getting back to full strength until recently when they had to place their entire right side of the infield on the disabled list. Joey Votto, a former MVP, and Brandon Phillips, a gold glover and run producer, are two of the Reds’ best players when healthy. With them out, the front office may have to look into making some moves before the trade deadline.

If not, they’ll depend on guys like Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Billy Hamilton and Alfredo Simon to carry over their first half performances into the second half… That’s a big risk.

However, it’s a risk a team with the kind of pitching the Reds have could possibly afford to take. On top of what Simon’s been able to do, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake form one of the best rotations in baseball. Unlike Simon, those four have proven track records and should be able to at least keep the team competitive until Votto and Phillips return.

If the Reds can scratch and claw to keep themselves in the race until Votto and Phillips come back, and if Votto and Phillips can be anywhere near 100 percent when they do return, Cincinnati will be a club to look out for.

Indians: Pitching a fit

It’s no secret that the Indians are one of baseball’s top offensive teams.

Ranking seventh in the MLB in runs scored and 10th home runs and OPS, the Tribe can rake with anyone in the sport. However, their pitching staff hasn’t been nearly as impressive.

Outside of All-Star snub Corey Kluber, the Indians’ rotation really needs to step it up in the second half for the team to stay in the race. The staff ranks 21st in the bigs in ERA, 25th in WHIP and 23rd in opponents’ batting average.

To keep up with the battle-tested Tigers in the AL Central, the Indians (47-47, 3.5 games back in wild card) will need improvement from Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer.

If the pitching can at least be respectable, there’s no reason the Indians can’t do some damage down the stretch, especially considering the offense should only get better.

Even if Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall don’t continue on the torrid paces they were on in the first half, the Indians should get lifts from guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis, all who have underperformed thus far.

Pirates: Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. Oh my!

For a team that’s only 3.5 games back in the NL Central, it sure seems like the Pirates are facing an uphill battle.

That’s probably because the Bucs (49-46) currently sit in fourth place in the division and will have to jump three teams if they are to be crowned Central champions.

With 67 games left to play, it’s certainly an attainable feat. The problem is that the Pirates are a combined 13-26 against the three teams they are hoping to leap in the standings. Against the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds, the Buccos have struggled to have any success. That does not bode well for their playoff chances because no matter good their final record is, it is impossible to finish fourth in a division and qualify for the postseason.

There is always the wild card, though, which is the route they took to making the playoffs last year. For that, they would just have to jump one team in the division but are also looking up at Atlanta and Washington from the East and San Francisco from the West.

Either way, the Pirates have some work to do. They’ll certainly get their chance to do that work as they have 18 games in the second half against their top three division foes, including a 12-game stretch from Aug. 22 through Sept. 3 against the trio.

Those games will likely make or break the Pirates’ season.

Jordan Holland is a sports writer for The Marietta Times. He can be reached at 740-376-5449 or at jholland@mariettatimes.com.