But 28 games into the ninth season of the Aughts, the Cubs lead the majors in not only runs (174), but also total bases (456), on-base percentage (.375), average (.288) and many more offensive statistics. Making matters even stranger, Chicago has compiled these gaudy numbers while getting next to nothing from $136 million leadoff man Alfonso Soriano, who just missed 14 games with a strained calf.
There are many cumulative reasons for Chicago's offensive outburst:
• Kosuke Fukudome's instant impact.
• Geovany Soto's breakout performance.
• Aramis Ramirez's continued growth in the cleanup spot.
• Ryan Theriot's table-setting savvy.
• A surprisingly effective, Brian Roberts-less second base platoon.
• Reed Johnson's contagious plate patience.
But one factor truly stands out above all the rest: Derrek Lee's clean bill of health.
Back in 2005 Lee finished third in NL MVP voting and made a run at the Triple Crown, leading the Senior Circuit in batting average (.335) and placing second in home runs (46). Lee broke his wrist the following April, causing him to miss all but 50 games in the '06 campaign. He bounced back to play 150 games last season, but didn't regain his power stroke until after the All-Star break (when he hit 16 of his 22 homers).
Lee dismisses the notion that the wrist tempered his production during the first half of '07, but Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry has a different opinion. "I'm sure it wasn't bothering him or hurting him last year," Perry told the Chicago Sun-Times, "but any time you have anything with your hand in baseball, it's going to take a while to get back to full strength."
The 32-year-old Lee certainly looks like he's back to full strength in '08. He owns a .360 batting average and leads the Cubs in home runs (8), RBIs (23), runs (26) and OPS (1.098). Lee is often overlooked when it comes to discussing the game's finest hitters, but make no mistake about it: A healthy Derrek Lee is one of the most devastating forces in baseball.
2. Angels' aces: In 2007 the Angels cruised to their third AL West title in four years behind a pair of lights-out starters: John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. Thirty games deep in '08, Los Angeles finds itself in a familiar position -- first place -- with two dominant hurlers once again leading the charge. Weird thing is, neither Lackey nor Escobar has thrown a single pitch for the Halos.
By beating the A's on back-to-back nights this week, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana joined Frank Tanana as the only pitchers in franchise history to go 5-0 in April.
Saunders, who compiled a 15-8 record as a part-time starter over the last two years, is definitely a surprise. But Santana's 5-0 start is more astonishing, especially considering three of those wins came on the road. The 25-year-old has always struggled outside of Angel Stadium, but he was absolutely dreadful on the road last season, finishing at 1-10 with an 8.38 ERA.
"We've never worried about that internally," manager Mike Scioscia recently told the Seattle Times. "We know that if we get his mechanics right, he's going to be fine, no matter where he is pitching."
Well, the mechanics must be right -- Ervin owns a respectable 3.72 ERA away from home.
At a perfect 10-0, Saunders and Santana still have a ways to go to equal the '07 record of Lackey and Escobar (37-16). But remember, Lackey is close to returning. And once this happens, Saunders and Santana become Los Angeles' No. 4 and 5 starters, respectively. It's a pretty nice luxury for Scioscia to have this kind of production at the back end of the rotation.
3. Nasty Nate: Here at Three Up, Three Down, we feel pretty guilty about the numerous verbal haymakers this column has tossed at Pittsburgh just one month into the season. So here are some positive words about a very praiseworthy Pirate: Nate McLouth.
McLouth arrived at spring training as a fourth outfielder, but he left with the starting center field job. He immediately exploded onto the national scene with a 19-game hitting streak to start the year. This was no Freddy Sanchez, slaptastic streak, either; Pittsburgh's leadoff man drove the ball all over the park, posting a hefty 1.082 OPS.
Through 28 games, the 27-year-old spark plug leads the Pirates in home runs (7), doubles (12) and runs (24), while ranking second in batting average (.330), RBIs (25) and walks (15). Pittsburgh has been searching for a long-term answer in center since Andy Van Slyke retired, and it's beginning to look like the Pirates have finally found their man. His gritty, blue-collar playing style definitely drives Yinzers wild.
As for that "Nasty Nate" moniker I haphazardly attached to the slugger ... Yeah, it's wholly unoriginal. But it just feels so right. "Welcome to Pittsburgh: Home of Big Ben, Sid the Kid and Nasty Nate."
1. Travis Hafner: Has anybody seen Pronk? You know, that loveable North Dakotan who can hit the ball a country mile. He's been missing since September, 2006 ...
Hafner is only 30 years old, but Indians fans are starting to wonder if his best seasons are already in the rearview mirror.
With Hafner mired in a 7-for-51 slump, Eric Wedge gave the designated hitter a day off on Wednesday and then moved him down from No. 3 to No. 6 in Thursday's lineup. Although Hafner responded with a pair of doubles, he's still hitting .221 with a miniscule .679 OPS. Going back to the beginning of last season, Hafner has a .259 batting average with 27 homers, 117 RBIs and an .812 OPS in 179 games. This is a far cry from the MVP-type numbers he put up in '06 -- .308, 42 HR, 117 RBIs, 1.097 OPS -- especially considering he only played 129 games that season.
So what exactly happened to Hafner following that spectacular '06 season? The cynical fan could blame domestication, as Hafner tied the knot with Cleveland native Amy Beekman in November '06. But I'm not ready to throw that sacred institution under the bus quite yet.
There are whispers that Hafner mysteriously lost a ton of bat speed. Could this have something to do with the sore shoulder that bothered him in March and parts of April? Not according to Hafner, who told MLB.com, "Physically, I feel great." Hafner's not seeing the ball very well; the normally patient hitter has definitely expanded the strike zone (as evidenced by his 28-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
The Indians survived one down season from Hafner, but a second consecutive power outage would be difficult to overcome, since cleanup man Victor Martinez has yet to leave the yard in '08.
2. Roy Halladay's supporting cast: After Vernon Wells booted a Kevin Youkilis single in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday -- allowing Boston to easily score the game-winning run -- one masochistic cameraman panned over to Toronto starter Roy Halladay. It didn't take a very qualified lip reader to make out the four-letter words spewing from the hurler's mouth.
Who can blame him, though?
The 1-0 defeat in Fenway Park marked Halladay's fourth straight complete game ... and his third straight loss. Over Halladay's four-start stretch, the Blue Jays have provided their ace with a grand total of eight runs.
Halladay has said all the right things to the media, but he has to be fuming inside. For the season, Halladay has received an average of 3.08 runs of support per start. And that, folks, is how you turn a 3.26 ERA and 1.07 WHIP into a 2-4 record.
3. Longoria's southpaw situation: During his first month in the majors, Rays 3B Evan Longoria hasn't done anything to really discount the sizeable hype that surrounded him in the preseason. But one perplexing deficiency has emerged: the right-handed slugger's deficiency against left-handed pitching. Take a look at his split:
Last year in Class AA Montgomery, Longoria hit .333 against lefties and .286 against right-handers. But during a short promotion to Class AAA Durham, he hit just .190 against lefties as opposed to .308 against right-handers.
"The guys that are in the big leagues that are left-handers, they're pretty good -- they're not just normal, everyday lefties," Longoria told the Tampa Tribune. "They're doing things that you're not used to seeing."
Sounds like some southpaws have a pretty good scouting report on the rookie phenom. Major League baseball is a game of adjustments -- time for Longoria to make his first tweak.
• Just noticed that every single MLB.com schedule (example: Oakland) features a picture of Indiana Jones on May 22, opening day for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fedora Day at ballparks across America?
• Nomar Garciaparra hit the disabled list for the 11th time in 13 seasons. As usual, The Onion provides a fabulous take.
• We discussed Atlanta's one-run woes a few weeks back, but this story has legs. Following Wednesday's 3-2, extra-innings loss, Atlanta dropped to 0-9 record in one-run contests. And it's 14 straight dating back to last year.
• After spending a good portion of last year in the minors, how is Cliff Lee a perfect 5-0? Well, a 32-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't hurt.
• Tampa Bay recorded its first winning April in franchise history, 14-12.
• Since "turning 33" on April 15, Miguel Tejada is hitting .364 with two jacks, five doubles and 13 RBIs.
• Vlad Guerrero got his 2,000th hit last Saturday in his 6,171st at-bat. Since 1950, only three players have reached that mark in fewer at-bats -- Wade Boggs (5,832), Rod Carew (5,965) and Tony Gwynn (6,094).
• Which is a more absurd fashion statement: George Sherrill's razor-sharp bill or Nick Johnson's porn 'stache?
Photos courtesy of Doug Benc/Getty Images and Mark Goldman/Icon SMI