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Dusty Baker could face his ex-team, the Giants, in playoffs

Dusty Baker has the Nationals back on top in the National League East.
Dusty Baker has the Nationals back on top in the National League East. The Associated Press

When Stephen Strasburg beat the New York Mets on Friday night, he became the first National League pitcher in 104 years to start the season 12-0. Rube Marquard had been the last to do it, in 1912, although Strasburg had an easier route to the majors than Marquard. Strasburg attended San Diego State, whereas Marquard only passed the fifth grade and had to hop a freight train to his first professional tryout.

Arriving in Waterloo, Iowa, from his hometown of Cleveland, the 16-year-old Marquard stepped off the train a little bit short of town – while it was still moving. He gathered himself after the leap to pitch and win a game for Waterloo. When he didn’t get paid for it, he headed home on the hobo trail that eventually led to the New York Giants and baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Strasburg may have the best season-starting record than anybody in a long time in the National League, but a Washington Nationals teammate has done him one better. Three years ago, Max Scherzer won 13 straight to open the season for the Detroit Tigers, before he rode the rails to D.C. Scherzer and Strasburg now pitch for Dusty Baker, the pride of Del Campo High School.

At age 67, Baker still knows how to manage a major-league team. His club finished the figurative first half of the season Sunday with three straight wins and a six-game lead over the Mets in the National League East. At 54-36, the Nats have the third-best record in the league behind the Giants and Cubs.

Washington and San Francisco, you’ll remember, met in the divisional playoffs two years ago. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they played each other again, with Baker, who took the Giants to the World Series in 2002, facing off against Bruce Bochy, who has won it three times for San Francisco? Maybe the baseball writers could hold off on the Manager of the Year vote until after the playoffs, with the belt going to the winner.

Joe Maddon’s team, the Chicago Cubs, appears to be taking him out of the running. They lost nine of 11 entering the All-Star break. If the plunge continues, the season will turn to dust, as most of them have for the Cubs since they last won the World Series in 1908.

Only one thing would be better than Baker vs. San Francisco for the National League pennant, and that would be Dave Roberts and the Dodgers against the Giants. It’s been 50 years since the West Coast rivals fought it out, straight up, for the N.L. flag. They used to go head-to-head for the pennant almost every year, and sometimes the season went into overtime, as it did in 1951 and 1962. Since 1969, they’ve mostly played for the championship of the San Andreas Fault, with the winner moving on to more stable ground.

The Giants lead the N.L. West thanks to depth throughout the 40-man roster, and beyond. Clayton Kershaw is 11-2 for the Dodgers, a team that is 11 games over .500. Now he’s out because of a bad back.

In the American League, A’s manager Bob Melvin is good enough to win some kind of award, but it won’t happen by the Bay until management decides to be competitive again. For the past two years, it has ceded the American League West to Texas and Houston. It appears the A’s are waiting to get their stadium situation figured out first, which won’t happen until the Raiders figure out theirs.

Stephen Vogt will represent the A’s on the American League All-Star roster. Six former A’s also will be introduced on the All-Star sideline at Petco Park in San Diego – Josh Donaldson, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Lester, Bartolo Colon and Drew Pomeranz. The National League’s starting shortstop, meanwhile, will be Addison Russell, whom the A’s drafted in the first round in 2012 but traded to the Cubs in 2014 before he ever suited up in green.

Speaking of former A’s, not to mention former River Cats, outfielder Rajai Davis and relief pitcher Dan Otero have contributed to the improvement of the Cleveland Indians, holders of the second-best record in the American League and first place in the A.L. Central. It appears the Indians were inspired by LeBron James and the Cavaliers winning the town its first title since 1964. Cleveland had some problems over the weekend with the Yankees, but since the Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship, the Tribe has gone 14-6.

Manager Terry Francona has fielded winning teams for 12 straight years. Twice, he won the World Series with the Red Sox. He’ll probably earn his second Manager of the Year award (he won with Cleveland in 2013) if his team holds up in the second half, although the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals have plenty of time to undo the LeBron mojo.

A.L. East-leading Baltimore, with 137 home runs, is on pace to challenge for the season home run record. Toronto has won eight of nine to close the first half just behind the Orioles and alongside the Red Sox, whose David Ortiz – with 22 home runs, 72 RBIs and .332 batting average – may ride off into retirement as the American League’s MVP. Hopefully, he won’t have to hop a freight train on his way out.

Baseball

at the break

All-Star activities will be at Petco Park in San Diego

  • Monday: Home Run Derby, 5 p.m., ESPN
  • Tuesday: All-Star Game, 5 p.m., Ch. 40
  • Wednesday-Thursday: No games
  • Friday: Season resumes; Toronto at A’s, 7:05 p.m.; Giants at Padres, 7:40 p.m.
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