You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension.
L.A. Dodgers. Washington Nationals. Cleveland Indians. Baltimore Orioles.
Major League Baseball has entered the Twilight Zone.
Many of baseball’s typical cellar dwellers have played their way to the top of their respective divisions, leaving fans and pundits alike eye-rubbing and head-shaking.
The McCourTrain Wrecks, errrrr, Dodgers have the best record in the entire National League, the caveat being that we’re only 33 games into the regular season and in baseball, that’s nothin.
Now the question is which of these underdogs-turned-top dogs will last through the All-Star break and which will slide back down into the depths of disappointment?
In my MLB season preview I predicted the Dodgers would win the NL West and was surprised at how low many websites ranked them heading into the regular season. Do a Cy Young winner and MVP runner-up mean nothing to these people? The Dodgers had unknowns in other areas, true, but with a proven player like Andre Ethier, coupled with up-and-comer Dee Gordon and James Loney -who had a great second half last year- the boys in blue deserved a bit of respect.
Now they’ve earned it. With new ownership came an optimistic outlook on every phase of the Dodgers ball club from play on the field to parking at Chavez Ravine. The Dodgers have five guys batting .300 or better and currently, Clayton Kershaw isn’t even the best pitcher on the staff as Ted Lilly and Chris Capuano are a combined 9-0 thus far.
Offensively, the Dodgers rank 12th in runs in all of baseball, seventh in batting average, fifth in on base percentage and ninth in slugging percentage. That’s pretty impressive. LA isn’t too shabby on the defensive end either, ranking third in fielding in the NL.
Matt Kemp has done more than his fair share in taking the Dodgers to the top. The center fielder leads the NL in several categories, ranking third in batting average (.375), second in home runs (12) and third in RBI (27).
While the Dodgers are sitting pretty with a six-game lead in the NL West, we all know a lead like that this early in the season is of little relevance (see: 2011 Braves, Red Sox). The six-game cushion might not mean a whole lot right now, but the Dodgers have the talent in a weaker division and thus the best chance to stay atop the standings for the foreseeable future.
The rest of the gang is less predictable.
The downside for Washington is the fact that the Atlanta Braves are right on their heels and of course, Jayson Werth and Michael Morse being out with injuries. But there’s a ton of upside for the Nats, most notably, the pitching staff.
Washington leads the NL with a 2.65 ERA and ranks tied for second in the NL with 10 saves (the Braves lead the way with 14). Steven Strasberg has been outstanding while Gio Gonzalez is close behind, although needing to improve in the area of walking batters.
Rookie Bryce Harper invigorated the Nats as he started his major league career with a bang, but the teenager has since slowed down, going 1-13 in his last three games. After striking out four times total in his first 10 games, Harper has bit the dust four times in his last two games alone. Overall, the kid has a more than respectable stat line, hitting .233 with six extra base hits and three RBI. He’ll figure a way out of his current slump which should keep the Nats afloat.
With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley sidelined for the foreseeable future, I wouldn’t worry about the Phillies surging in the division any time soon. If anyone is going to challenge the Nationals, it’s Atlanta who is already doing a great job of pressuring Washington to play for the win every single time out. The Nats can go either way by the time All-Star break rolls around.
Meanwhile the Indians and Orioles sure are making things interesting in the American League. Ordinarily, I would count the Orioles out just for being the Orioles, and secondly, because of the fact that they play in the toughest division year in and year out.
There’s no denying that the Birds are off to an impressive start ranking second in the AL in pitching (with a 3.34 ERA, right behind the Rangers) and fifth in runs. The O’s defense is nothing to write home about as they rank dead last in fielding, yet whatever they are doing is working as Baltimore holds on to a one-game lead over the Rays with the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox bringing up the rear.
The Orioles are eighth in all of baseball in runs, fifth overall in slugging percentage and rank all the way at the top -numero uno overall- with 53 home runs. Seriously. Who knew? Adam Jones is having a breakout year as he leads the Birds in nearly every offensive category including batting average (.288), home runs (10), RBI (19) and hits (38).
Jason Hammel looks good on the mound with a 2.09 ERA and 4-1 record in six starts. Closer Jim Johnson is second in the AL with 10 saves thus far.
I like the Orioles and have wondered why they had such a hard time over the last few years as they had plenty of talent in the lineup. That said, I can’t picture them leading the AL East in July. Forget the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays are scary enough! I don’t see the Birds holding on through the All-Star break but I sure hope they can pull it off as it would be a great story for baseball and wonderful for the city of Baltimore.
That brings us to the Cleveland Indians. Sadly, I think Cleveland in first place says more about Detroit than Cleveland.
With Justin Verlander, Prince Filder, Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson, the Tigers should be demolishing fellow-AL Central opponents. Unfortunately for Detroit, Doug Fister is out of commission and the bullpen is hideous making it tough to find consistency from game-to-game.
Thus the Tigers have left the door wide open for a team like Cleveland, who, with middle of the road stats, can find a place at the top of the pack.
Despite having one of the higher ERAs in the AL (4.14), Cleveland has found a way to win, primarily by doing a mighty fine job of getting on base, ranking fourth overall with a .341 OBP. The tandem of Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipinis has done enough offensively to keep Cleveland in the win column while closer Chris Perez has impressed with 11 saves. Derek Lowe is 5-1 in seven starts with a 2.47 ERA.
If the way Cleveland is playing now is good enough to to make it to the postseason, well, that’s not a good sign for baseball.
I question Cleveland’s ability to stay atop the AL Central because when a division is as bad as this one is, it’s anyone’s game. Erratic teams go up and down, in and out of slumps, making it hard to predict anything other than chaos.
I expect the Tigers to get their mojo back sooner or later, and I’m guessing it will be sooner than July. Cleveland fans, enjoy this ride while it lasts because the fun could come to a grinding halt at any moment.