Strange but true: Four predictions

When I was a kid I had a book titled "The Giant Book of Strange but True Sports Stories." I must have read it a hundred times. I can't remember how many of the stories were actually strange or how many were even true, but I loved that book.

Kind of like the 2012 season. We're a third of the way through it and we have a whole list of intriguing story lines. I don't how many of them can be classified as strange, but many of them are certainly a bit mystifying and remarkable. And as far as I know, all true.

Here are a few of these stories and a few corresponding predictions.

1. Josh Hamilton hits like Babe Ruth for two months, Albert Pujols goes through a slump of biblical proportions, and somehow the Angels are only 4.5 games behind the Rangers.

The Rangers made a small statement on Sunday, beating the Angels 7-3 in a game Dan Haren struggled with his command. Haren allowed just two runs in five innings but was removed after throwing 104 pitches and first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 24 batters he faced. But the Angels took two of three in the series to chip into a Rangers' lead that was once as many as nine games and was still eight games as recently as May 22. The Angels have reeled off 10 wins in 12 games.

In fact, Haren's mediocre start Sunday was symbolic of his inconsistent season. A workhorse in 2011, he pitched at least seven innings in 21 of his 34 starts and at least eight innings in nine starts. This season he has gone seven innings in just five of 12 starts and eight or more just twice. Similar to Pujols' struggles, this can be viewed as a positive: At some point, Haren is a good bet to get in a groove where he's pitching deeper into games on a regular basis.

As for the Rangers, they started 12-2 -- a stretch that included six wins over the Twins and Mariners -- but have since gone just 20-20, despite Hamilton's heroics. Signing Roy Oswalt indicates the concerns the club has about a rotation that has struggled lately. On Sunday, Matt Harrison won his third straight start with a decent but not dominant outing (three walks, three strikeouts). We're also unkind enough to mention that the first two of those three wins came against Seattle. Still, his numbers are starting to line up with 2011, one positive sign for a pitching staff that has had to rely heavily on its bullpen. That .500 record over 40 games shows that a dominant bullpen is nice but it doesn't necessarily make up for a mediocre rotation.

Prediction: I still believe the Rangers are the team to beat in the AL West -- after all, they're still on pace for 96 wins (strange but true!). Oswalt is certainly a bit of a wild card but should improve the back end of the rotation. The bullpen is the best in the business and gets even deeper if Neftali Feliz ends up there when he returns from the disabled list. And the offense leads the league in runs scored. The Angels are better club with Vernon Wells on the DL, but they need improvement from Haren and Ervin Santana and have to hope Jered Weaver's DL stint isn't a lengthy one.

2. Scott Podsednik has more home runs than Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford combined. Felix Doubront leads the rotation in ERA. The Red Sox have had two five-game losing streaks and another stretch of five losses in six games. And they're just three games out of first place.

The Red Sox were 12-19 on May 10 but have gone 16-7 since to climb to 28-26. The entire AL East is over .500, but the Red Sox are back in the race despite a long list of injuries, poor performances from the rotation, and Adrian Gonzalez's poor start. Dead and buried? Not quite. The Red Sox have risen.

Still, things aren't all positive in Beantown. While Clay Buchholz has looked better his past two starts, Daniel Bard's transition to starter continues to be a work in progress. On Sunday, he bombed out in the second inning after walking six batters. His season totals now include the ugly marks of 37 walks and 34 strikeouts. Among 118 qualified major league starters, the only one with a worse strikeout/walk ratio is Cleveland's Ubaldo Jimenez. The Red Sox don't really have a viable alternative to Bard right now, but you have to believe they'll be pursuing a starter before the trade deadline if Bard doesn't improve.

Prediction: The Red Sox aren't going anywhere. Even with all the injuries, the offense is second in the league to the Rangers in runs scored. They've scored 38 more runs than the Yankees, 50 more than the Orioles and 60 more than the Rays. Last time I checked, scoring runs is still 50 percent of the equation. I'll stick with my preseason pick: This is a playoff team.

3. The New York Mets are tied for first place.

There were 643,782 predictions made on the Internet this year about MLB's final standings. I looked them all up. Not one picked the Mets to win the NL East. This isn't strange but true, but strange, true and amazing.

After beating the Cardinals on Sunday night, the Mets are tied for first place even though they have the worst bullpen ERA in the NL, first baseman Ike Davis is hitting .170, they're on their third starting shortstop due to injuries, they've used four starters in the fifth slot, their closer has a 6.10 ERA, and they're 14th in the NL in home runs.

It's easy to look at the run differential of minus-six runs and assume they've been lucky, that maybe they'll be 27-27 or 26-28 instead of 31-23. But in this year of parity, early season run differential can be a little misleading. The Mets have scored 10 runs in a game just once. But they've had games where they've allowed 18 runs, two with 14, one with 11 and with 10. The back end of the bullpen has been terrible, which leads to a poor run differential, but not necessarily more losses.

The Mets' success starts with the rotation combo of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. Dickey is 8-1 with a 2.69 ERA; and there's nothing that screams fluke about his numbers. Since the start of 2010, he ranks 10th in the majors among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched with a 3.02 ERA. He has 70 strikeouts and 17 walks in 73.2 innings this year. The knuckleballer isn't a conventional ace but he's a legit one. Santana is just 3-2 but with a 2.38 ERA and a .200 opponents' batting average. As he showed during his no-hitter on Friday night, his changeup is as devastating as ever, even if his fastball velocity isn't what it once was.

Prediction: Everyone wants to doubt this club and I do agree they'll need to add a couple relievers. But improving a bad bullpen is the easiest thing to fix in midseason. Go down the rest of the NL East rosters and the other four teams have significant flaws as well. I think the Mets fall short in the end, but I think they stay'll close deep into September.

4. The Pittsburgh Pirates are ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

This one can't be true. The Pirates are hitting .221 with a .275 on-base percentage. They're on pace to score 495 runs, which ... well, would make them one of the worst hitting teams ever. But I guess you knew that from that .221 average. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are second in the NL in runs and lead the league in batting, OBP and slugging percentage.

Put it this way: Andrew McCutchen is the only Pirate who could crack the Cardinals' starting lineup. (OK, maybe Neil Walker.)

Look, we can break down the numbers a million different ways and the Cardinals are going to come out on top. The Cardinals have outscored their opponents by 47 runs; the Pirates have been outscored by 26 runs. The teams shouldn't be close in the standings. But remember what we just said about run differential? In the key stat that matters, the Pirates are 27-26 and the Cardinals are 27-27.

Prediction: Hey, maybe A.J. Burnett will end up pitching in the postseason ... but I think that happens only if he gets traded. I just can't get past how abysmal Pittsburgh's offense has been. Yes, the pitching has been stellar, allowing the second-fewest runs in the league. The bullpen has been near perfect, with a 10-4 record and 2.59 ERA. But if the pitching falters even a little, the Pirates will be headed for another under .500 season.

And the defending World Series champs? On paper, they appear to be the most talented team in the National League. Their division is weak. Is this just a lackluster 7-16 stretch? Or a sign of mediocrity? I'm going with a bad stretch. But this is sports. Stranger things have happened.