Who won April? For starters, the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees.
On this first day of May, the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees have to be feeling pretty good about things. Let’s face it, not everyone believed in these three clubs. So far, though, they’ve passed every test.
The Rockies, Royals, Pirates, Diamondbacks and Brewers are off to solid starts, too. There were significant questions about all those teams as well.
As for seven teams that were supposed to be good—Braves, Rangers, A’s, Tigers, Cardinals, Reds and Giants—they’ve plowed through the opening month pretty much on course. The Rangers, Braves and Tigers seem to have virtually no weaknesses, the A’s very few. The Cardinals, Reds and Giants all have areas of concern, but there’s no reason to think they won’t all be playing for postseason spots in September.
Now about the Blue Jays, Angels and Dodgers. All three have been hit hard by injuries and poor performances, and all three have disappointing opening months. Expectations bring a particular kind of pressure which only adds to the pressure of a slow start.
The Nationals? They were pretty much the consensus No. 1 pick in most power rankings, and to finish April with a losing record is one of the biggest surprises of the season’s first month.
It’s more troubling because it’s not a matter of fixing just one thing. At various times, there have been problems with the rotation, defense, bullpen and offense. They’re also finding that expectations bring more scrutiny and add a bit of sting to every defeat.
There’s nothing wrong with the Nationals that a 10-game winning streak wouldn’t cure, but they usually begin with a starting rotation putting a team on its back. At the moment, the Nationals don’t have enough starters pitching well to roll off a long win streak. And yet, virtually every opposing manager, scout, etc., believes the Nationals will still be playing October baseball despite the slow start.
These opening weeks of a new season are a time when teams begin to settle into the rhythm of a long season. There’s also some team building to be done in the early part of a season because, as Tony La Russa once said, “The group dynamics change every year.”
The Red Sox were changed so dramatically, both in terms of atmosphere and personnel, that it was difficult to know what they were going to be. There was no question general manager Ben Cherington had a tremendous off-season, first with the hiring of John Farrell as manager and then in bringing in a bunch of tough-as-nails, consummate professionals like Mike Napoli, David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Ryan Dempster.
There were two questions about the Red Sox: 1. How much productive baseball did those guys still have in the tank? 2. Can Farrell resurrect Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey?
It’s one thing to have a new environment and all that, but if the starting pitching didn’t improve, it wasn’t going to matter. This first month has been a perfect storm in which almost everything has gone right. Those pitchers have been dominant, and the Red Sox have gotten offensive production up and down the lineup.
The Orioles made almost no changes, but there was all kinds of doubt that they could repeat last season’s magic in which they used 52 players, including 12 starting pitchers. Nineteen different pitchers got at least one victory, and the Orioles were 29-9 in one-run games and won 16 straight extra-inning games at one point.
It defied logic to think they could defy the odds for a second straight year. And maybe they won’t.
Maybe, as manager Buck Showalter preached during Spring Training, they’re just a real solid club with terrific leadership and a great manager. They sprinted out of April on a pace to win 96 games with the American League’s second-best offense and second-best bullpen.
Beyond those numbers, the Orioles think they’re good enough to win a championship and feed off the fact that so many others don’t. First baseman Chris Davis is throwing MVP-type numbers on the board, and it looks like it’s going to be a fun hardball summer in Charm City.
The Yankees had more questions than anyone as general manager Brian Cashman scrambled to fill roster spots as one player after another went down. And even with an array of new faces—Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay and others—the Yankees on a pace to win—wait for it—100 games.
If you were hoping for some pennant-race clarity in this opening month, you’re going to be disappointed. Just like last season when at least 20 teams were still in contention at the All-Star Break, more teams than ever believe they’ve got a shot at playing October baseball.
That’s true for the Yankees and Red Sox, as usual, and it’s also true for the Pirates, Royals and Brewers. Ain’t this fun?