5-Minute Guide: Revised Predictions and What to Look For in the Second Half
(NEW YORK – July 17, 2013) – Last night’s All-Star Game marked the unofficial halfway point of the baseball season, and this week’s Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now, previews the top story lines of baseball’s second half, including Ben Reiter’s national cover story on how the lights-out Pittsburgh bullpen has the first-place Pirates playoff-bound and is re-stirring a romance with the fans in the Steel City. All-Star closer Jason Grilli’s first SI cover appearance is also the first time a Pirate has been on the cover since Barry Bonds on May 4, 1992.
Grilli, a 36-year-old first-time closer has bounced around as a starter and middle reliever for eight teams, including stints in the minors, since 2000. Yet, he enters the second half with an NL-best 29 saves and a 2.15 ERA. Along with All-Star set-up man Mark Melancon (0.85 ERA), the duo have emerged as baseball’s top and least likely shutdown eighth- and ninth-inning combination. “Give us seven innings, and we’ll figure it out from there,” says Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle. (PAGE 36)
Grilli, who served as the Pirates’ set-up man last season says his time with the Tigers in 2006 made him think that he might want to try closing games. “I saw the rock ’n’ roll of Joel Zumaya and Todd Jones entering games, and I thought, Jeez, I’d much rather do that,” he says. “Nobody says, ‘I want to be a middle reliever in the big leagues!’ That’s like saying, ‘I want to be an offensive lineman in the NFL.’ There’s no glory in that.” (PAGE 39)
Thanks to Melancon the Pirates’ bullpen has a nickname to match its new identity—the Shark Tank. The name stuck after he told teammates in spring training that he and his wife had gone shark-cage diving two winters ago. Researchers on the same trip encountered an unfamiliar great white shark and asked Melancon if they could name it after him. “When the [bullpen] gate opens, you smell blood, just like a shark,” explains lefthander Tony Watson. “You’re going out there to attack hitters, be aggressive. That kind of symbolizes the way sharks are in the water. . . . I guess. I’m not a big oceanographer.” (PAGE 36)
The Shark Tank’s ERA of 2.89, second best in the majors, is a big reason why the Pirates enter the second half tied with the Cardinals atop the NL Central. And while skeptics will point to each of the last two seasons when Pittsburgh flirted with a winning record only to collapse in the second half, this year’s team appears primed to end the longest streak of losing seasons in major American pro sports (20 after 2012). G.M. Neal Huntington says the rejuvenated fan base now expects even more than a winning season. He says, “They’ve shifted from hoping that we could win 82 games to being angry that we didn’t make the playoffs last year, and that’s a wonderful dynamic.” (PAGE 41)
Grilli hopes to not only bring fans a championship but to also be the last guy standing. “I’d be honored to be the last guy on the hill, get that last out and celebrate,” he says. “It’d be fitting. I’d be humbled by that chance, to be a part of that. I want to see people swinging from the Clemente Bridge.” (PAGE 41)
Buster Posey Featured on Regional Cover of This Week’s SI
Also in this week’s SI MLB Second-Half Preview: Senior writer Tom Verducci profiles the game’s most indispensable player—Giants All-Star catcher Buster Posey. Featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI, Posey is the only player in MLB history to win the Rookie of the Year Award, the MVP and two World Series titles by age 25. This is Posey’s third SI cover appearance.
Posey is off to another great start for a Giants team that enters the second half 6-½ games back in the NL West. It’s no surprise that the Giants, World Series winners in two of the last three years (2010 and 2012), are a significantly worse team when Posey is out of the lineup. When his 2011 season was cut short in late May after he broke his leg and tore ankle ligaments, the Giants failed to make the playoffs. Verducci says, “Over the past four seasons, the Giants are a .561 team when Posey is in the starting lineup and a .510 team when he’s not—the difference between 91 and 83 wins over 162 games.” (PAGE 50)
On a team full of characters such as Pablo Sandoval, Sergio Romo, and Hunter Pence, Posey stands out with his stellar play and humble nature. “The juxtaposition of Buster with those guys enhances him,” Giants CEO Larry Baer says. “Buster is cut out of all-America land. What we find is the fans like all of them, but Buster is the glue.” (PAGE 50)
Verducci adds that it’s Posey—a fame-phobic country boy—who has become the face of the team in the nation’s most progressive city. Verducci says, “For all the costumes, the hats, the watercraft and the characters, however, it is a humble, self-confessed homebody from Turkey Farm Road in Leesburg, Ga.—an idyll even further removed from the maddening San Francisco crowd than its Carson McCullers–like name implies—who is the Giants’ best and most popular player.” (PAGE 50)
With his wife Kristen (whom he met in high school), and daughter, Addison, Posey enjoys the same quiet, family-centric life he enjoyed growing up on a farm in Georgia. “I don’t really get into the city much—just for the games,” says Posey, who lives in the East Bay area during the season. For the off-season, he has a home 20 minutes from Turkey Farm Road. “I think that’s the way I like it, the way my wife likes it and hopefully my kids grow up liking it,” he says. (PAGE 50)
Despite signing a groundbreaking nine-year contract extension worth $167 million in March, Posey remains a humble country boy on and off the field. When asked what about baseball brings him joy, Posey said, “I was just thinking today as I was driving here how fortunate I am that this is my job. . . . I enjoy being in the clubhouse with the guys. I enjoy batting practice before the games. I enjoy the atmosphere. I like all of it.” (PAGE 53)
5-Minute Guide: This week’s SI MLB Second-Half Preview also features a 5-minute guide that offers revised standings and playoff predictions, players most likely to be traded, and more. Find more coverage here.