Rounding the May pole on Memorial Day marks the end of the first quarter of play in the current Major League Baseball season, a traditional time of reflection as well as reconstitution of what’s going well and what’s not at this important milepost of the season and a time to make a serious assessment of surprising developments that may have more staying power than first thought.
Most of the power-elite teams – the Phillies, Yankees, Cardinals and Giants – are doing pretty much what was expected of them prior to the start of the season in as much as on-field performance and where they stand through the opening two months of the season. One big exception to this is the Boston Red Sox, the team that acquired two of baseball’s most sought-after free agents in the offseason in outfielder Carl Crawford and first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez and owned the second highest major-league payroll going into the season.
Even with one of the best pitching staffs and a hitting lineup that gives the best pitchers in the game a case of instant heartburn, the Red Sox began the season with only two wins in their first dozen games. From there, Boston managed to get its act together, winning 18 of its next 28 games to reach the .500 mark for the first time this season in mid-May. Currently the Red Sox are back where they expected to be from the very beginning, challenging the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays for supremacy in the American League East.
In the National League, the Arizona Diamondbacks are turning some heads, owning a half-game lead over the reigning World Series champs from San Francisco in the NL West. The Diamondbacks have finished in the NL West cellar the last two years.
Looking specifically at the AL Central, where the Kansas City Royals reside, the biggest surprise, without question, at the quarter-pole of the 2011 season has to be the surging Cleveland Indians and the upside-down AL Central. The Indians lost their first two games of the season, both at home, but that was the lowlight of their season thus far. The tribe, predicted by most baseball experts before the season to battle the Royals for the bottom rung in the division, took over first place in the AL Central on the sixth day of the season, and haven’t been headed off since.
Equally surprising is that Cleveland, currently with a 32-20 record and a five-game division lead over Detroit, is doing all of this with essentially the same roster that was in place at the end of the 2010 season, in which the Indians won only 69 games. It is true that three-quarters of the season remains to be played, but it is also becoming increasingly apparent that this Indians’ team is for real and a team definitely to be reckoned with as the season progresses. Cleveland currently ranks fourth in the AL in hitting (.260), and the Indians’ pitching staff is sixth in the league with a team ERA of 3.77.
"It might have surprised people outside of our clubhouse, but it’s not surprising to me because I saw the second half of last season," said Indians manager Manny Acta.
The Royals battled the Indians for the top spot in the AL Central for a while early on in the season, but then came the month of May, KC’s Achilles heel throughout the franchise’s major-league history, and reality quickly set in to sour the Royals’ promising start. The Royals were a disappointing 10-17 in May. The only thing that has prevented Kansas City’s slow but widely expected descent to the bottom of the division is the disastrous performance of the defending division-champion Minnesota Twins two month’s into the 2011 season.
Offensively, the Royals have had little difficulty generating base runners so far this season – the team batting average through May (.261) is the third best in the league – and scoring runs, but holding down their opponents’ run production has been an entirely different story. Kansas City pitching is 28th out of the 30 major-league teams with a collective ERA of 4.73.
One of the Royals’ biggest strengths coming into the season was closer Joakim Soria, considered one of the best at his specialty in the majors. Lately, however, the team’s All-Star closer has become a huge liability, blowing his last three save chances, each of which turned an ostensible win into a demoralizing loss. Soria’s recent struggles have forced manager Ned Yost’s hand, resulting in Soria’s demotion from the closer’s role and the assignment of rookie and former Missouri Tigers’ pitcher Aaron Crow to that role for the immediate future.
Yost has some concerns about how Soria’s bullpen demotion will affect the rest of the Royals’ pitching staff. "I hope it doesn’t hold true to my experience, but once the closer goes down, it (frequently) throws everybody into flux," said Yost, who is in his second year as the Royals’ manager. "It just gets everybody goofed up. I’m hoping we can get Jack (Soria) going here quick and get him back on track."
The Twins stand 17-36 this season and trail the first-place Indians by 15½ games entering June. Minnesota has been plagued by injuries from the start and has been without the services of its best player, catcher Joe Mauer, who has been injured and out of the lineup most of the opening two months. Without Mauer’s potent bat and with first-baseman Justin Morneau’s struggles to regain his old form following the serious concussion he sustained last season, the Twins are next to last in the AL in hitting and dead last in the major leagues in pitching performance.
In contrast to the great season that Cleveland is putting together, the prognosis does not look good for the struggling Twins, who did not lose their 36th game last season until the first of July and spent two-thirds of the season sitting atop the AL Central.
The Chicago White Sox and Detroit also got off to slow starts in the AL Central. Detroit lost seven of its first 10 games. The Tigers have gone 25-19 since then and have climbed into second place, five games back of Cleveland. The White Sox endured a seven-game losing skid in the early weeks of the season that left them with a 10-18 record at the end of April. May was a little better for manager Ozzie Guillen’s troops, but the "other team" from the Windy City is still only a half-game in front of the fourth-place Royals entering the second quarter of the season.
As June begins, the defending American League pennant winners, the Texas Rangers, hold a very narrow advantage in the AL West. All four teams in the division (Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland) are separated by only two games after two months of play.
And to think the season is just getting started. Unlike the rival NFL, where a team can conceivably be out of the running after a quarter of action, and certainly after two quarters, in Major League Baseball nobody is out of it this early.
Hard to tell at this juncture whether that is a blessing or curse.
MLB Power Rankings & Five Words on Why
1. Philadelphia Phillies – Phab Phor pouring it on.
2. Cleveland Indians – Most surprising team thus far.
3. St. Louis Cardinals – Best hitting team in MLB.
4. New York Yankees – Bad pitching trumps good hitting.
5. Florida Marlins – Keeps finding ways to win.
6. Boston Red Sox – On rebound from disastrous start.
7. Atlanta Braves – Yields fewest runs in baseball.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks – Holding tough against difficult schedule.
9. San Francisco Giants – Finding out repeating isn’t easy.
10. Tampa Bay Rays – Better away than at home.
11. Milwaukee Brewers – Starting to string together wins.
12. Texas Rangers – Scoring juggernaut; not so afield.
13. Cincinnati Reds – Pitching rotation back in place.
14. Detroit Tigers – Hitting/pitching beginning to jell.
15. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Strong vitals belie mediocre record.
16. Toronto Blue Jays – About where Jays should be.
17. Seattle Mariners – Only half-game behind Texas.
18. Oakland – Two games out of first.
19. Colorado Rockies – Sixth best NL home attendance.
20. New York Mets – Long season ahead for Amazin’s.
21. Baltimore Orioles – Better team in different division.
22. Los Angeles Dodgers – Ethier and not much else.
23. Pittsburgh Pirates – Playing better than expected currently.
24. Chicago White Sox – Manager Guillen holding off henchmen.
25. Chicago Cubs – Exact opposite of Nationals’ situation.
26. San Diego Padres – If only they could hit.
27. KANSAS CITY ROYALS – Road woes, woeful starters concerning.
28. Washington Nationals – Good pitching offsetting horrendous hitting.
29. Houston Astros – Worst pitching staff in majors.
30. Minnesota Twins – Mauer’s absence isn’t only problem.