By Gennaro Filice
April 11, 2008

1. E-Jax's resurrection: Five years ago a Dodger hurler by the name of Edwin Jackson burst onto the scene in the dog days of September by outdueling Randy Johnson in his major league debut, which happened to be on his 20th birthday.

Jackson ended up pitching in three more games that September, wowing scouts with his overpowering arsenal and becoming one of the premier pitching prospects in baseball. But in the years that followed, something highly unexpected happened to the "can't-miss" ace.

He missed.

Jackson developed massive control problems and struggled during two seasons with the Dodgers organization (making 11 combined starts with the big club) before being traded to the Devil Rays in January 2006. Jackson worked almost exclusively out of the bullpen during his first season in Tampa Bay and posted a 5.45 ERA. Last season the Rays tossed him into a rotation. Jackson finished the year at 5-15 with a 5.76 ERA.

Entering this season, expectations were extremely low for Jackson. He was penciled into Tampa Bay's starting rotation, supposedly holding the spot only until someone half decent came along. At 24, Jackson was already becoming a cautionary tale of what can happen to a top prospect if he's not developed properly.

But after a mediocre spring training, something clicked. In his initial start of the season at Yankee Stadium, Jackson recorded his first win by holding New York to just one run and five hits over six innings. Thursday afternoon he pitched eight innings of shutout baseball against the Mariners, earning win No. 2 -- a feat he didn't accomplish until July 20 last season.

Finally able to harness each of his three pitches -- a high-90s fastball, hard-breaking slider and effective changeup -- Jackson owns a 0.64 ERA and looks like that nasty 20-year-old from '03. He still needs to cut down on his walks (six in 14 innings leaves room for improvement), but this kid has the chance to be this year's Fausto Carmona.

2. O's bullpen: This weekend's blood feud at Fenway Park will certainly arouse the rabid debate over whether it's a "Red Sox Nation" or a "Yankee Universe," but as of Friday morning neither ballclub could even claim ownership of the AL East. That distinction belonged to the biggest surprise of the young season, the 6-3 Baltimore Orioles.

The O's entered the '08 campaign destined to lose 95 games. After Baltimore's 10th straight losing season in '07, new president Andy MacPhail dove headfirst into rebuilding mode, shipping off the team's two biggest stars (Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada) and proclaiming to, "Sometimes you've got to get worse before you can get better."

Not so fast, Andy.

Following an Opening Day loss to Tampa Bay, the Orioles ran off six straight wins. Even after being swept by Texas in Thursday's doubleheader, Baltimore still sits atop baseball's most celebrated division.

The key to Baltimore's hot start has been the bullpen's shocking turnaround. The O's 'pen was an absolute nightmare in '07, possessing the second-worst ERA in baseball (5.71). To add injury to insult, emerging closer Chris Ray had Tommy John surgery last August, most likely shelving him through this season. But when the sun rose on Friday morning, the Orioles boasted the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball (0.93).

George Sherrill, acquired in the Bedard trade, has seamlessly transitioned into the closer role, converting all four of his save opportunities without allowing a hit. Veteran hurlers Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker have been rock solid, and the anonymous trio of Dennis Sarfate, Matt Albers and Randor Bierd boasts a combined 15 innings of shutout ball.

It's still far too early for Baltimore to even consider the playoffs, but tortured Orioles fans should enjoy the ride while it lasts.

3. The hunt for Mark Reynolds' nickname: Last season Diamondbacks rookie Mark Reynolds got off to such a hot start that Arizona color commentator Mark Grace began playfully uttering, "There's a new sheriff in town." This led to Grace tagging Reynolds with a new nickname: The Sheriff. Eventually, FSN Arizona cameramen got into the spirit of things, routinely panning the stands for police officers during Reynolds' at-bats.

But D'backs fans never bought into it. And neither did Reynolds. During a recent broadcast, Grace admitted that the D'backs' third baseman begged for a new handle.

With Reynolds off to a huge start -- leading the majors in homers (5) and RBIs (13) -- the nickname search has reached a fever pitch. Grace and boothmate Daron Sutton have offered an assortment of possibilities that play off of Reynolds' first name, with "The Marksman" being the leader in the clubhouse. Cynical bloggers tend to concentrate on his all-or-nothing approach at the plate, suggesting "Special K" with the explanation that "His at-bats are either special or they are Ks." Personally, I'm partial to proposals that point out the resemblance to a young Mark Hamill. Best one I've seen: "Luke Skybopper."

Photos courtesy of AP and Jeff Gross/Getty Images

1. Deja Blue: In November 2006, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti signed center fielder Juan Pierre to a five-year, $44 million deal. "I truly believe the city of Los Angeles is going to love this player," the GM said at the time. Just one year into the deal, though, Colletti realized that Pierre is an out machine at the plate with a noodle arm in the field.

So last winter the Dodgers took another stab at filling the center field position, shelling out $36.2 million in a two-year deal for Andruw Jones. Unfortunately, the early returns on Jones have been wholly discouraging as well.

Jones' increased girth startled observers in spring training, and his production in the young season has been similarly shocking. At the plate, Jones picked up right where he left off last season: in a huge slump. The five-time All-Star is batting .129 with a laughable .161 slugging percentage. In 34 plate appearances, Jones has struck out 10 times and left 19 runners on base. His play in the field is even more jarring. The 10-time Gold Glover may be error-free, but he has noticeably lost a step. On Monday night Jones misplayed an Eric Byrnes line drive so badly, I had to rewind the play five times to make sure it was really him.

Oh, did I mention that Pierre's hitting .167 and has yet to score a run this season?

Besides making a huge imprint on Los Angeles' payroll, these two signings have created a logjam in the outfield. Until the Dodgers hoodwink some team into taking Pierre, talented youngsters Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp face the possibility of erratic playing time. It'll be very interesting to see how Joe Torre handles this situation going forward.

2. Atlanta's one-run woes: Nine games into the season, the Braves find themselves in the NL East cellar with a 3-6 record. This mark becomes more exasperating when one considers Atlanta's record in one-run games: 0-5. Following the team's latest one-run defeat, Bobby Cox said, "We've been in every game. It means we're a good club." Well, Bobbo, the former is definitely true, but what about the latter? Doesn't conventional thinking suggest that good teams win close ballgames?

Truth be told, records in one-run games are actually pretty random. In fact, four of the past seven World Series champions -- the 2001 Diamondbacks (23-25), '04 Red Sox (16-18), '06 Cardinals (22-27) and '07 Red Sox (22-28) -- finished below .500 in the category. One isolated year in the red doesn't necessarily signal a problem.

But the Braves had a major league-worst 37-58 record in one-run games over the past two seasons. And if they continue at the current pace, this will be a third straight season far in the red. Not coincidentally, it could also be Atlanta's third straight season without making the playoffs.

3. Roy Oswalt's declining dominance: In terms of wins and losses, there's no pitcher more consistent than Roy Oswalt. Since beginning his major league career in 2001, Oswalt has a 112-56 mark, making him the winningest pitcher of the 21st century.

But following Oswalt's first two outings of '08 (both losses) and a bit of research on some key statistics, it's easy to see that the pint-sized power pitcher is becoming less dominant by the second.

In his first two starts of the season, Oswalt rarely reached 90 mph with his fastball and had no control of his patented, overhand curve. He was tagged for 21 hits and eight earned runs, while recording just six Ks -- a low figure for this former strikeout machine. But upon further review, Roy's strikeout rate has steadily plummeted since his rookie season. And two other key statistics -- opponent batting average and slugging percentage -- have risen with alarming consistency. Take a look:

Now, decreasing dominance doesn't mean Oswalt's doomed to mediocrity. He just has to continue adapting to his aging body. (Adios, power. Hello, finesse!) With Oswalt set to earn at least $60 million over the next four seasons, his modification must be Houston's chief concern.

• At 1-8, Detroit is very fortunate that presumed AL Central contender Cleveland only holds a 4-5 mark.

• We're only two weeks into the '08 campaign, but Ozzie Guillen's mouth is already in midseason form. In a four-day span, Ozzie pissed off the island of Puerto Rico and started a personal vendetta with umpire Phil Cuzzi. Pace yourself, Oz-man -- it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Travis Hafner's ninth-inning homer on Tuesday night ended an Angels streak of 162 straight wins when leading after eight innings. And Hafner's blasé bat flip was Pronk chic.

• Philadelphia's Pat Burrell is truly a Mets killer. In 137 games against the division rival, "Pat the Bat" has 41 bombs.

Doug Davis had surgery for thyroid cancer Thursday, two days after he beat the Dodgers by giving up just two runs over six innings. Talk about a gamer.

• Since signing a five-year, $28 million extension with Arizona on Tuesday, Chris Young is 1-for-11 with six strikeouts and 13 runners left on base.

• Ever wonder what Yankees radio announcer John Sterling looks like when he makes his obnoxious, end-of-game call ("Ballgame Over! Yankees win! Theeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Yankees win!")? Enjoy this.

• Last season I chronicled "The many faces of Nick Swisher." Well, new team, new face.

• Detroit's Placido Polanco set a major league record for a second baseman by going 186 games without an error ... and then committed errors on consecutive days against the Red Sox this week.

• Tampa Bay 2B Akinori Iwamura's glove is made from alligator skin. Matching cleats are a must.

You May Like