Nats, O's surprise early, troubles at home, and struggling free agents
The axis of power the past few years has been thought to run between Boston, New York and Philadelphia -- often referred to as the Northeast Corridor of I-95 -- but through the season's first five weeks arguably the two most compelling teams in baseball are the two mid-Atlantic franchises tethered to the same interstate.
The Orioles are undoubtedly the most surprising team in the sport. After sweeping the Red Sox in three games to improve their winning streak to five games -- including a bizarre 17-inning finale in which both pitchers of record were position players -- they have the best record in baseball at 19-9 with a +34 run differential that trails only the Cardinals and Rangers.
They remain a major long shot to even contend for a playoff spot -- consider last year's Indians, for instance, who had baseball's best record at 30-15 yet finished below .500 and 11 games out of the wild card race -- but they are starting to get interesting.
Baltimore entered play on Sunday with a team ERA of 2.76, the American League's best by a half-run. The O's allowed just three runs in a three-game series in Yankee Stadium earlier this week. Three players thought to have come up short of their potential in catcher Matt Wieters, first baseman Chris Davis and leftfielder Nolan Reimold each had hit five homers with an OPS greater than .940.
Baltimore is 7-5 in games against the Blue Jays and Yankees -- their only two opponents with winning records this year -- so it's not like they've only been padding their schedule against struggling clubs. Then again, the Orioles haven't had a winning record since 1997 and last lost fewer than 90 games in 2005, so even if they were racking up all their wins against the bottom-feeders, it would still be noteworthy.
Sunday's contest with the Red Sox, however, got loony. Still tied through 15 innings and the bullpen depleted, the Orioles moved Davis, the DH, to the mound to pitch the bottom of the 16th, where he escaped the inning when the potential winning run was thrown out at the plate. In the top of the 17th Boston moved its DH, Darnell McDonald, to the hill but he allowed a three-run homer to Adam Jones.
The whole AL East standings are inverted from their recent norm. That the Rays, baseball's new superpower of the past five seasons, are in second place is not an aberration, but the Orioles' residence of first place is; the Yankees and Red Sox occupy the last two spots in the division. There hasn't been a postseason without either or both since 1993.
Visiting teams won more than half of all games played this weekend -- 24 of 45, to be exact -- and no home team swept a series. The Braves, Marlins and Orioles, however, all swept the clubs (Rockies, Padres and Red Sox) they visited.
It's not just a weekend glitch, either. Home team winning percentage is down across baseball for the second straight season and is just .515, the fourth lowest since the start of the Live Ball Era in 1920. The only seasons lower were 1923 and 1948 (both .509) and 1968 (.511).
The difference between a .524 home winning percentage and .546 is a matter of four wins over the course of a 162-game schedule.
It's hard to ascertain a definitive reason for the uptick in road wins. It's tempting to ascribe pitching dominance as the cause, given how the depressed run-scoring in 2011 and '12 as well as 1968, but there's no similar correlation with 1923, '48 or '94. Also, 2010 was the first of the so-called recent Years of the Pitcher, but 2010 had the highest home winning rate since 1978. And the other recent low percentage -- .517 in strike-shortened 1994 -- came in a high-offense season.
For now it's hard to divine whether the track records of visiting teams in 2011 and '12 is the start of a trend or merely a fluke, but it's worth paying attention to.
Sick of visiting fans from Philadelphia overrunning their stadium, this winter the Nationals launched a "Take Back the Park" initiative in which the first batch of tickets to this series were available only to buyers with a credit card billing address in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. Washington drew about 107,000 fans in the three games and, after going 14-22 against the Phillies from 2009-11 in the first three seasons of Nationals Park, won two of three in the series.
In the series opener on Friday, Bryce Harper made his debut in the No. 3 spot in the lineup -- he went 0-for-3 but walked three times -- and the Nationals won thanks to five shutout innings from their bullpen, which is especially impressive given that the projected closer, Drew Storen, and the hired veteran gun, Brad Lidge, are both on the disabled list.
In the second game Nationals lefthander Gio Gonzalez allowed just one run in seven innings to improve to 2-0 with a 0.43 ERA (1 ER in 21 innings) with 22 strikeouts in three home starts.
Washington shares the honor of the NL's best record at 18-9 despite not having scored more than seven runs in any game and averaging just 3.44 runs per game, which ranks 27th. Those two wins illustrate their pitching success -- the club's bullpen ERA is 2.93, good for ninth in the majors, and the rotation is even better with a 2.09 ERA that is nearly a full run better than any other staff in baseball.
The Nationals' one loss, however, was costly as Jayson Werth broke his left wrist while sliding to catch a ball in rightfield. Werth had major problems with that same wrist
Four free agents who landed lucrative multi-year contracts are off to poor starts. The fallacy, of course, would be to assign any sort of verdict to a multi-year contract based on one month, but these are certainly not goodwill-engendering starts to the long-term deals.
The headliner here is, of course, Albert Pujols, who finally hit the first home run of his brief tenure with the Angels on Sunday afternoon in his 111th at bat of the season. There had been 275 players who homered before him this season. That followed an unexpected manager-ordered day off on Saturday to clear his mind.
There's obviously plenty of time yet for Pujols, who signed for 10 years and $240 million, to rebound in the 2012 season, though his first 27 games caused a serious dent. Through Sunday, he's batting only .196 with a .237 OBP and, most incredibly, a .295 slugging, the latter of which is less than half his .617 slugging percentage during his 11 years with the Cardinals. His .532 OPS this season ranks 183rd out of 188 qualifiers.
New Marlins closer Heath Bell, who inked a three-year, $27-million deal, has had his own rough start with a new team. He blew his fourth save of the season in only seven chances on Friday night in his return to San Diego. That led to a temporary demotion out of the closer's role, as he has an 11.42 ERA and ghastly 2.89 WHIP in 8 2/3 innings.
New Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who received three years and $36 million, tallied a hit in each game against the Giants this weekend but his season average (.214) and OBP (.259) are both about 100 points down from where they were last year when he was with the Cubs (.306 and .361).
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins isn't with a new team, but his performance has been unrecognizable thus far. After signing a contract for three years and $33 million, his triple-slash line is .229/.267/.266 as he has walked only six times and his four doubles are his only extra-base hits in 117 plate appearances.
The Comeback Player of the Year award can be a double-edged sword -- the recognition for a good season is nice, but inherently misfortune of some kind preceded it. For the Mets' Johan Santana, it was shoulder surgery; for the White Sox' Adam Dunn, it was an as-yet-unexplained season-long slump.
Both, however, have bounced back nicely in 2012. Santana won his first game since 2010 on Saturday, allowing three runs in seven innings to beat the Diamondbacks. He now has a 2.61 ERA in 31 innings, while striking out 34.
Dunn, meanwhile, hit his eighth and ninth home runs of the season in the weekend series with the Tigers and now has five homers in his last seven games. Though he leads the majors with 42 strikeouts, he's batting .250 with a .372 on-base percentage and is slugging .590. His corresponding OPS is .962, nearly 400 points better than last season's .569.