Gennaro Filice
Friday May 16th, 2008

1. First-quarter hardware: With one quarter of this season in the books, there's a surprising dearth of premature praise from overzealous media members. Well, Three Up, Three Down is here for you. I present the major award winners ... halfway to the halfway point:

AL MVP: Cliff Lee. Pitching rules the American League in 2008 (as reported by my colleague Tom Verducci), and at this point Lee is the Junior Circuit's king of the hill. The Indians left-hander possesses a sparkling 6-0 record and 0.67 ERA. (Four earned runs in 53.2 innings ... absurd.) Roger Clemens was the last starting pitcher to win MVP in either league, achieving the feat in 1986. If the season ended today, Lee would snap a 21-year drought.

NL MVP: Lance Berkman. There are a number of fine candidates in this category. Chase Utley had a hot start, Chipper Jones is still north of .400, Albert Pujols is a one-armed wonder and Hanley Ramirez has the bargain-basement Marlins in first place. But Berkman's numbers (.391, 15 HR, 43 RBI) are just mind-boggling. During his current 14-game hitting streak, Berkman has led the surprising Astros to an 11-3 mark by hitting .556 (30-for-54). Fat Elvis has seven steals, for crying out loud; his career high is nine.

AL Cy Young: Lee. Did I mention that Lee has 44 strikeouts and four walks to his name? He finished fourth in the '05 Cy Young voting with an 18-5 record. After Lee's minor-league demotion last season, this would be the sweetest of sweet redemptions.

NL Cy Young: Brandon Webb. On Thursday night Webb became the first pitcher since Andy Hawkins in 1985 to win his first nine starts of the season. While ground balls will always be Webb's forte, he's on pace to eclipse 190 strikeouts for the second straight season.

AL ROY: Jacoby Ellsbury. He thrilled Sawx fans with an impressive showing in the '07 playoffs and that success has carried into his true rookie campaign. The speedy outfielder wreaks havoc on the base paths, leading the AL with 31 runs and ranking third with 15 steals.

NL ROY: Geovany Soto. The 25-year-old catcher edges out teammate Kosuke Fukudome. Soto has excelled at the plate (as evidenced by his .321 average and 1.018 OPS) and handled his staff with notable aplomb. (The Cubs rank second in the NL with a 3.70 ERA.) He has also thrown out 10 base stealers in 25 attempts for a fabulous 40-percent clip.

2. Volquez's circle change: Rivera's cutter ... Webb's sinker ... Volquez's changeup.

OK, it's a bit soon to mention Edinson Volquez's signature pitch in the same breath as Rivera's and Webb's, but the Reds right-hander is running roughshod over National League hitters with his tantalizing off-speed offering. Thanks to the pitch, Volquez boasts the lowest ERA in the National League (1.12) and the third highest strikeout total (57).

Volquez employs a circle change grip, resting the ball almost entirely on his middle and ring fingers:


After setting hitters up with a mid-90s fastball, Volquez breaks off the low 80s changeup, which features a biting, screwball action. Since he throws both pitches from the exact same arm slot, it's pretty much unfair.

Although Great American Ballpark will certainly give Volquez some trouble in the coming years, he has yet to allow a homer over his first 25.1 innings in the bandbox.

3. Joakim Soria: Due to his heavy reliance on the cut fastball, underwhelming physique and calm demeanor, Kansas City closer Joakim Soria reminds many folks of Mariano Rivera. And looking at the two closers' numbers for this season, the comparison doesn't seem too far-fetched:

These numbers must make Kevin Towers sick. The Padres general manager failed to protect Soria and lost him to Kansas City in the 2006 Rule 5 draft.

A growing number of Royals fans believe Soria should be a starter, but that chat-room banter is senseless. No matter what some pundits claim, a shutdown closer is invaluable. Keep that Abe Lincoln beard in the 'pen.

1. St. Petersburg: Forty-one games into 2008, Tampa Bay is the sexiest team in the American League. Fueled by a core of exhilarating youngsters, the Rays reached mid-May with a one-game lead in the power-packed AL East. With each passing day, baseball fans across America are hopping on the Tampa Bay bandwagon. Unfortunately, the Rays still struggle for support from the hometown folk.

Through 24 home games, Tampa Bay has the worst home-attendance average in the American League at 18,445. Granted, three of these "home" contests took place in Champion Stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex (which can only hold about 12,000), but the numbers are still upsetting. The Rays just took three of four games from the mighty Yankees to vault into first place, but only 71,402 fans showed up to experience the excitement -- that's an average of 17,851 a night.

"We're starting to win some ballgames, but at the same time I don't think anyone is satisfied with what we're getting right now," center fielder B.J. Upton told the New York Times. "We have to continue what we're doing, and hopefully we'll create a little more buzz."

The fans that do show up to the stadium seem to create a ruckus, relatively speaking, but I have one request: less cowbell. Far less cowbell. Let's leave that obnoxious noisemaker to Kings' basketball and Mississippi State football.

I understand that it's depressing to spend a fine Florida day in a dome, but the ballclub has proposed a state-of-the-art facility for the near future. For the time being, the dome is home. It has air conditioning, right?

By locking up a number of players long term, this ballclub is finally making a true commitment to St. Petersburg. It's time for the citizenry to return the favor.

2. NL Worst?: On the heels of last year's National League Championship Series -- which featured the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks -- the NL West received plenty of hype leading into this season. Many believed it would be the best division in baseball.

So what gives?

San Diego has the worst record in baseball. The defending NL champion Rockies are only a half game better. Joe Torre's Dodgers are grossly inconsistent. And while the Giants are actually playing better than most expected, it's hard to get too excited about a 17-25 record.

The league's only encouraging team is Arizona, which entered Friday's action with the best record in baseball at 26-15. But this mark may be deceiving, as the Diamondbacks have cleaned up against divisional opponents. Against NL West teams, Arizona is 20-5. Against the rest of the National League: 6-10. Last weekend the D'backs traveled to Wrigley Field for a supposed matchup between two top World Series contenders. The Cubs unexpectedly broke out the brooms, holding Arizona to seven runs in the three-game sweep.

3. Fausto's peripherals: From a distance it seems as though Fausto Carmona is cruising. A 4-1 record and 2.40 ERA fall right in line with the numbers from his breakout campaign in 2007: 19-8, 3.06. But a closer inspection reveals some extremely disconcerting stats.

Carmona owns an astronomical 1.64 WHIP and a completely backwards K:BB ratio of nearly 1:2 (35 walks and 18 strikeouts). This is a far cry from his '07 marks: 1.21 WHIP, 137 punchouts and 61 bases on balls. Carmona's saving grace has been an MLB-high 15 ground-ball double plays. But as heavy as that sinker may be, Fausto won't always be able to pull a 6-4-3 out of a hat. If he doesn't get his peripherals under control, Carmona's ERA will definitely balloon in the near future. And nobody wants to see Fausto return to his yucky 2006 form. Eww.

• Yes, Manny's play in Baltimore Wednesday night was ridiculously amusing. Unfortunately, that Boston fan completely botched the high five.

• Twins rightfielder Michael Cuddyer could challenge Manny for amazing play of the week. Cuddyer, a self-proclaimed amateur magician, pulled off quite the trick Tuesday night, going glove-hat-glove on a routine fly ball. I still can't get enough of this old "Twins Magic Show" commercial with Cuddyer.

• Continuing with the theme of jaw-dropping plays, Nationals outfielder Willie Harris made an unbelievable, game-saving catch in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday. That truly is full extension.

Chase Utley and Roy Halladay received an endorsement from the White House this week. When asked which players he would build his team around if he were to re-enter baseball, George W. Bush offered those two names to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

• If Rockies hurler Ubaldo Jimenez can ever consistently harness his nasty arsenal, watch out.

Akinori Iwamura's interpreter Tateki "Bori" Uchibori is sure earning his keep. Uchibori threw ailing Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli batting practice on Tuesday.

• Tonight Shawn Chacon could become the first pitcher in MLB history to start the season with nine consecutive no decisions. Pretty depressing to see zero wins next to that respectable 3.53 ERA.

• Even though he's hitting .182 with just two homers, Andruw Jones is apparently keeping a positive outlook on life. The free-agent bust (at least thus far) is now heading to the plate to the tune of Bob Marley's Three Little Birds. You know, the ditty that goes "Don't worry ... about a thing."

Jason Giambi has more homers (7) than singles (6). But Giambi has his slump buster all lined up: a golden thong.

Prince Fielder faced Jonathan Broxton for the third time in his career on Thursday, recording his first hit. Measurements for the baseball pants featured in the matchup are unavailable ...

Photos courtesy of Icon SMI

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