We tried to kill off the Boston Red Sox after their 2-10 start. We mocked the New York Yankees for including Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia in their rotation. We pretended Carl Crawford could not handle the pressure in Boston, that Derek Jeter belonged on a clothesline, that Big Papi had nothing left and that A-Rod was a shell of his former self.
We watched the Orioles start 6-1 and wondered whether they could surprise. We watched the Tampa Bay Rays rebound and take over first place, and marveled at their “Little Engine That Could” mentality. We said the Cleveland Indians were for real and maybe the best team in the American League. We said the Philadelphia Phillies were the best team in baseball.
But here we are, early June, and the truth has asserted itself: The Yankees and Red Sox remain the bad boys of baseball. They have the highest payrolls, the most star players and the deepest lineups, and they are once again the two best teams. Get used to a summer of no love as the Yankees and Sox battle it out.
The first two months can be baseball’s wacky season, but it is now early June and we are returning to a state of normalcy. Here are five reasons why:
1. and 2. Yankees and Red Sox are on a roll
The Yankees just completed a tough West Coast swing with a 6-3 record. They lost the first two games in Seattle, but then CC Sabathia pitched eight strong innings to spark a 6-1 mark over the final seven games, with the staff allowing just 14 runs. The games over the weekend against the Angels were played with a playoff-like intensity, and Sabathia had another strong effort, going 8 2/3 innings Saturday. He has won his past four starts, pitching at least eight innings each time out. As for lineup depth, the Yankees have four of the 18 AL players with double-digit home runs. Alex Rodriguez was hitting .242 on May 16, but he has raised his average to .287. Mark Teixeira hit two home runs Sunday, giving him 18 (just two behind Jose Bautista) and nine in his past 16 games.
As for the Red Sox, they are 31-16 since that 2-10 start. The turnaround began with the final three games of a series against the Toronto Blue Jays, when they won 4-1, 8-1 and 9-1. Crawford hit a three-run homer off Brett Anderson in Sunday’s 6-3 victory, raising his line to .248/.286/.389 (BA/OBP/SLG) after hitting .155 with one home in April. Adrian Gonzalez hit his 12th home run and became the first major leaguer with 50 RBIs. David Ortiz went 3-for-4, raising his average to .325 and his OPS to .987 (seventh in the majors). Jacoby Ellsbury is having an All-Star season. And Dustin Pedroia hasn’t even heated up.
Look, both teams are far from perfect. The Yankees’ rotation is still battling a fine line of success, age and health. The Red Sox have issues with depth in their bullpen and the back of the rotation. But as everyone predicted before the season started, these two teams will hit. And there aren’t many that have in 2011.
3. Albert Pujols is mashing.
Just a few days after pointing out that he’s never been in a slump -- let alone one that lasted two months -- Pujols became the first player since Albert Belle in 1995 to hit back-to-back walk-off home runs. In the three-game series against the Cubs, Pujols went 6-for-11 with four homers, a double, three walks and seven runs scored. Over his past seven games, he’s 12-for-27. Mike Quade elected to pitch to him in the 10th inning Sunday with two outs. He might have been the last guy to realize that "The Machine" is back to being a 911 Turbo S and not a ’57 Studebaker.
4. The Rangers are on fire.
The Seattle Mariners are trying to hang in the AL West, but they went 7-3 over the past 10 games and lost a game in the standings. The Texas Rangers completed an impressive four-game destruction of the Indians in Cleveland, outscoring the Tribe 24-6, including consecutive shutouts Saturday and Sunday, giving them eight to match their 2010 total. The Rangers were known for their offense in 2010, but it’s been the pitching that has driven them to a plus-51 run differential, second-best in baseball behind the Yankees’ plus-71. They have a 2.70 road ERA. Alexi Ogando hasn’t lost in 11 starts, and C.J. Wilson continues to be one of the most underrated starters in the majors, as he has pitched into the seventh inning in all but one start this season and has held opponents to a .227 average.
5. Carlos Zambrano is getting all emotional.
“We are playing like a Triple-A team,” Big Z said after Sunday’s loss. “This is embarrassing. Embarrassing for the team and the owners. Embarrassing for the fans. Embarrassing, that's the word for this team."
Zambrano undoubtedly will get ripped for ripping into his teammates. Keep that stuff in the clubhouse, keep it between teammates, yada yada yada.
You know what? I love it. I love Big Z’s emotion and I love his honesty. Now, sometimes, he goes too far, such as last June when he got into a fight with teammate Derrek Lee in the Cubs’ dugout. But a few words of criticism? What, is closer Carlos Marmol going to start pitching worse because Zambrano went public with his anger? Of course not. Give me a break.
As for embarrassing, Big Z is right. The Cubs have a $125 million payroll -- sixth highest in baseball -- yet only the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins have a worse record. And it’s a legitimate third-worst record; only the Astros and Twins have a larger run differential than the Cubs’ minus-52. The pitching has been the main culprit, ranking last in the National League in ERA and quality starts (they have 19 -- eight fewer than any other NL team). You can blame injuries to Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner and now Matt Garza, but Wells and Cashner weren’t exactly Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to begin with.
So, rip Big Z if you want, but sometimes the truth hurts.
SERIES OF THE WEEK
Red Sox at Yankees, Tuesday through Thursday
Tuesday: Jon Lester (7-2, 3.94 ERA) versus Freddy Garcia (4-4, 3.34)
Thursday: Josh Beckett(4-2, 2.01) versus CC Sabathia (7-3, 2.80)
The Yankees haven’t announced their Thursday starter, but I predict they will skip Ivan Nova and go with Sabathia on his regular rest. This series kicks off an interesting nine-game stretch for both teams. The Yankees have a homestand against the Red Sox, Indians and Rangers, while the Red Sox travel through the AL East with a road trip against the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rays. By the way, remember when Jeter had that two-homer game at Texas on May 8? He’s had five extra-base hits since -- and no home runs.
PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
With Ubaldo Jimenez struggling and Jorge De La Rosa out for the season, Chacin must step up as the Rockies’ ace. So far, he’s done that, with a .207 opponents’ average. The one negative is he could get a little more efficient with his pitches, as he has gone more than 100 in all but one start, but has pitched more than seven innings just once. Kershaw has once again quietly dominated. He leads the NL in strikeouts, ranks ninth in opponents’ average (.221) and has yet to allow a stolen base. The game is in Colorado, but look for a low-scoring affair.
1. Will Wade Davis ever develop into the No. 1 or 2 starter that many projected him to be? His outing Sunday against Seattle was another mediocre effort. While he gave up just five hits and one walk, he also gave up five runs. Greg Halman, playing his first game for Seattle after getting recalled from Triple-A, had two big hits off Davis. In the third, David had him 0-2, but instead of throwing him a curve off the plate (Halman is a big strikeout guy with little plate discipline), he threw a fastball on the outside corner that Halman drilled into right for a base hit, setting up Ichiro Suzuki's two-run triple on the next pitch (a fastball down the middle). In the bottom of the seventh, Halman came up with two on and two outs, and Davis once again got ahead 0-2. After a high fastball, he threw a lazy curve that Halman belted over Matt Joyce's head for a two-run triple. Davis left trailing 5-3 in an eventual 9-6 loss. Davis has a 4.71 ERA with an equally unimpressive 35/30 strikeout/walk ratio.
2. The Florida Marlins blew a golden opportunity to pick up ground on the Phillies, who dropped four straight to the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates before Roy Halladay ended the skid Sunday. But the Marlins have lost four in a row -- all by one run. Two of the losses came in the ninth inning, with Sunday’s loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th on an unlikely home run from light-hitting Josh Wilson. The Marlins hit just .156 (5-for-32) with runners in scoring position in the three losses to the Brewers.
3. Speaking of the Brewers, they’re now 19-6 since May 9, the best record in the majors. John Axford is rarely pretty, but after his Opening Day fiasco, he’s managed to save 16 of 17 opportunities. The Brewers have a big showdown against St. Louis at home this weekend. Yovani Gallardo (6-0, 1.32 ERA last six starts), Chris Narveson and Zack Greinke are scheduled to start.
RANT OF THE WEEK
The draft is Monday, and you’ll assuredly hear every GM and every scouting director say he had a great draft and got the guys he wanted. Of course, the truth is we won’t know for several years whether they got the right guys. The Pirates have the first choice, and Keith Law projects them taking UCLA right-hander Gerrit Cole. Let’s hope he works out better than the last time the Pirates had the No. 1 overall pick; in 2002, they selected Ball State pitcher Bryan Bullington (over B.J. Upton, Greinke, Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, other first-rounders that year).
In fact, just to have a little fun, here is who the Pirates could have drafted the past 15 years (starting with 2009) with their first pick.
2009 -- Tony Sanchez (4th). Could have had: Mike Trout (25th).
2002 -- Bryan Bullington (1st). Could have had: Prince Fielder (7th).
1999 -- Bobby Bradley (8th). Could have had: Carl Crawford (52nd).
1998 -- Clint Johnston (15th). Could have had: CC Sabathia (20th).
1995 -- Chad Hermansen (10th). Could have had: Roy Halladay (17th).
So that’s my rant of the week. Don’t believe your GM.
Although he might be right.
PHOTO OF THE DAY