Shohei Ohtanis playoff push, Jacob deGrom, Yankees: MLBs biggest second-half storylines

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He brought new eyeballs to the Home Run Derby. He compelled Major League Baseball to change its All-Star Game rules.

Now, will Shohei Ohtani get the chance to impact October?

As Major League Baseball launches its second half Thursday night with a Red Sox-Yankees showdown in The Bronx, Ohtani remains the person to watch most of all, the game’s best story.

The two-way stud, pacing the industry with 33 homers while posting a 3.49 ERA in 13 starts on the mound, stands as the slam-dunk American League MVP for keeping his Angels (45-44) on the periphery of the playoff race, 5 ½ games behind the Athletics for the Junior Circuit’s second wild-card spot (and nine games behind the Astros) in the AL West. They are long shots, undoubtedly.

Nevertheless, if Ohtani can somehow duplicate his ludicrous first-half contributions; if Mike Trout can return shortly from his lengthy injured-list stay for a strained right calf and remind folks that he’s pretty good, too; if the Angels can somehow get better pitching beyond Ohtani, what a boon for the sport it would be to place such a transcendent figure in their best month. Monday night’s Derby at Coors Field posted its best television ratings since 2017, and that was with Ohtani falling to the Nationals’ Juan Soto in a first-round thriller. Imagine the global audience if Ohtani could do his thing in the most important games?

Short of that, we’ll just have to settle for seeing if Ohtani can break Roger Maris’ single-season AL home run record of 61 while racking up, say, 150 strikeouts as a pitcher. Which would be pretty spectacular in its own right.

Here are nine other second-half storylines that will keep your attention:

2. Jacob deGrom and the Mets

After blowing off the All-Star Game, can the sport’s second-best two-way player stay healthy, keep his ERA (1.08) under the 1968 Bob Gibson gold standard (1.12) and lift his OPS (.758) over .800 to become the first dual MVP/Cy Young Award winner since Clayton Kershaw in 2014? Most meaningful for Mets fans, can deGrom pull off an October homage to Madison Bumgarner and lead his team to its third title?

3. The Cubs’ trade deadline

“Life comes at you fast,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last week, a tribute to his fellow Chicagoan Ferris Bueller, as well as the bugle call to the likely end of a Cubs era.

Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Craig Kimbrel, Joc Pederson and Anthony Rizzo all are in their walk years. How many will Hoyer unload by the July 30 trade deadline? Will it matter if the Cubs, at 44-46 far out of their divisional and wild-card races, play well out of the gate against soft opponents (the Diamondbacks and Cardinals)?

The Cubs’ recent slippage takes away some of the luster and leverage from the highly disappointing Twins, who can shop Jose Berrios (under control through next year) as well as impending free agents Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ and Michael Pineda and, if they really wanted to tear things down, Josh Donaldson and Taylor Rogers.

4. Trevor Bauer

Will he pitch again this season? Will he ever pitch again in the big leagues? The top pitcher of last winter’s free-agent market has quickly penalized the Dodgers for ignoring the myriad red flags surrounding him and paying him $102 million. He is currently on administrative leave as both MLB and the Pasadena, Calif., police department investigate allegations that he committed sexual assault. His status hovers over the thrilling National League West race that pits the defending champion Dodgers, currently in second place, against the shocking Giants, in first, and the thrilling Padres, in third.

5. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s Triple Crown pursuit

We understand now that neither batting average nor RBIs rank as particularly helpful measures. Nevertheless, the Triple Crown still carries a romance to it, as we saw when Miguel Cabrera captured it 2012, the first such achievement since Carl Yastrzemski did so in 1967. Vladdy Jr., fresh off his MVP performance in the All-Star Game, currently leads the AL in batting average (.332) and RBIs (73) while trailing Ohtani by five homers (28).

6. Health

It has been a predictably rough go for many players as MLB climbs back to the standard 162-game schedule after playing just 60 last year during the pandemic. The Mets deserve credit for fighting through their blizzard of ailments, yet they also have benefited from their opponents’ misfortune. Most recently, the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. went down for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Surely baseball doesn’t want its postseason to turn into a Darwinian display of survival, like this year’s NBA playoffs .

7. The Yankees

Oh, there they are! All the way down at No. 7, despite the inherent New York bias, due to their mediocrity. Can they climb out of their hole, with eight of their first 10 games against the resurgent Red Sox? A massive selloff at the deadline appears quite unlikely, no matter how they fare. Also quite unlikely? Aaron Boone, in the last year of his contract, landing another deal if the Yankees can’t fix this.

8. Sticky stuff

For all the early harrumphing over the umpires’ search and seizure, the crackdown on foreign substances has largely worked so far, with only one pitcher (Seattle’s Hector Santiago, who is appealing his 10-game suspension) getting caught, and with offense up slightly. And hey, prime suspect Gerrit Cole even dominated the Astros while under scrutiny. Could it be this simple a fix? We’ll find out in these next few months.

9. The Astros

They’ll play in front of Dodgers fans Aug. 3-4 at Chavez Ravine, the first such gig since revelations of their 2017 sign-stealing, and don’t be surprised if they make Yankees fans look tame and respectful in comparison. Regardless, Houston’s dominance under Dusty Baker is remarkable. Can the best villains in any professional sport right now reach their third World Series in five years?

10. COVID-19

Sorry, we’re not quite done with this storyline, or did you not see the Phillies’ Alec Bohm removed from a game right before the break after testing positive? With seven teams not reaching the 85 percent threshold for vaccination that would limit them from myriad restrictions — and making them far more vulnerable to the Delta variant — this virus unfortunately will continue to play a role in this season’s outcomes.

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