Despite usingBarry Bonds in all but six of their first 32 games, the Giants (15-17) couldnot play winning baseball over the first five weeks. In the bizarre world ofthe National League, however, that wasn't nearly as strange as the fact thatthe Reds and the Rockies were in first place at week's end. Stranger still wasthe upside-down act of the Braves, who with last Saturday's loss to the Metsfell nine games out of first place for the first time since August 1993. Thoughthey beat New York on Sunday, the Braves faced a steep climb to extend theirrun of 14 straight division titles. ¬∂ After taking two of three over theweekend, David Wright (below) and the Mets had won or split 10 of 11 series,while allowing the second-fewest runs in the league. And the second-placePhillies, themselves four games ahead of Atlanta, ended the week on their firsteight-game winning streak in 15 years. One fifth of the way through the season,here are the other surprising developments that rival the Braves' plight.
Not since itswire-to-wire championship season of 1990, and only four times since 1901, hasCincinnati gotten off to a better start than its 20-10 mark this season. Suchsuccess was wholly unexpected for a club that hasn't had a winning record since2000 and made minimal personnel upgrades over the winter.
Though starcenterfielder Ken Griffey Jr. has missed all but eight games with a kneeinjury, the Reds have been energized by low-wattage acquisitions: third basemanEdwin Encarnacion (part of the 2001 Rob Bell deal with the Rangers), secondbaseman Brandon Phillips (acquired on April 7 after the Indians designated himfor assignment), righthander Aaron Harang (picked up from the A's in amidseason 2003 trade for outfielder Jose Guillen) and righthander BronsonArroyo (acquired from the Red Sox on March 20 for outfielder Wily Mo Pe√±a).Encarnacion (above) and Phillips had combined for 49 RBIs at week's end, whileArroyo and Harang were 10-2.
May 14, 2006
Says shortstopFelipe Lopez of Arroyo, "He's meant a lot to us. He's been on a winningteam. He has a lot of experience in the postseason, and we're feeding off ofthat."
STAYING POWER:Minimal. The Reds can hit with any team in the NL, but their pitching, whichhad given up the most homers in the league at week's end (44), won't holdup.
Like the Reds, theTigers are a proud franchise that quickly squandered the feel-good boost of anew ballpark while extending a long streak of losing seasons (a club-record 12straight and counting). But under the attitude-adjusting style of new managerJim Leyland, Detroit (20-12, 2 1/2 games behind the White Sox) has played likea team that expects to win.
First basemanChris Shelton might have gained early attention for his nine home runs in hisfirst 13 games, but pitching is at the heart of the team's revival. The staffis much deeper than last year's, which finished eighth in the AL in ERA,because of the additions of free agent Kenny Rogers and hard-throwing rookiesJustin Verlander, a starter, and Joel Zumaya (above), a reliever. Veteran leftyMike Maroth, 28, ranked third in ERA through Sunday at 2.55, far below hiscareer mark of 4.82.
The Tigers becameonly the fifth AL team since 1990 to allow 100 runs or fewer in its first 30games, following in the footsteps of the 2005 world champion White Sox. Saysthe 61-year-old Leyland of his staff's consistency, "It's a littlemind-boggling, to be honest."
STAYING POWER:Good, at least in terms of keeping up with the rock-solid White Sox into thesecond half. The toughest staff in the league to hit (.230) can't bedismissed.
Rockie on aRoll
Brad Hawpe(pronounced hop) is the most unfamiliar name on the early-season leader boards.At week's end the Rockies rightfielder ranked third in the NL in hits (39),third in batting (.348), fifth in slugging (.643) and sixth in on-basepercentage (.434)--not bad for an 11th-round draft pick in 2000 out of LSU whohit .259 in 410 big league at bats entering this season and is older thanAlbert Pujols. (Hawpe turns 27 next month, Pujols next January.)
"He hastremendous raw power, and coming up [through the system] he has always hitwherever he's been," Colorado G.M. Dan O'Dowd says of Hawpe (above), a .306hitter in the minors. "Like all young players, I'm sure there will come atime when he struggles, but it's not like he's been hot for two weeks. This isfive weeks now. I don't think it's a fluke."
Hawpe also helpedColorado to a 19-13 start, good for first place in the NL West. One reason totake the Rockies a little more seriously (other than the weak division theyplay in): They have performed well on the road, sweeping two series away fromCoors Field, one more than they did in their previous 112 road series.
STAYING POWER:Fair. Hawpe may not be the next Derrek Lee, but he appears to be at least asolid supporting player whose .446 road average proves that he's not CoorsField--dependent.
The 10 winningestactive pitchers were a combined 37--14 at week's end. In order of career winsthey are the Cubs' Greg Maddux, the Mets' Tom Glavine, the Yankees' RandyJohnson, the Red Sox' David Wells, the Yankees' Mike Mussina (above), theMariners' Jamie Moyer, the Mets' Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox' Curt Schilling,the Tigers' Kenny Rogers and the Braves' John Smoltz. And that group doesn'teven include Roger Clemens, the winningest pitcher alive, who might soon decideto pitch again for the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox or Rangers, all of whom arefiercely recruiting the 43-year-old righthander.
Of this season'stop seven strikeout pitchers, four were among the aforementioned 10: Schilling,Mussina, Martinez and the lefty Glavine, who is finding new success with hiscurveball and a changeup he daringly throws on the inside corner torighties.
"They've alllearned that sometimes less is more, in terms of velocity," Giants pitcherMatt Morris says. "That takes tremendous confidence in your ability toexecute, because the rest of us tend to think, If I get beat on a pitch, I atleast better be putting maximum effort behind it."
STAYING POWER:Good. Among the top 10 active winners, all except Wells, who has been limitedto one start this season because of a right knee injury, are healthy.
They're baa-aack.After homers fell by 12.6% last year from 2004, balls are flying out of parksat a near record rate. According to Stats Inc., April home runs were up 27.5%from last year to 845 (the most in the month since 1961, excluding the heightof the Steroid Era in 2000 and '01). Albert Pujols of the Cardinals set arecord with 14 homers in April, and Kevin Mench of the Rangers (above) becamethe first righthanded hitter to homer in seven straight games.
"I don't knowwhat, but something's going on," says Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti."It's unusual to see home runs go up by that much." Major LeagueBaseball said recently that it is testing the composition of baseballs for anyincreased liveliness. (No timetable for results was announced.) Players andexecutives have also speculated that the increase could be attributed to somepitchers' getting off steroids because of the tougher drug policy this season,which mandates a 50-game suspension for a first offense. (The common view amongbaseball people is that a pitcher losing a few miles per hour off his fastballis hurt more than a batter who loses 10 feet off his long ball.)
STAYING POWER:Excellent. The homer rate may lessen somewhat, but the jump is too big toignore. And Pujols might make a run at the untainted single-season record:Roger Maris's 61.