2009: As unpredictable a season as ever
Unexpected storylines highlight a wild year at midway point
When baseball's annual preseason predictions made the rounds this past spring, many could have said something like this: The Cardinals' Albert Pujols will emerge as a genuine Triple Crown threat by the time he invites everyone home to Busch Stadium for the All-Star Game.Of course, that'd be correct, but that's also an easy mark. You might as well predict Cardinals fans will wear red. But nobody could have made predictions before the 2009 season that went anything like this:
The Royals' Zack Greinke, three years removed from a career-threatening bout with anxiety, will pitch until April 29 without giving up an earned run and become a dominant force in the American League.Or this: The Dodgers will be the winningest team in baseball at the All-Star break despite being without Manny Ramirez for 50 games because he was suspended for violating baseball's drug policy. Or, new Yankee Stadium will become a launching pad for home runs. Or, stolen bases will be racked up at a rate not seen in years. Or, there will be four cycles and a no-hitter by a team's sixth starter before the All-Star break. The one prediction that fits with any baseball season is true again this year: It's unpredictable. Whatever people thought it might be before it started, the 2009 season didn't take long to make its own mark, month by unpredictable month: April belonged to Greinke on the field, as he took the adage of pitchers being ahead of hitters to historic extremes. He went 43 innings before finally allowing an earned run, leaving the first month with a 5-0 mark and a 0.50 ERA. Not only did he make ticket sales spike in Kansas City, but his story quickly became a national celebration of talent and determination overcoming life's obstacles. But the opening month also included grim news off the field, beginning with the tragic death April 9 of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart just hours after a brilliant season debut, killed along with two friends when a drunk driver ran a red light. Just days later, on April 13, baseball suffered a double whammy: The Phillies lost their voice when longtime broadcaster Harry Kalas passed away, collapsing in the press box at Nationals Park, and one of the most intriguing characters in the game in decades was lost when former Tigers pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was killed in an accident at his home. April also saw the opening of two new ballparks in New York City. Jackie Robinson Day was among the most fitting of the Mets' celebrations in Citi Field's first few days of operation. Over in the Bronx, there emerged a burning question: Why is the ball flying out of new Yankee Stadium? There were 26 homers during the opening homestand, the most in the first six games at a new ballpark. And in a span of five April days, the first three of the season's four cycles were completed, by the Dodgers' Orlando Hudson on April 13, the Rangers' Ian Kinsler on April 15, and the Twins' Jason Kubel on April 17. Kubel's teammate Michael Cuddyer would add the fourth on May 22. May began with the Dodgers on the longest home winning streak to start a season in baseball history, extending a spotless April to 13 consecutive victories at Chavez Ravine. But then the news hit on May 7 that Ramirez would be suspended at least until July 3, and the Dodgers lost that night's game at home to the Nationals. They didn't lose many more, as Andre Ethier broke out the heroics, Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley continued to come of age and Hudson proved to be the free-agent pickup of the year. It was the very next day when Alex Rodriguez made his comeback from right hip surgery, which followed his own admission in February that he'd taken steroids in 2001-03 while with the Rangers. He slowly but gradually became playing more like A-Rod, helping the Yankees get a foothold in the multi-team AL East race, a division led by the upstart Blue Jays for much of the first six weeks before they faltered, making ace Roy Halladay potential trade bait. The season's longest hitting streak ended about midway through the second month when the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman finally stopped at 30 games on May 12. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer made his return from back problems and his newest quest for .400 official by hitting a homer in his first game back May 1 and never really stopping yet, with a .414 May setting the tone for his All-Star first half. June belonged to Sir Albert, who began racking up the All-Star votes at a pace almost as powerful as he did home runs. In helping the Cardinals take the NL Central lead, he became only the fifth player to reach 30 homers before July 1 by crushing 14 homers in 97 at-bats in June, including four two-homer games. Fans responded in kind by tallying 5,397,374 votes for him, the second-highest total in history. Actually, the first part of June belonged to a guy who hasn't seen a day in the Major Leagues: Stephen Strasburg, the fireballing San Diego State product selected as one of the most celebrated No. 1 overall picks in the First-Year Player Draft. He and the Nationals continue to negotiate, heading toward an Aug. 17 signing deadline. In the meantime, two of the most exciting young pitchers who are in fact in the Majors were stellar in June. The Giants' Tim Lincecum earned his All-Star start in large part due to his 4-1, 1.48 ERA in six starts, including back-to-back complete games to finish off the month. In the AL, Felix Hernandez was earning his "King" nickname, going 3-0 with an 0.94 ERA in five June starts. July began with the hype of Ramirez's return and brought baseball into the All-Star break with something that needs absolutely no hype -- a no-hitter. The hype began for Ramirez's return well before he got back to Mannywood, starting up in a big way once he got to Triple-A Albuquerque and carrying through to his return at San Diego's PETCO Park. Up the coast, history was in the making one week later, as on July 10 the Giants had a 33-year drought without a no-hitter end by the left hand of the sixth starter in their five-man rotation. Jonathan Sanchez, shifted to the bullpen but then back to the rotation when Randy Johnson went on the disabled list, was magnificent from the first pitch to the 110th, and separated from perfection by only a Juan Uribe error at third base. The no-no was the Giants' first since John "The Count" Montefusco in 1976. Along the way, certain things just happened over time. For example, the Cubs' struggles, from Carlos Zambrano's blowup to Milton Bradley's confrontation with manager Lou Piniella and subsequent outs snafu, throwing the ball into the stands with only two outs. In short, it hasn't been the season predicted for the North Siders, yet they're still in the hunt in the NL Central. Global trends emerged over time as well, with complete games (97 at the break; 136 all of last season) and shutouts (148 at the break; 271 all of last season) on the rise. But steals have taken the cake when it comes to statistical trends. Rays left fielder and All-Star MVP Carl Crawford tied the all-time record for steals in a game with six on May 3, and only five American Leaguers have had more than his 44 steals at the break. Tampa Bay is leading a renaissance of theft in baseball with 133 so far, just nine off its Majors-leading total of a year ago. Overall, there has been a remarkable 73.2 average success rate and the Major Leagues as a whole are attempting to steal at a higher rate than in years. Milestones are a standard, and 2009 hasn't disappointed in that department. Johnson earned his 300th win in a Giants uniform, Gary Sheffield hit his 500th homer in a Mets uniform and Mariano Rivera his 500th save in, of course, a Yankees uniform -- but only after his first RBI. (Predict that one.) Throw in Ivan Rodriguez passing Carlton Fisk for most games caught in the Major Leagues, and it's been a milestone year for milestones already. But there have been some interesting goings-on this year that make this a year like no other -- things you just could not have predicted. Eight position players already have pitched in a game, there was a bee delay at PETCO Park in San Diego, and the Indians won a game when Shin-Soo Choo's liner hit a bird in Cleveland. The first half of 2009 has included the thrill of walk-off victories like any of the four the Dodgers' Ethier put up in Ramirez's absence, and the agony of stunning defeat like when two-time Gold Glove winner Luis Castillo dropped a popup at Yankee Stadium, allowing the Yankees to score the winning run June 12. There has been spectacular defense throughout, perhaps none more poetic than when Detroit's Curtis Granderson robbed fellow center fielder Grady Sizemore of a game-tying homer in the ninth May 8 at Cleveland. In other words, baseball's been as exciting, inspiring and, yes, unpredictable as it ever was -- with a distinct 2009 flavor. As for what the last three months and October will bring, who can predict?
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.