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PEDs, Pirates and Puig headline second half in MLB

Friday - 7/19/2013, 10:46am  ET

FILE - In this July 3, 2013 file photo, Pittsburgh Pirates' Pedro Alvarez (24) celebrates as he returns to the dugout with teammate Pirates' Russell Martin (55), who scored on his three-run home run off Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher John Lannan during the fifth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburgh. Much of the focus as baseball heads into the second half is being placed on the possible suspensions of Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and a handful of All-Stars implicated in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal. Puigmania, a Pirates revival and one impressive power show in Baltimore should shift the gaze right back onto the field. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

HOWIE RUMBERG
AP Sports Writer

Much of the focus as baseball heads into the second half is on the possible suspensions of Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and a handful of All-Stars implicated in the Biogenesis performance enhancing drug scandal.

Puigmania, a Pirates revival and one impressive power show in Baltimore may shift the gaze back onto the field, where there will be a lot to watch headed down the stretch of the regular season.

Fans who have been celebrating Mariano Rivera at every stop of his farewell tour should get a chance to watch returning stars Derek Jeter, Chris Carpenter, A-Rod and even Manny Ramirez after a first half dominated by 20-somethings.

The American League won the All-Star game on Tuesday night, giving home-field advantage in the World Series back to the junior circuit after three years of NL dominance. Now the race is on to get to the Fall Classic, and some underachieving preseason favorites are looking to make their moves.

Every playoff spot is legitimately up for grabs, with no team leading a division by more than a half-dozen games. And the NL East, where Atlanta is up six on Washington, is the only place where the division leader is ahead by three games or more.

What to look for in the second half, that begins Friday:

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CLOCK IS TICKING

-- The Washington Nationals need a healthy Bryce Harper to get into a groove and help them chase down Atlanta.

-- The big-spending Dodgers are suddenly surging, 17-5 since June 22, thanks to the youthful exuberance of Yasiel Puig, with a smile to match that of owner Magic Johnson.

-- North of the border, the Blue Jays made the biggest offseason moves but NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey's knuckleball has been mostly off-target and Toronto finds itself in last place in the powerful AL East. But don't count anyone out in what's widely considered the toughest division in the majors.

-- Pedro Alvarez and the Pittsburgh Pirates appear poised to put 20 years of misery behind them, after two years of teasing their fans by being in the hunt heading into the break only to fade down the stretch. With the Houston Astros now in the AL, the NL Central is one of the most competitive divisions.

Reds manager Dusty Baker knew it would be a stiffer challenge this year.

"I figured it'd be close, closer, because none of us have the Astros in our division that we were counting on -- not to malign them -- but they were in our division last year and every team kind of counted on beating them," he said. "Now you've got to beat each other."

-- So far it's only been California dreamin' for Josh Hamilton in his first year in Los Angeles, even with Houston in the division. He'll have to improve on his .224 average, .413 slugging percentage for the Angels to have a shot to overtake Home Run Derby champ Yoenis Cespedes and the pesky A's. Albert Pujols' ballclub is 11 games back in the AL West and nine games behind for the wild card.

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HOMER CRUSH

Baltimore's big bopper Chris Davis is off on a race of his own. With 37 homers before the break -- tying Reggie Jackson (1969) for best ever in the AL -- talk of the single-season home run record is bubbling again.

Crush Davis, however, doesn't have his sights set on Barry Bonds' 73 homers, he wants to top Roger Maris' 61, the number he thinks is the legitimate, untainted mark.

"After everything came out, I assumed 61 was the record," Davis said. "I think it's what a lot of fans would agree on."

Davis, whose previous career high for homers was last year's 33, needs 25 long balls in 66 games to reach 62. Of course, most of the rest of baseball goes with Bonds' number, including Davis' teammate Adam Jones.

"He still hit them over the fence," Jones said.

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A HALF FOR THE AGED

Move over whippersnappers, the old guard is back -- maybe.

Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Matt Harvey, Patrick Corbin and a record 39 first-time All-Stars grabbed the spotlight in the first half but expect to see some seasoned stars in the next few weeks that could impact the pennant races.

The injury-ravaged Yankees have hung around in the potent AL East with a "Who's on First?" lineup. Now they should get Derek Jeter back after a one-game false start and Alex Rodriguez's return from offseason hip surgery is imminent.

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