The month that sets up MLB races

Eight years ago to the day, on July 20, 2003, the once-proud Kansas City Royals were 54-42, 6½ games in first place in the American League Central. Tony Pena, the manager, was the talk of the league for his no-nonsense, no-excuses approach, and, in surprising response, the Royals' core of players (Carlos Beltran, Raul Ibanez and Angel Berroa to name a familiar few) kept winning, and winning.

The year before, the Royals had lost 100 games. Since the 1994 baseball strike, they had never finished above .500. As summer intensified, the Royals wilted, finishing 29-37, good for an 83-79 record and third place, seven games behind the division-winning Twins. It would be the last charge. The Royals would lose at least 100 games the next three seasons, at least 90 in every year but one since that summer run, and -- having lost 58 of 97 games this season -- are on pace for another 90 losses.

Two years later around this same time, on July 18, 2005, the Baltimore Orioles, who hadn't posted a winning season since appearing in the 1997 ALCS against Cleveland, were 50-42, tied with the sinewy Red Sox, one half-game behind the Yankees in the AL East. The rest of the season resembled a trapdoor, highlighted by Rafael Palmeiro. The first baseman had been defiant in front of Congress in March but was suspended Aug. 1 for failing a steroid test. He blamed his embarrassing positive on teammate Miguel Tejada, who would later plead guilty to lying to federal investigators investigating Palmeiro for perjury. The Orioles went 24-46 the rest of the way, finished 21 games behind the Yankees and haven't ended a season above .500 since.

The 2011 version of America's Sweethearts resides in Pittsburgh, where woe has been well-documented. The Pirates have not broken even since Barry Bonds' two-hop relay bounced too late to nail Sid Bream at the plate in the 1992 NLCS, but they are alone in first place in the eminently winnable National League Central. The Pirates have started the week with consecutive scintillating home wins against the defending division champion Cincinnati Reds, themselves a Cinderella story last season when they won their first division crown since 1995.

Dare it be said, the Pirates can win the division, and for them, the pennant race begins today.

Although there are more high-profile spots on the calendar, the next six weeks of the baseball season is by far the most intriguing. This period of discovery foreshadows the September pennant finale and the coming October glory. It also will reveal, painfully, which teams will lose games to attrition, the ones hopeful today but in truth built for only 100 games, or for 140 against the teams strong enough to employ the marathoner's kick in September -- and beyond.

The Pirates are one team to watch, but equally interesting are the Tampa Bay Rays, who were thought to be so decimated after having had Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler and Carlos Pena poached via free agency that they would not compete this season. Yet they remain contenders in the heinously difficult AL East. And the Milwaukee Brewers, through the acquisition of Zack Greinke and now Francisco Rodriguez, have sent a message to their fans that they are as unimpressed with the Central as the rest of baseball and might as well win the division.

A general rule of thumb: A team within five or six games of a playoff spot on Sept. 1 is in the race. As of today, Boston, New York and Texas would make the playoffs in the American League, with Cleveland and Detroit tied for first in the Central, both six games behind the Yankees for the wild card. Tampa Bay is 5½ games behind the Yankees, the Angels 6½.

In the National League, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Atlanta would qualify for the playoffs with Arizona, Milwaukee and St. Louis all within 6½ games of the wild card.

If there is a downside to the summer of fun, it is that the soft underbelly of the league that has empowered the Pirates and Cleveland Indians to feel good about themselves remains baseball's most powerful argument to realign. That argument certainly would resonate to the Rays, who could win 90 games this year and not reach the postseason.

More to the point of realignment is what awaits the Rays in September. Realignment also would rebalance the schedule, reducing the 38 times the Rays must play New York and Boston.

In the month of separation after the All-Star Game, the Rays play Boston and New York 13 times (they are 2-3 in a seven-game stretch with the two division titans at the moment), and, once September begins, 13 of Tampa Bay's final 19 games are against the Red Sox or Yankees.

At the top of the food chain, where such concerns do not exist, the superpowers lurk as the trade deadline nears: The Red Sox (who already have everything), Yankees and Phillies all seem ready to assume their rightful places in the October lineup as the leaves begin to change. The Yankees have been in or near first place all season but are not a particularly frightening club, hence the percolating Ubaldo Jimenez frenzy. Only CC Sabathia, pitching with the purpose of a man who knows he was slighted this season for the All-Star Game, represents a true starting pitching threat. Even the great Mariano Rivera is excellent but not fearsome. He is, after all 41 years old. Meanwhile, New York has played Boston nine times this season and lost eight, which happens to be the chief reason the Red Sox were not buried early from their 0-6 and 2-10 start.

And then, of course, there are the 2010 pennant winners from San Francisco and Texas, neither of which should be underestimated, neither of which has given any reason to believe a repeat is not possible. The Rangers have won 12 straight games, have shown the experimental Alexi Ogando insertion into the starting rotation to be a success and have enough money to be players, as they were with Cliff Lee last year, at the trade deadline.

The defending champion, San Francisco, is doing its (for its fans) maddeningly beautiful impression of the 1960s Dodgers, scoring few runs but giving up fewer. No team would benefit more from a hot bat (Beltran, perhaps?) at the deadline than the Giants. Nevertheless, you pitch, you win, and no team in baseball has won more games with a tighter run differential (+19) than the Giants.

The Giants beat the Rangers in five games to win the title. San Francisco is 57-41, the Rangers 56-41. Both teams are terrific at home but average on the road. The Giants have scored 120 fewer runs than the Rangers, but they are 26-12 in one-run games, 10-5 in extra innings, compared with 11-12 and 3-4, respectively.

San Francisco is following the formula it used to win last season's surprise title, and for everyone in the Bay groaning from this agonizing yet successful strategy, it should be noted that those hitless L.A. teams of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale that couldn't break a pane of glass lost to San Francisco in a three-game playoff in '62, then won pennants in '63, '65 and '66, including two World Series. Keep the Tums nearby and carry on. Everything will be fine.

Still, as the temperature increases, so will the pressure for teams such as Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Arizona. When the season ends and the outcomes have been determined, all will look back at this stretch as the period that defined a pennant chase or undid the promise of a successful first half.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42