Can surprising Braves, Reds, Padres hang on?

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With the All-Star game coming to a close, the warm California sun sets on the first half of the season.

With that, it’s time to look ahead to the second half, and three surprising teams that find themselves in first place – the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres.

All of these teams are playing beyond expectations, at the expense of preseason favorites in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado and Los Angeles.

But do they have staying power? Let’s take a look at what each team needs.

ATLANTA
The Braves are in the best shape of these three teams, holding a four-game lead over the New York Mets, and a 4 1/2-game edge over the two-time NL champion Phillies. They have good pitching, ranking fourth in the NL in runs allowed (3.83), and a solid offense, ranking sixth in runs scored (4.61). Tim Hudson has been lights-out, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson solid, and the bullpen dependable.

What do the Braves need? As it seems unlikely an aging Chipper Jones will rediscover his power, the Braves could use an outfield bat, as Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera have performed below expectations.

Also, it would be nice to gain some improved health for rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who looked just fine taking batting practice on Tuesday, by the way.

But overall, the Braves are looking good, as they have built a cushion despite all the problems they’ve had.

CINCINNATI
The Reds have moved to the top of the NL Central thanks to a powerful offense (second in NL in runs per game, second in home runs, first in slugging), and a better-than-average pitching staff led by Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and rookie Mike Leake, who debuted for the Reds without playing a single day in the minors.

But they hold only a one-game lead over favored St. Louis, a team that expects to come on strong.

“(The Reds) have a good team,” said St. Louis slugger Matt Holliday. “They’ve got really good pitching and a good lineup. Joey Votto is having an MVP-type season. … It doesn’t surprise me.”

But Holliday issues a warning: “We’re only one game back and we’ve had some injuries. Two fifths of our starting rotation has been out most of the first half. (Ryan) Ludwick’s been out for three weeks now. Hopefully we can get healthy. I like our chances.”

What do the Reds need? An arm in the bullpen would be nice, as would a successful return of Edinson Volquez.

SAN DIEGO
How are the Padres, with no established stars outside of Adrian Gonzalez, doing it? How have they built the second-best record in the NL and established a two-game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies?

Some would say it’s smoke and mirrors, others say it’s a team built on speed, defense and pitching, tailored perfectly to their home ballpark.

The Padres rank 12th in the NL in runs per game, but first in runs allowed. Furthermore, as far as the defense is concerned, five Padres are ranked in the top three at their position in UZR – first baseman Gonzalez, second baseman David Eckstein, third baseman Chase Headley, center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., and right fielder Will Venable.
But can they hold on?

“San Diego’s been playing some pretty good ball,” said Dodgers All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier, “but we’re right there in striking distance, two games away. It’s going to come down to the end of the season. I think the last week or two is going to decide the season for us. We’ll take our chances and hopefully take the West again.”

Also, don’t forget the Rockies, who are right in the mix and were favored by some to take the West entering the season.

What do the Padres need? A big bat to pair alongside Gonzalez would be nice (Cory Hart?). Also, they can’t trade Gonzalez, of course.

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Dodgers activate Adrian Gonzalez

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The Dodgers have reinstated first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the 60-day disabled list after his recovery from a herniated disc. To make room for him they have optioned Rob Segedin to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Gonzalez last played on June 11. Since then the Dodgers have gone an astounding 46-9, with shoe-in rookie of the year candidate Cody Bellinger handling first base duties and posting a .978 OPS. When Gonzalez went down he was hitting .255/.304/.339 and only one homer in 49 games.

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of playing time he gets going forward. The Dodgers, of course, have a comfortable lead in the NL West, so they could afford to allow Gonzalez to play a good bit to see if his bat sharpens up while simultaneously giving Bellinger, who has never played more than 137 games in a season, a bit of a breather. Beyond that, though, the Dodgers ain’t broke, so it’s hard to see why anyone would want to tinker with things.

Rays activate Kevin Kiermaier

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The Tampa Bay Rays have activated outfielder Kevin Kiermaier from the 60-day disabled list.

Kiermaier, who fractured his hip in early June, is batting leadoff and playing center field in tonight’s game against the Mariners. He was just 3-for-24 on his rehab assignment, but those aren’t usually predictive of anything. He was hitting .258/.329/.408 when he went down. Getting his bat — and, more importantly, his glove — back in the lineup will boost the struggling Rays in their quest for a playoff spot.