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Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Updated: July 12, 5:34 PM ET
The questions of the second half

By Eric Neel
Page 2

As we begin the second half of the Major League Baseball season -- or, for our friends in Chicago, as the Dusty Baker Death Watch reaches Day 103 -- I have some questions.

(1) How do you feel about Nomar Garciaparra right now?

Mia Hamm & Nomar Garciaparra
Well, we figured we'd give you a look at both.
I'm not asking for your take on the half-beard. And this isn't just an excuse for us to post a picture of Mia (well, sure it is, but it isn't just that). I'm saying, do you believe in the Dodgers' first baseman? Do you think what he's doing -- a .358/.426/.578 line, a .998 fielding percentage at a new position, 53 RBI in 68 games, an ongoing 20-game hitting streak, and the miraculous, single-handed return of blade-sunglass chic to the greater Los Angeles area -- is for real? Do you think it might be 1999? Do you imagine you're watching one of the great bargain-basement seasons of the free-agent era and one of the best stories of the year? Do you anticipate late and postseason heroics? Do you giggle at the thought of his delivering a little Theo smackdown in a Dodgers-Red Sox Series?

Or, are you pretty much certain this isn't going to last? Are you waiting for the hammy to snap? Are you betting on a cascade of errors in crunch time? Are you laughing at the poor bums swinging deals for him in your fantasy league? Did you just put down a 10-spot on July 23 in the "When Will Nomar's Wheels Come Off?" pool at the office? Do you find yourself, without even thinking about it, and regardless of the topic, using phrases like "regression to the mean" and "statistical anomaly" whenever Garciaparra's image flashes on your television screen?

Nomar is on the cusp. He has the history of performance and the history of injury. He has gaudy numbers in '06 and he also missed the first 20 games of the season with a strained rib cage. He could go either way.

You could go either way.

And that's what makes him interesting. Garciaparra is a mirror -- he's a high-risk, high-reward investment, and he's a measure of who you are as a fan.

Are you the guy who goes all in, consequences be damned, for the chance to truly enjoy one of the more unlikely and heartwarming (remember, this guy was on the scrap heap only nine months ago) seasons of recent memory? Or are you the guy, stung once too often by the cruelty of the baseball gods, who holds back, trading the chance to revel for the comfort of knowing you can't be disappointed, avoiding the crushing blow and banking on the satisfaction of "I told you so"?

Now is when you decide. Today. Wednesday. July 12. Nomar is going to do what Nomar is going to do. You can't control it, and you can't let it shape you. Now, when things are delicately balanced between some truly great finish and some truly great fall, when you have to decide between hoping and not getting fooled again, now is when you plant your flag.

So who are you?

(2) What did Ryan Freel ever do to Jerry Narron?

Here's what Ryan Freel does for the Reds: He steals bases, he runs into walls and bloodies his nose, he plays about 23 different positions, he gets on base at a .383 clip and pops a few home runs, and he sets a gritty, gutty tone for the club every time he suits up.

Here's what manager Jerry Narron does: Sits him. A lot. In weird fits and starts, and often right after Freel has had a spectacular day. On June 4, Freel hit two home runs, drove in three and made a great diving catch in the outfield. On June 5, he got one pinch-hit at-bat. On June 8, he went 3-for-5, hit a home run and stole a base. On June 9, Narron gave him one plate appearance and then sat him altogether on June 10. Freel played on June 12, but not the next day. He played on June 14, but not on June 16. And on and on it goes.

Not since Mommie Dearest went haywire on Christina have we seen such traumatic schizophrenic leadership.

I say, let the Free Ryan Freel campaign begin here. Send your cards and letters to: Wayne Krivsky, General Manager, The National League Cincinnati Ball Club.

(3) Where have you gone, Vlad Guerrero?

Some of the raw numbers are still solid (18 homers and 62 RBI are nothing to sneeze at) but some aren't (walks are down and strikeouts are up compared to this time last year); also, the percentages are troubling, down .54 in on-base and .62 in slugging.

Is he hurt? Is his all-out style finally taking its toll? Have the pod people swooped down and replaced him with one of their own, an alien programmed to do just well enough to fit in, but not so well that he will stand out and thereby risk discovery and the failure of the intergalactic domination mission?

Vlad is a victim of his own ridiculously high standards, of course. A strong year is not good enough. We expect so much more.

And more to the point, the Angels need more. In 2004 Vlad rose up like a leviathan out of the deep and carried them to the postseason with a spectacular late-summer run. Does he still have that in him? The AL West is there for the taking, and the Angels have the pitching in John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver and Bartolo Colon to justify a move. So if Vlad isn't quite Vlad, does the front office have the Stoneman to deal some of the Angels' young talent (Kendrick, Morales, Kotchman, Napoli, Santana, etc.) to bring in backup?

That's the question.

(4) Will the Tigers realize they're the Tigers?

No offense to manager Jim Leyland. No disrespect to Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Nothing but love for Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson. But there is some element of this that's like walking across hot coals under hypnosis, right? Some part of it that's like Wile E. Coyote walking on air, right up until the moment that the Road Runner points out it's impossible?

The Tigers are supposed to lose 100 games, not win 100. They're supposed to fold in the face of the defending world champs, not surge ahead of them. They're supposed to go through the big, unforgiving slumps of the young, not show the steely, steady resolve of seasoned vets. They're supposed to look down, remember the coals are hot, remember the air is thin, and fail miserably.

What's the old Yogi line? Ninety percent of the game is half mental? Will Detroit realize this? God, I hope not.

(5) Who is the Twins' best starter?

Francisco Liriano
Hard to believe, but Liriano might just be better than Santana.
Give the edge to Johan Santana for now -- he's done it longer, and I like that higher K/BB ratio -- but this is looking close to a push. Which is really saying something, because other than maybe Roy Halladay and Brandon Webb, no one gets close to Santana. Francisco Liriano's June 22 start against Roger Clemens, on Clemens' first night back, in Houston, with the whole world watching … that was (along with John Lackey's crazy near-perfect game last week) the best start I saw in the first half of the season. The way the kid kept his cool, stayed focused, let his wickedness do its wickedness -- it was a beautiful thing to behold.

I got an e-mail from a friend the other day with just six words, a mathematical symbol and a question mark: "Santana and Liriano = Koufax and Drysdale?" The Twins' guys are lefties, but otherwise the comparison doesn't sound crazy as much as prescient. Bundle their arms together with Joe Mauer's bat, factor in the emergence of Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer and the blossoming of Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett, and we're looking at the Twins, the old AL Central power, being the new AL Central power again real soon.

(6) Will the Mets' pitching hold up?

Pedro is on the DL as we speak. As my father-in-law likes to say: "The tendency is to get better." But as I like to say to my father-in-law: "That is, unless you're old." What Pedro has done with the Mets in the first year and a half of his contract has been outstanding. But there was a reason other teams, including the Red Sox, didn't want to pony up for four years. They were worried about how long he could hold up.

Maybe this one's nothing. And maybe he's back on the beam in no time. But maybe this is the beginning of a long, tough second half for him. And if it is, the Mets and their big fat lead in the East are in trouble. Tom Glavine is coming back down to earth (check his June and July ERAs, up near 5.00). Steve Trachsel is Steve Trachsel. And after that it's rookie Alay Soler. Not good.

They'll make the playoffs, sure. Philadelphia's rotation makes New York's look like Baltimore's in 1970. But are the Mets built for a championship run? Can they withstand the Cardinals and then one of the AL power lineups for the crown? I don't see it happening.

(7) Are we still going to be talking about the Yankees and Red Sox come late September?

Nah. First off, what's left to say? Seriously. We obsess over these clubs out of habit. But let's be honest, like late-series episodes of "Moonlighting," the characters are played out; not even a dramatic kiss after all the bickering would spice things up. (Well, maybe if A-Rod and Papi made like Isiah and Magic before the next big series.)

But, beyond the fact that their familiarity should breed our contempt is the fact that the Yanks just won't be in it come crunch time this fall. Kudos to them for hanging in there through all the injuries so far this year; they've played the underdog so well even Jim Caple kind of likes them now (just kidding, Jim; I know that's sacrilege in your house).

The offense is strong, as always, even without Sheffield and Matsui. But after Mike Mussina, the pitching staff is full of question marks. Shawn Chacon has reverted to Version 1.0. There is no Aaron Small, literally and figuratively speaking. And Randy Johnson just isn't scaring anyone these days. The stuff is still fast, but it's flat, hittable, almost inviting. I was in Yankee Stadium 10 days ago and I saw Eli Marrero, Eli Marrero, take the man deep with two outs in the sixth … I'm not making this up.

(8) Has anyone gotten the Braves a commemorative gift? Gold watches for Schuerholz and Cox? Tickets to a cruise for Smoltz and Chipper? Flowers? Cards? A plaque, or better yet, a statue outside Turner Field? Anything?

In September 1991, the No. 1 song in America was "I Adore Mi Amor" by Color Me Badd (yes, with two d's), an embarrassment of a boy band featuring some of the most regrettable facial hair in the history of Western civilization. This week, the No. 1 song in America is "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado, a Canadian songstress four out of five cloistered monks agree is a hot, smokin' babe with better than average pipes. I tell you this, my friends … I point out this progress, this evolution if you will, this crawling out of the dark recesses of our ignorance and into the bright light of artistry and of U.S.-Canadian economic diplomacy, because it hints at and gives us a glimmer of understanding, because it is some crude but telling measure of exactly how long it has been since the Braves last missed the playoffs.

Admire them, my friends. Respect them.

And by the way, I hear candlesticks make a nice gift.

(9) Would I trade for Bobby Abreu?

In a heartbeat. The only thing more trumped up than the All-Star Home Run Derby itself is this theory flying around that Abreu isn't a good player anymore because he won the damn thing last summer. We're talking about a guy with a plus-.400 OBP, slugging in the .470s, who's on pace to steal 30-odd bases, hit a boatload of doubles and score and drive in more than 100 runs. Expect the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yanks to make serious plays, and expect him to be worth it.

(10) Will Ozzie Guillen lose his job because of something he says?

#!$% no.

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com and Page 2. Sound off to Page 2 here.