Pennant races are always decided by pitching, but handicapping who will thrive down the stretch is never simple. This year the task is even more complicated, because several contenders are relying on young pitchers who had a big first half but have yet to prove that they're ready for a full-season workload. Here are four callow starters whose ability to hold up will help determine who plays in October.
David Price, Rays
The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, Price, 24, has matured quickly: Witness his starting assignment in the All-Star Game, in which he threw two shutout innings for the AL. The lefthander (12--5, 2.82 ERA) has been managed carefully by the Rays. He threw 123 2/3 and 162 2/3 innings, respectively, in his first two seasons as a pro, building toward a full campaign this year. He has improved across the board this season, striking out more hitters and walking fewer than last year. Manager Joe Maddon has handled Price as if he were a veteran, letting him throw 100 or more pitches in 14 of 18 starts. There's little reason to believe Price won't continue to be Tampa Bay's best starter.
Phil Hughes, Yankees
The 24-year-old righthander made the All-Star team after a role change, having moved back into the rotation after spending most of '09 as a reliever. Hughes (11--2, 3.65 ERA) hasn't been handled with kid gloves, either—he's thrown at least 99 pitches in 15 of 16 starts. But he, like Price, is at the high end of the young-pitcher scale: He's been a pro since 2004 and, though he was only 45 innings shy of his high (146) through Sunday, has the experience to make an innings jump.
Mike Leake, Reds
The 22-year-old rookie's emergence (6--1, a 3.53 ERA and at least six innings pitched in 16 of his 17 starts through Sunday) has been a big part of Cincinnati's rise in the NL Central. It's not certain that he can keep it up, however. Leake, who had thrown 109 2/3 innings through Sunday, never threw more than 142 in college. His lack of experience mandates a cautious approach. The Reds got righthander Edinson Volquez back over the weekend and have Aroldis Chapman waiting in the minors. So look for Leake's workload to be cut back even as the Reds push for their first postseason berth since 1995.
Mat Latos, Padres
The righthander, 22, closed the first half by allowing one run in his last four starts and striking out 28 in 27 2/3 innings. His 3.5 K/BB ratio is astounding for a pitcher of his age and high-octane velocity. However, through Sunday, Latos (10--4, 2.45 ERA) had pitched 106 2/3 innings and was fewer than 17 innings away from his season high as a pro. Because of that, the strained oblique muscle he suffered on July 9—while stifling a sneeze—may be a blessing in disguise. His trip to the disabled list will tamp down his innings count, something the Padres, who were in first place in the NL West, may have done anyway.
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Albert Chen examines how the Padres' defense has keyed their success, at SI.com/mlb
The Giants made a savvy addition by subtraction on July 1 when they sent Bengie Molina to Texas for reliever Chris Ray and pitching prospect Michael Main. The move freed San Francisco to put its best lineup on the field, with Buster Posey(below) catching and Travis Ishikawa playing first base. Through Sunday the Giants were 10--5 since the deal, averaging just under six runs per game. Posey had hit .464/.500/.929 since the trade and joined a crowded NL Rookie of the Year race. Ishikawa had hit .371 since the deal while playing solid defense. And concerns about the move's effect on the pitching staff were overstated: Through Sunday, Giants pitchers had a 3.32 ERA in July, and Posey caught back-to-back shutouts in the first two games after the All-Star break.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
TOO GOOD? Price started for the AL in the All-Star Game, but the Rays might have preferred to see their ace rest over the break.