Forecast looking hazy at quarter mark
Surprise teams taking reins from early division favorites
So here we are, the 2008 season hitting the quarter mark. Most of the smug preseason forecasts have gone up in smoke. The smart money couldn't pass an IQ test right now. It feels like the game is being played in one of those comic book parallel universes, where Superman is the bad guy and Lex Luthor gets the key to the city.Let's cut to the pennant chase and put it this way: If we vaulted to the playoffs and they started today, your Division Series matchups would be:
Red Sox vs. Twins
A's vs. Rays
Marlins vs. Cardinals
Cubs vs. Diamondbacks
How many "errors" can you spot in that lineup? But you can get off the floor now. After all, it is only May 13. Yet, the calendar can't detract from what an unexpected, refreshing -- and in many places, maddening -- first six weeks it has been. A full-bore testament to baseball's claim to unpredictability, where the only sure thing is surprise, and even the most careful planners are slammed back to square one. It has been an unconventional season on a personal as well as on a team level. On the mound, guys named Blackburn (Nick, Minnesota) and Sonnanstine (Andy, Tampa Bay) have combined to win eight games, while Barry Zito, Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Mark Buehrle and Nate Robertson have a combined win total of five (with 26 losses). At bat, Chicago's Carlos Quentin leads the American League with nine homers (or, four more than he had all of last season with Arizona) and the National League is paced by second baseman Chase Utley, whose position has not led the league since Ryne Sandberg had the most homers in the NL in 1990 on his way to Cooperstown. But most of the double-takes are prompted by the standings. It would certainly appear that at least a half-dozen clubs were playing possum over the winter. So this might be a good time to revisit some of the offseason "bail-outs." No one can shout "Surprise!" louder than the Florida Marlins, who sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit -- and today lead the NL East and share baseball's best record, while the Tigers flounder in the AL Central basement. The Twins dealt the winter's marquee name, Johan Santana, to the Mets -- and today sit atop the AL Central while the Mets are looking up at the Marlins. The Orioles swapped Erik Bedard to Seattle -- and today are in the AL East hunt, while the Mariners are last in the AL West. The Athletics shed Dan Haren to Arizona and Nick Swisher to the White Sox, and while both of the trade partners are doing well themselves, those "last" predictions for Oakland are accurate only if it applies to it getting "last" laughs while sitting in first place. You get the idea, again: Maybe this game is meant to break your heart, as it has been said, but it is also bound to lift your spirits. This mystery isn't a "whodunit," but a "how are they doing it?" The Marlins are taking a stick to their opponents, ranking second in the Majors with 53 homers, and have had unspectacular but steady pitching. Florida is 20-3 when scoring four or more runs, indicative of an impressive sync between its hitters and pitchers; the rival Mets, for instance, have already lost eight times while scoring four-plus runs. The Rays' ascension has been through better chemistry and a better bullpen. The team had been an offensive force for years. Rightly or wrongly, the clubhouse hailed the departures of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. Everyone applauded the arrival of born-again Troy Percival, who has overseen the relief corps' evolution from the AL's absolute worst (6.16 ERA) to one of its best (3.19). The Cardinals may be defying logic, with a patchwork rotation pitching in for the third-lowest ERA in the NL and their biggest offensive weapon (Albert Pujols) playing in the Tommy John Ligament Replacement Surgery waiting room with a torn right elbow ligament. The Cards have also coped with volatile closer Jason Isringhausen. But their Five Musketeer starters have carried the load, with manager Tony La Russa pointing out "there really hasn't been anybody that hasn't carried their part of it." The A's have simply been clutch. They are hitting over .300 with runners in scoring position and are undefeated (15-0) when they get at least three hits under those circumstances. It might sound like an obligatory cliche, but GM Billy Beane's fingerprints are all over this bunch: He picked up a couple of Kansas City castoffs, and today journeyman Emil Brown leads the club with 33 RBIs and oft-injured Mike Sweeney is batting .322. The Twins, perhaps on the thinnest ice, have taken advantage of their depressed division, being only 7-9 outside of the AL Central. They've hit like an only child -- the M&M Boys (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) are the only regulars above .271 -- but are pitching like triplets. Their starters are averaging six-plus innings and closer Joe Nathan has been virtually unhittable. The ice got a little thinner under the Twins' feet with the loss, possibly for the season, of Pat Neshek, an invaluable span of the bridge to Nathan. As the season winds on, it will test the surprising front-runners' staying power. Maybe some will turn out to be flashes in the pan. There already have been flashes in the pain. The most acute is still being felt in Detroit, where all the preseason euphoria spilled into a stunning 0-7 start from which the Tigers have not recovered. In the midst of one of their brief surges, closer Todd Jones declared, "Once we get to .500, that's our Opening Day." But they're still far from hanging any bunting. The Yankees fell into Boston's road dust with the total swoon of the two young pitchers who have offered a too-literal example of the notion of "growing pains" -- Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Disabling injuries to Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez dialed up the hurt. The Bombers can certainly commiserate with the Rockies, who have been unable to sustain the magic of their 2007 World Series charge. Their own young pitching duo, Franklin Morales and Manuel Corpas, has struggled, and the long-term loss of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki only compounded the frustration of a black-or-white offense that has scored nearly half of its total runs in seven breakouts. Some other trends: It has already been a tough season for closers, especially in the NL Central -- where, within hours, both the Cards' Isringhausen and Milwaukee's Eric Gagne begged off the job -- but elsewhere, too. Boston's uber-closer Jonathan Papelbon had his lunch handed to him recently by the Tigers and the Twins. Pitchers have repeatedly knocked on the door to a no-hitter -- pounded, sometimes -- but it still hasn't given way. The White Sox's Gavin Floyd did it twice, nailed after 7 1/3 innings on April 12 against Detroit and after 8 1/3 innings on May 6 against the Twins, and the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda sustained one for 6 2/3 innings against Houston on Sunday. The Giants' Matt Cain (six innings against St. Louis on April 12) and the Padres' Randy Wolf (6 2/3 innings against Colorado on April 15) have also come knocking. Sports medicine is still good career advice. Disabled lists have been busier than a subway platform at 5 p.m., with quad injuries the latest "in" malady. In this environment, Atlanta left-hander Mike Hampton still works toward making his first pitch off a Major League mound since Aug. 19, 2005, with a columnist in Atlanta theorizing that the only thing keeping the veteran from throwing in the towel is "maybe the fear of a torn rotator cuff."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.