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New twist for halfway point.

Byline: Josh BOUSQUET

COLUMN: FANTASY SPORTS

As the Major League Baseball season passes the midway point, it's obligatory for columnists to pass out awards.

It's an easy way to fill space, but anointing midway MVPs makes as much sense as passing judgment on "Full Metal Jacket" before the action moves to Vietnam.

So rather than handing out meaningless accolades to big league players and rehashing the Lance vs. Chipper debate that has been a mainstay around the fantasy water cooler, I'll pass judgment upon my own predictions this season.

So, without further delay, here is a critique of my performance this season through the mirror of some of the world's most traditional honors.

- The Internet Boom Memorial Award for getting in on the ground floor

I started off the season hot, touting the potential of Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth in the opening days of the season.

In ESPN fantasy leagues, McLouth averaged out as the 193rd pick, which means he went largely undrafted. That quickly changed as he started the season with a 19-game hit streak and finished April with a .342 batting average, 7 homers, 25 RBIs and 2 steals.

By the end of June, though, McLouth's average was down to .280 and he only hit two homers in the month, but he made up for it by stealing four bases.

Even with his recent leveling swoon, McLouth is still hitting .281 with 15 homers, 53 RBIs and 9 steals, which is still a bargain considering he was virtually unknown entering the season. It appears safe to expect something in the range of a .285-25-85-15 season from McLouth which is as good as one can expect from a free-agent pickup.

-The Embarrassing Strikeout Award, honoring Nolan Ryan's 15th year of retirement

Three weeks ago, I thought I had found a nice little trend that could give many fantasy owners help at the second base position. Today, I realize I almost completely whiffed and was saved only from complete embarrassment by fouling off the first pitch.

That slight salvation comes from my claim that Alexei Ramirez could provide some help at the position, and at least he still holds a starting job. His batting average still hovers at .294, around where it has been since the second week of June, but he's hit only two homers and driven in nine runs since my endorsement. These aren't awful numbers, and could make him a serviceable fantasy second baseman for years to come if he keeps it up. That last homer, however, only came Tuesday and it was almost an out, just sneaking over the wall, but for now it helps me from looking completely terrible.

Only a little better than terrible, though, because the other two second basemen I touted with Ramirez are no longer playing - Cleveland's Josh Barfield only got 6 at-bats before having finger tendon surgery and Milwaukee's Hernan Iribarren had 14 at-bats before going back to the minors.

My apologies to all.

- The John Kerry Award, given to the player who does the best flip-flop impression of our storied senator as he sits out this election season

Players who fit into this category are numerous (see chart), but there is one who clearly stands out brightest on my resume.

I began championing the talents of Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds as a rookie last season and when he jumped out to a hot start this year that had him hitting .334 with 5 homers and 12 RBIs over the first two weeks of the season, I didn't hesitate to try and play the I-told-you-so card. His 2007 numbers had him as an average corner infielder - batting .279 with 17 homers and 62 RBIs - but he was hot at the end of the campaign, so I legitimately thought he was ready to have a monster 2008.When Reynolds' average fell to .219 on May 17, though, it looked like he might be even more inconsistent than he was that rookie year. Now, however, he has raised that to .261 and his power numbers of 17 homers and 52 RBIs show that with some improved consistency he could still reach star status.

Stay tuned.

- Don Imus Resurrection Award for the player who may yet find popularity again

Someone else who may be worth tuning into again is Cincinnati's Jeff Keppinger.

The Reds shortstop became a popular early free-agent pickup as his average didn't dip below .300 in April, causing me to harp on his productivity during the season's second week. Keppinger did spend some time in early May below the .300 mark, but had himself back at .324 on May 13 before hitting the disabled list with a broken kneecap. He came off the DL and started playing again June 22, and now is still batting .308. Owned in only 21 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues, Keppinger is a name to keep in mind over the rest of the season if your team's batting average needs some CPR.

Santa Claus Memorial Trophy given to my best-wrapped gift to the readers

And, yes, Grady Sizemore owners, you're very welcome.

On May 30, I included Sizemore in my look at high draft picks that were letting their fantasy teams down. And now, well, not so much.

Back then he was batting .255, but has raised that to .267. He's also hit 11 homers in that span, while driving in 18 runs and stealing seven bases.

This was clearly due to my state-of-the-art reverse jinx technology. It's the same dynamic that causes me to now put on the official record that I hope I do even worse in this season's second half.

Off to the races

Horse racing has never taken off as a fantasy sport because it got a big jump on that new vicarious industry by long ago embracing the actual sport of gambling.

The Breeders' Cup has found a way to marry the two with a fantasy challenge game - available at breederscup.com/nhc/bcchallenge - that begins this weekend and runs through Oct. 9.

Participants place a mythical win/place wager on each of the Breeders' Cup Challenge races. The top three players at the end of the contest then earn a berth into the NTRA National Handicapping Championship in January in Las Vegas.

Man, horses running through a casino - that promises to be the most exciting equine entertainment since "Ben Hur."

The length of the contest means that it'll be tough to jump in and do well as a novice, but if your fantasy baseball team is already languishing in the basement it can help pass the time until football season.

Contact Josh Bousquet by e-mail at jbousquet@telegram.com.

Banks withdrawal?

San Diego rookie starter Josh Banks quietly put together a few good starts when he started seeing action in late May, but recently has looked like he may not quite be ready to begin his major league escapade. Even with these latter subpar outings, Banks still has a 2.89 ERA and 1.19 WHIP and is owned in less than 20 percent of ESPN leagues. So keep an eye on his performances, for another good start would show some perseverance and make him worthy of a pickup; another bad one, however, and his name may become forgotten until next year.

Banks' game log with the Padres:

Date Opp. IP H R ER BB SO

May 24 Cin 2 3 0 0 3 1

May 25 Cin 6 5 0 0 2 4

May 31 SF 9 6 1 0 0 5

June 5 NYM 6 5 1 1 0 3

June 13 Cle 5 5 3 3 0 4

June 19 NYY 5-1/3 4 2 2 1 3

June 26 Min 5-1/3 7 4 4 2 1

July 1 Col 5 6 4 4 3 4
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 4, 2008
Words:1302
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