Looking ahead to the second half: The Indians are a good bet to improve

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The top of the AL Central is not terribly surprising. There the Royals sit with the biggest lead of any of the division leaders, four and a half games over the Minnesota Twins. Many people, of course, figured that the Twins wouldn’t be anyplace close to the top of the division and many suspect that they’ll falter as the second half wears on.

I can’t say I agree with that completely as the Twins have a lot of young talent and young talent has a way of not adhering to the expectations, both good and bad, people have for it. They’re not aware they’re supposed to falter, so maybe they won’t?

However the Twins shake out, it’s safe to say that no one expected the Indians to be in last place. Indeed, with their excellent rotation and big bats in Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall, they were thought to be a favorite to win the Central or, at the very least, give the Tigers and Royals a run for their money.

Except of that group, only Kipnis has been a big bat this year, getting a lot of help from David Murphy. Brantley has been OK, but far less of a threat than last year. Gomes and Chisenhall have fallen into the abyss, in part due to injuries. Carlos Santana has struggled mightily. While the rotation has continued to pitch well —-Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer all notched 100+ strikeouts in the first half — the Indians defense has been about the worst in the game, betraying its pitchers over and over again. That’s how a promising team winds up 11 games back and tied for last place.

But that really doesn’t seem sustainable for me. For one thing, the teams above Cleveland look to falter. Perhaps the Royals won’t collapse — there’s far too much talent there — but the Tigers are already in something of a freefall and will be without Miguel Cabrera for weeks. Those Twins, again, have overachieved and could very well slip. The team with which Cleveland is tied for last place, the Chicago White Sox, has been rumored to be in sell mode at the trade deadline and could be punting 2015, creating an opening for the Tribe.

More fundamentally, however, the Indians have to get better because they can’t be worse.

There has apparently been nothing wrong physically with Carlos Santana. He’s a streaky hitter and always has been, and in the final two series before the All-Star break, went 9-for-23 (.391) with a double, triple, home run and four RBIs over seven games. If he carries that momentum into the the second half, the Indians will have another weapon on offense.

The biggest challenge will be to right the ship defensively. And even a little ship-righting will be huge, because the Indians pitchers are just dandy at run prevention. Fortunately for Cleveland, that process has already begun.

Shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Giovanny Urshela were called up in June and, while they haven’t done much at the plate, they have totally revamped the left side of the Indians’ previously porous infield. Both have been dynamite with the glove and have drastically improved the Indians’ defensive efficiency in their short time. Perhaps that’s an anomaly and perhaps, with more time in the game, they’ll come back down to earth a bit. But both have good defensive pedigrees and couldn’t possibly be worse than what came before. Also, one or both of them could start hitting a little too to help even things out.

All of which brings us back to where we were before. The Indians are a wildly talented team with a great rotation and a couple of big stars on offense. On paper, it’s a team that should challenge for a playoff spot. Given the weakness of the non-Royals members of this division, they still may very well be able to in the second half, an 11-game deficit notwithstanding.

Pujols hits 701st career home run, connects for Cardinals

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ST. LOUIS — Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols hit his 701st home run, connecting Friday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pujols launched a slider from former teammate Johan Oviedo over the Big Mac Land sign in left field at Busch Stadium. The solo drive in the fourth inning made it 1-all.

Pujols faced Oviedo for the first time and made the 24-year-old righty the 456th different pitcher he’s homered against.

The St. Louis star hadn’t homered in a week since hitting No. 699 and 700 at Dodger Stadium last Friday. Pujols had gone 10 at-bats without a home run after two starts and one pinch-hit appearance.

The Busch Stadium crowd gave the 42-year-old Pujols a long standing ovation before he came out of the Cardinals dugout to tip his cap for a curtain call.

Pujols hit his 22nd home run this season for the NL Central champion Cardinals.

Pujols is fourth on the career home run list behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).