Tampa Bay on top highlights 'crazy' first half

NEW YORK - Tampa Bay is on top, the Chicago Cubs keep winning and Major League Baseball might add instant replay before the summer's over.

What in the name of Babe Ruth is going on with this grand ol' game? Conventions are getting shattered everywhere, just like those thin-handled maple bats.

Indeed, it's been a wild first half for the national pastime: one no-hitter, three fired managers and Ken Griffey Jr.'s 600th home run. And with a farewell All-Star game at Yankee Stadium only days away, there's something else that sticks out, too.

'Nobody picked up Barry Bonds. That might be the biggest surprise in baseball. Barry Bonds is out there,' Torii Huter of the Los Angeles Angels said. 'I can't believe that you wouldn't want him on your team. I know he comes with baggage or whatever, but if I was an owner, I'd like to get Barry.'

While the indicted home run king was left waiting for an attractive offer, young pitchers such as Tim Lincecum and Edinson Volquez emerged. Chipper Jones flirted with .400, Manny Ramirez hit homer No. 500 and Mike Piazza called it a career.

Josh Hamilton continued his remarkable comeback from drug and alcohol abuse, putting up huge numbers for Texas. Cancer-survivor Jon Lester also added to his feel-good story, tossing a no-hitter for Boston.

The Cubs jumped out to a strong start, looking to win their first World Series championship in 100 years. They just made a big move, too, acquiring right-hander Rich Harden from Oakland to fortify a top-notch rotation.

That deal came one day after rival Milwaukee landed lefty ace CC Sabathia from the Indians, who have hit the skids after falling one win short of the American League pennant last year.

Two blockbuster trades right before the All-Star break and suddenly the NL Central appears awfully tough. A few months back, it was supposed to be the softest division in baseball.

But that's how fast things have flipped this season.

Take the Tampa Bay Rays, for instance. They dropped the Devil from their nickname last winter and started playing like a completely different team.

Long the laughingstock of the AL East, Tampa Bay got tired of being kicked around. Joe Maddon's feisty young squad had a spring training fight with the Yankees, then a nasty brawl with the Red Sox. Following up their punches with much-improved pitching, the Rays soon surged to the best record in baseball.

'I had anticipated that we'd be a lot better by now. I'd be lying if I said I thought we'd be this many games over .500,' Maddon said. 'That's exceeding expectations a bit.'

Especially for a club that's never won more than 70 games in its 10-season history.

'When we were losing, everybody wanted to knock us. Now they want to beat us,' reliever J.P. Howell said. 'I always thought we were going to be in the mix, but I was shocked that we're doing this.'