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The Strike Zone

Are you for real? Assessing baseball’s hot starts

If the Giants are to contend, having Tim Hudson pitch like he did on Wednesday will go a long way. (Ross D. Franklin/AP) The Giants need Tim Hudson to pitch like he did on Wednesday if they want to contend. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

One game obviously represents far too small a sample size from which to draw any firm conclusions about a team’s potential. But two to five games? Well, still too small.

Even so, each of the league’s 30 clubs has now completed at least its first full series, and we can at least begin to assess whether the hot starts of the half-dozen which are already two-or-more games above .500 represent something sustainable. Three of the six so far seem to be no less than the World Series contenders that everyone expected them to be: the Dodgers (4-1), the Nationals (3-0) and the Tigers (2-0). The other three are more surprising. In fact, last year they finished an average of 23 games below .500. Are they for real?

San Francisco Giants (3-1). For real? Probably.

Tim Hudson’s first start – he pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings on Wednesday – proved he has fully recovered from the broken leg he graphically suffered last July. And there is little reason to believe that, even at 38 years old, he won’t be the stabilizing mid-rotation force that the Giants, who still have most of the key pieces from their 2012 championship run, envisioned. But San Francisco’s four games against the Diamondbacks hinted that its real improvement will come on offense. Brandon Belt already has three home runs, including one in the first inning of Thursday’s 8-5 win, and that suggests the former top-25 prospect might have developed the genuine power stroke a club which homered just 107 times last year desperately needs. Equally important is the return to health of leadoff man Angel Pagan, who missed 91 games in 2013 due mostly to surgery to repair a torn left hamstring. Pagan has eight hits in his first 19 at-bats, the most recent of them coming with two outs in the top of the eighth on Thursday, when he hit what proved to be the difference-maker: A three-run home run.

Seattle Mariners (3-1). For real? Possibly.

“They needed to add a right-handed bat to protect Robinson Cano,” one rival scout told me a couple of weeks ago, “because Lloyd McClendon is going to get tired of seeing the opposing manager putting up four fingers in what should be Cano’s situations.” Opponents have indeed already walked Cano four times (twice intentionally) – he has more bases on balls save everyone but Jose Bautista and Andrew McCutchen – but the batter behind him, the long-struggling, switch-hitting former top prospect Justin Smoak, has made them pay. Smoak is batting .353 with an AL-best seven RBI. He is also just one of the Mariners’ until-now disappointing prospects who are showing signs of putting everything together for the game’s highest-scoring offense, as Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino are both off to promising starts at the dish. We have recently seen a few clubs quickly rise into contention thanks to a group of talented young players who all made the leap together – the 2012 Nationals and Orioles come to mind – and the Mariners might be in the nascent stages of something similar. That Seattle held a couple of high-powered offenses (the Angels and A’s) to a total of 11 runs over four games without the services of the starters who are supposed to be their second- and third-best, the mildly injured Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, is particularly heartening.

Miami Marlins (3-1). For real? Not exactly.

The Marlins currently trail only the Mariners in runs scored, with 27, but those all came against the Rockies, who had the NL’s worst ERA last season and figure to do so again. If you’d like to wager that 31-year-old journeyman Casey McGehee will remain the majors’ RBI leader a week from now, I’ll take you on. The real reason for some optimism is the collection of power arms Miami has assembled. Jose Fernandez and Nate Eovaldi are the league’s only starters whose fastballs averaged in excess of 95 mph in their first outings, and Henderson Alvarez’s averaged more than 93. Additionally, two relievers, Carlos Marmol and Mike Dunn, are both averaging 94.3. That is an awful lot of heat – enough to make you believe Miami, assuming even a relatively modest continued offensive uptick, has a real shot of finishing third in the NL East for the first time since 2010.

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