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Baseball Central Long dormant rivalry between Tigers, Indians is heating up

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yankees-Red Sox is passe. Looks like you can say the same about Dodgers-Giants and Cardinals-Cubs. None of those traditional rivalries is going to pit postseason-bound teams because it looks like at least one of them is out of the money as the second half begins today.

What's going to be the rivalry to watch in the second half? Sunday's brawl in Oakland shined a spotlight on Athletics-Mariners but the vote here goes to the AL Central, where the Indians and Tigers have eight meetings left in a backdrop of ever-growing gamesmanship.

The Tigers hit the All-Star break with a one-game lead. Detroit and Cleveland -- former AL East rivals -- are the only two teams in the same division to already hit 50 wins.

"It's definitely a rivalry that's been dormant but it's really picking up and that's great," Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander said during All-Star week. "And the games have been awesome. Back and forth every night. It should be great all season."

Last week in Comerica Park, the Tigers tried to get in the Indians' heads. Pudge Rodriguez barked at Tribe slugger Travis Hafner that he was out of the back of the batters' box and umpires started timing the deliberate delivery of Cleveland reliever Rafael Betancourt, who twice had balls called on him because he was too pokey working to the plate.

Tribe manager Eric Wedge initially accused Detroit skipper Jim Leyland of pointing that out to the umps and Wedge then backed off after Leyland said "we don't play those bleeping high school games."

"Some crazy things went on but we're OK with it," said Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia. "I like those guys. I really do. There's a lot of good guys on that team. We talk a lot before the games about what was going on. It's going to be heated but I know it will be great in the second half."

The Indians lead this year's series, 6-4. The teams get together again Aug. 14-15 in Jacobs Field, Aug. 21-23 in Comerica Park and then Sept. 17-19 back at the Jake. The Tigers are trying to defend their AL championship while the Indians have not been to the playoffs since 2001.

They're benefiting from the decline of the Yankees, who seem destined to miss the postseason for the first time since 1993. There's going to be two playoff teams either in the AL Central or AL West, where the Angels and Mariners are battling and the Athletics have the reputation of being a second-half team.

>Non-Barry milestones

The first chase to end in the second half should be the Phillies' "quest" to be the first team to lose 10,000 games. The Phils enter the break at 9,999.

Tom Glavine needs three wins for 300. Ken Griffey has 586 home runs and needs one more to snap his tie with Frank Robinson for sixth all time. Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki has 1,482 hits. He needs just 18 to become the fastest ever to 1,500.

Gary Sheffield is 17 hits from 2,500. The 500-home run club could be dented by Alex Rodriguez (494), Jim Thome (486) and Manny Ramirez (481). Houston's Hunter Pence is gunning to be the first NL rookie to win a batting title.

Bonds, of course, is five homers from breaking Hank Aaron's record of 755.

>On the block?

Now that White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle is off the market, the best starting pitcher who might be dealt is Florida's Dontrelle Willis and he'll come with a steep price.

Teams looking for bullpen help are eagerly watching Eric Gagne of the Rangers, the former Dodgers closer. With Adam Miller suddenly struggling in Buffalo, the Indians' interest has to be higher. Same for the Tigers, who are still wondering how healthy Joel Zumaya will be when he returns in late August. The Rangers might also be shopping first baseman Mark Teixeira once he recovers from a quad injury because Teixeira and new manager Ron Washington have not been getting along.

Look for the Reds to be sellers as well, especially in the case of Adam Dunn. The Mariners might be interested in him and there was some talk here that Ken Griffey Jr. was so taken by his return to Seattle last month for interleague play that he would at least entertain the thought of going back to the Mariners if they stay in the race.

>Second half stories

1. Bonds. It should happen this month.

2. The return of Pedro Martinez. If he's even remotely close to being healthy, he could make a huge difference for the Mets.

3. The demise of the Yankees. Will it mean the end for Joe Torre?

4. Will all that money spent be enough for the Cubs to overtake the Brewers?

5. Albert Pujols vs. Tony La Russa. The Cardinals' genius skipper was going at it last October with Scott Rolen. Now his top star is furious with him after not getting off the bench Tuesday night.

>September series to watch

10-12: Braves at Mets

11-13: Padres at Dodgers

14-16: Phillies at Mets

17-19: Tigers at Indians

20-23: Mariners at Angels

25-27: Indians at Mariners (DH on 26th)

27-30: Padres at Brewers (who would have thought this figures to be a key series?)

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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Division update

AL East: With Yanks and Jays sputtering, Red Sox look unbeatable.

AL Central: Tigers, Tribe will battle but both hope to make October party.

AL West: Angels still lead but Mariners have been a huge surprise.

NL East: Mets can't pull away from Braves and Phillies.

NL Central: Brewers the best of a blah bunch. NL West: Padres, Dodgers, D-Backs will claim two playoff spots.

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