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After All-Star party, baseball gets back to work

By Jay Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 7:40 p.m. MDT

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija throws against the Seattle Mariners during a baseball game, Friday, July 11, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Ted S. Warren, AP

Sure, it was great for a couple days. The cheers for Derek Jeter. The power of Giancarlo Stanton. The excellence of Mike Trout in the American League's 5-3 victory.

Baseball's All-Star party in the Twin Cities was a long series of smiles for players and fans. But the break is over now, and the real fun begins Friday night.

Heading into the second half of the season, there are all sorts of compelling stories from coast to coast. It could be one fun summer in California, where Oakland begins the weekend with the best record in the majors, and the Giants, Angels and Dodgers are in prime playoff position. The trade deadline is in two weeks, and the recovery of several key injured players could dramatically affect a couple of divisions.

The A's bearded collection of shaggy misfits and stars is looking for the franchise's first World Series title in 25 years. Sensing an opportunity, general manager Billy Beane got an early jump on the deadline when he acquired pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a deal with the Chicago Cubs on July 4.

The blockbuster trade created an awkward scene at the All-Star game, where Samardzija was introduced with the NL reserves and then joined his new teammates in the AL dugout.

"I'm really excited to just put all this to rest now and the sideshow that's happened right in the middle of all this," Samardzija said. "It was a great opportunity to get to know these guys more. I flew out here with them. I'm excited."

There will be no such problem for any other players on the move this month.

Boston pitcher Jake Peavy, Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley, San Diego closer Huston Street and New York Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon are thought to be on the market as contenders shop for that missing piece that could pay off into October.

"I guess there's a possibility for anything, but at this point I love playing in Philadelphia," said Utley, who could veto any deal.

Jeter was warmly greeted everywhere he went this week, and the Yankee captain contributed two hits to the AL All-Star win. Any chance of his final season ending in the playoffs likely depends on the return of rookie ace Masahiro Tanaka, who is out with a partially torn ligament in his right elbow. He is going through a six-week rehab program but season-ending surgery is an option. Michael Pineda also could return from a back injury to New York's battered rotation.

The Bronx is one of many spots where health is an issue for the stretch run.

The recovery of Reds sluggers Joey Votto (strained muscle above left knee) and Brandon Phillips (left thumb) and indispensable Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (right thumb) could affect the bunched NL Central. The Pirates could get starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (tight lat muscle) in the first few weeks after the break.

"We know what we're capable of doing, and we're going to play like we've been there before, like we've done it before," said slugger Andrew McCutchen, hoping to lead Pittsburgh back to the playoffs for the second straight year. "That's what we've got to look forward to."

The strained right quadriceps of Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion and ailing back of Detroit's Victor Martinez also bears watching. Atlanta, which is battling Washington for the top spot in the NL East, could get a lift from the return of Evan Gattis after the catcher was sidelined by a bulging disk in his back.

Beyond the standings, the races for the individual honors will come into focus.

Trout could add the AL MVP award to his one from the All-Star game, especially if the Angels can run down the A's in the competitive AL West. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is among the favorites for the NL award, but he could be hurt by the Rockies' poor play.

The NL Cy Young Award features an interesting duel between Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals.

Trying for a repeat, Kershaw had a 41-inning scoreless streak that ended last week and carried a 1.78 ERA into the break. But Wainwright is 12-4 with a 1.83 ERA in 138 innings, compared to 96 1-3 for Kershaw, who missed all of April with a back problem.

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, the overwhelming favorite for AL Rookie of the Year with Tanaka on the shelf, could become baseball's first rookie home run king since Mark McGwire with the Athletics in 1987.

"He's continuing to make adjustments with what other teams are trying to do to him," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said last month, "and when he hits it on the barrel it goes a long way."

AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell and Ronald Blum in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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