The Week Ahead: Second quarter awaits
Opening 25 percent of season has brought unexpected results
If the 2012 baseball season is a dollar, it has spent its first quarter. If it's a two-hour movie, it's been on for 30 minutes -- just enough time to figure out the identities of the leading men and the bit players.
Yes, as of this past weekend, the season is a quarter of the way done. Slightly more than 25 percent of the games have been played, and Monday brings about the next weekly foray on the road to the halfway point.
What have we learned? Well, a lot more than 25 cents worth -- not nearly enough to make assumptions about what we'll see in October, but certainly plenty enough to talk about.
The regular-season standings might offer the most in the department of "Can you believe it?" Who would have predicted, for starters, that the Baltimore Orioles would lead the American League East at this point?
And after the Cleveland Indians looked so good around this time last year but then sputtered down the stretch, who would have thought they'd be right back in the AL Central's driver's seat?
On the other end of that spectrum, who had the Angels in last place in the AL West after 25 percent of the season?
Who had the Detroit Tigers, the hip World Series pick after their strong finish in 2011 and offseason moves, under .500?
This week, as we slide back out of Interleague Play and return to a multitude of division-rivalry games, we could see significant movement in the still-close standings throughout the American and National leagues.
Detroit, which sits at 20-21, will look to ride the momentum from Justin Verlander's one-hitter on Friday and make some serious headway against the Tribe when the two clubs start a series on Tuesday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. The banged-up Angels go to Oakland to face the upstart A's, and must try to find a way to jump-start Albert Pujols' bat. Their $240 million man exited Sunday's game still mired in a baffling season-long funk during which he has hit .211 with three home runs and 18 RBIs.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia is always an optimist, and he has reason to be since there's still a healthy 75 percent of the season remaining, but this can't be what he expected in late May.
Which leads us to the next topic of discussion as we begin play on May 21, the birthday of Josh Hamilton (31 years old), Matt Wieters (26), Andrew Miller (27) and, among many others, former Twins great Kent Hrbek (52): If the season ended today ...
As far as the standings go, in the AL, the Orioles, Indians and Rangers would qualify as division winners and Tampa Bay and Toronto would battle it out in the new one-game playoff to see who would move on to the Division Series. And yes, that means both the Yankees and Red Sox would miss out.
In the NL, the three division winners would be Atlanta, defending World Series-champion St. Louis and the Dodgers. The Wild Card would actually need a play-in for the one-game playoff, as the Mets and Marlins would need to play for the right to face the Nationals, who are the Wild Card leaders at this juncture.
And in the awards department, it'd be tough to argue that Hamilton isn't leading the candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player quarter-season award, even if he didn't hit nine home runs -- or any home runs -- this past week. The Rangers' slugger still leads the AL in batting (.389), homers (18) and RBIs (47), making him a legitimate Triple Crown threat.
Not that he's paying attention to the numbers, though.
"Honestly, I don't think about it at all until I see somebody and they remind me of it, or I talk to [the media] about it," Hamilton said. "It's over with. I said after that night [when he hit four homers], dealing with the historic part of it and talking to everybody, it was over with [after that]. Next day, I show up with things I have to do to play good that day. I get here and do my work."
In the NL, the Dodgers' Matt Kemp's sizzling April continues to carry the day. He's batting .359 with 12 homers and 28 RBIs, and would still have to be considered a front-runner for the honor, even if he is currently on the disabled list with hamstring woes. Don't discount David Wright of the Mets, either. His batting average remains over .400.
The Cy Young debates figure to start heating up, too. Right now, one would have to mention last year's NL winner, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, who's 4-1 with a 1.90 ERA, but it wouldn't be fair to leave out Lance Lynn of the Cardinals (6-1, 2.31), Brandon Beachy of the Braves (5-1, 1.33), Johnny Cueto of the Reds (5-1, 1.97) or Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals (4-1, 2.21, 64 strikeouts in 53 innings), among others.
AL Cy Young contenders after 25 percent of the season include White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy (5-1, 2.39) and Rangers newcomer Yu Darvish (6-1, 2.60), but at this point the favorite for the honor is the same guy who took it, along with the MVP, last year. Verlander's epic one-hitter pushed his record to 5-1, lowered his ERA to 2.14, and gave him 68 strikeouts in 67 innings.
"He has tunnel vision like no one I've ever seen," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I mean, he does everything with a purpose. He has a plan every single day when he walks in the door, and nothing is going to stop him."
Nothing is going to stop this season, either. About 75 percent of it remains, give or take a percentage point. And the rest of the long haul begins this week.