Which surpriseteams will be playing in October?
Of the Tigers, Reds and Blue Jays--the year's most unexpected division titlecontenders--Detroit has the best chance of making the playoffs because of itsyoung and talented pitching staff, which at week's end led the majors in ERAeven though 38.7% of the team's innings had been logged by hurlers under age 25(starters Jeremy Bonderman, Zach Miner and Justin Verlander, and setup man JoelZumaya). The Tigers' start is legit: They had outscored opponents 394-285, byfar the largest differential in the majors. As for Cincinnati, its hitters arefirst in the league in homers and fourth in runs scored, but the club has alsobeen lucky: The Reds were 14-7 in one-run games and had been outscored 377-373on the season. Toronto is dangerous because it has ace righthander Roy Halladay(9-2, 3.07 ERA) and a high-powered offense (first in the majors in sluggingpercentage), but assuming the AL wild-card winner comes out of the Central,where the White Sox and the Tigers each were on pace for more than 105 wins,the Blue Jays would have to hurdle the Yankees and the Red Sox, who havefinished one-two in the East every year since 1998, to reach thepostseason.
Will a manager befired during the season?
It's been six years since an entire season elapsed without a managerial change.With eight managers in their first years on the job and 17 of 30 teams withinfive games of a postseason berth, no bench boss appears to be in even serioustrouble. But that will change if Charlie Manuel's Phillies (8-14 in June)continue to underachieve.
How many playerswill hit 50 home runs?
From 2002 through '05 only three players hit 50 home runs in a season; thisyear--with home runs up 11.7% from last year at the same point--six players(Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn and CarlosLee) were on pace to reach 50. Of the six, however, only Thome has cleared thatbarrier in his career; Howard, Soriano and Lee have yet to reach 40. Despite a15-day stint on the disabled list, Pujols, who hit his 26th homer last Friday,was still the major league leader; if he stays healthy and sustains his currenthome run rate, the first baseman will make a serious run at 70. (He was on pacefor 67.)
Will the Mets winthe NL East by 20 games?
Not since 1999, when the Indians finished 21 1/2 games ahead of the White Soxin the AL Central, has a team won a division by 20 or more games. But the Metshave a chance to do so in the NL East, where their cushion was a seeminglyinsurmountable 11 1/2 games. And the margin could get wider in a hurry: TheMarlins and the Nationals are rebuilding, and the reeling Phillies and Bravescould unload prominent veterans in July. Look for New York--which has MVPcandidates in centerfielder Carlos Beltran and third baseman David Wright and ared-hot leadoff hitter in shortstop Jose Reyes--to cruise home, especially with26 of its final 33 games against teams with losing records.
So who's going tothe playoffs?
The Red Sox, White Sox, A's and Tigers (wild card) in the AL; the Mets,Cardinals, Dodgers and Astros (wild card) in the NL.
HIT MAN Reyes's glovework is much improved, but it's his bat that has Mets fans excited.