The Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates open a two-game series Tuesday evening at Pittsburgh's PNC Park with both clubs performing better than preseason expectations.
The Royals were predicted by many to be in the bottom third of MLB, while the Pirates were expected to be one of the very worst teams in baseball. Neither is happening.
After a 1-6 start, the Pirates climbed back to .500 at 11-11 by winning four series since then and splitting a four-game set with the San Diego Padres.
Kansas City, meantime, has the best winning percentage in the American League (.667), coming off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers after Monday's 3-2 victory.
Even Royals manager Mike Matheny is not downplaying the significance of the hot start.
"It sounds a little contradictory because I always talk about (the fact that) there's not this 'must' message at the beginning of the season, because there's a bunch of time to make up," he said. "But I would also say that for teams that haven't had a lot of success in recent past I think it's important to show what we believe is true."
Players, he said, "need to see it to completely believe it. As much as talent is important, that belief is equally important."
The nice thing for the Royals is they're not just winning one way. They are 6-0 in one-run games, and they have won six games when scoring three or fewer runs.
"I'm excited that we've seen this team do a number of different things," Matheny said. "We've been able to get tough wins. We've also been able to manufacture wins and different components we were hoping to see at some point, we've seen them already."
One of the pleasant surprises for Matheny has been Tuesday's starting pitcher, RHP Jakob Junis. Originally slated for long relief and the occasional spot start, Junis is 1-0 with a 3.71 ERA. He's gone exactly five innings in his three starts and appears to have found a solid spot in the rotation.
Junis will face lefty Tyler Anderson, who is 2-2 with a 3.92 ERA. He has been steady, going five or 5 1/3 innings, and allowing three or fewer runs in each of his four starts. He's struck out 21 in 20 1/3 innings.
Neither Junis or Anderson has faced Tuesday's opponent before.
Pitching, specifically relief pitching, has been the key for the Pirates' standing in the middle of the pack as April nears completion.
"No. 1, our bullpen has been really good," Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. "I do not want to overshadow that at all. I think that's extremely important."
On Sunday, that bullpen pitched five innings of one-run relief as the Shelton used Clay Holmes, Sam Howard, Chris Stratton and David Bednar in relief of Wil Crowe, who was making his first start of the season.
Since the second series of the year, Pittsburgh's bullpen trails only the Mariners (1.34) with a 1.84 ERA (in 53 2/3 innings).
After taking two of three from the Minnesota Twins, the Pirates had Monday off.
"From the top to the bottom, we have a bunch of dudes who are really good baseball players, and we've got a really good team," Crowe said. "And as long as people keep sleeping on us, we're going to keep surprising everybody, I guess."
--Field Level Media