Making sense of unusual late May standings
We've reached the Alice In Wonderland stretch of the baseball standings, where up is down and down is up. For instance: In their respective divisions, the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians have been near or at the top for much of May, while the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have been near or at the bottom.
Strange stuff, but no worries. Well, for some teams.
Others should be afraid. Very afraid. And let's get this out of the way: The Yankees aren't among those needing folks to hide all of the sharp objects in their clubhouse.
The Angels are a different story. It's also a depressing one, because rarely has a team with this much talent spent so much time fluctuating between dreadful and lousy.
Speaking of talent, Albert Pujols was the most accomplished hitter in the Major Leagues for 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, after becoming the $240 Million Man for the Angels, he has a punchless batting average of .200-something.
That's for starters regarding an Angels bunch that was in last place in the American League West for 34 out of the season's first 50 days.
But back to the Yankees, another team stuffed with gifted players. Even so, the Yankees are the antithesis of the Angels when it comes to the their likely destination after the regular season.
All you need to know is that the Yankees haven't finished last in their division in 22 years, and it won't happen this year.
Consider, too, that the Yankees have missed the playoffs just twice since 1993, and baseball is allowing an extra Wild Card team for each league this postseason. So the odds of the Yankees missing a third playoff during the last two decades is as likely as the Yankees getting shut out twice in the same month by a journeyman pitcher with a lifetime ERA above 5.00 entering this season.
Uh-oh. Kansas City Royals right-hander Felipe Paulino blanked the Yankees this week for the second time in a month. As a result, fans at Yankee Stadium booed the home team for its habit of forgetting how to produce runs, particularly with runners in scoring position.
I mean, the Bronx Bombers having trouble scoring? You know that won't last.
Even with Alex Rodriguez providing just warning-track power this season and Mark Teixeira's ongoing issues with a debilitating cough and sickly bat, the Yankees still have Derek Jeter ignoring the fact he is nearly 38. The captain ranks among the league leaders in batting average, while Curtis Granderson ranks among the league leaders in home runs and Robinson Cano ranks among the AL leaders in hits.
There is no Mariano Rivera, though. Courtesy of a freak knee injury, the Hall of Fame closer is gone for the season. Not only that, CC Sabathia is about the only sure thing in a New York starting rotation that has become home run friendly to hitters.
Still, the Yankees have enough of everything else to do more than just tease down the stretch.
The Red Sox? Not so much.
The Curse of the Bambino is sort of back.
This isn't to say we're on the verge of the Red Sox's first last-place finish in their division in 20 years. This is to say the Red Sox have too many injuries to outfielders (six on the disabled list and counting) and not enough pitching (ranked next to last in the AL in team ERA) to become significant in the league -- and even in their division.
That's in contrast to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Just like the Red Sox and the Yankees, the Phillies have gone from princes to paupers in the standings. In fact, after capturing the National League East for each of the past five years, the Phillies entered Wednesday night's action in the basement. But here's the thing: The Phillies can reach the penthouse again this season, and they can do so easier than you think.
Despite starting the season without prolific sluggers Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, the Phillies still have played .500 ball, and they hit about as well as any team in the NL. They also have the formidable pitching likes of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in their starting rotation, and Jonathan Papelbon is virtually flawless as a closer.
Oh, and Howard and Utley are slated to return in June. Not good news for the rest of the NL East.
In contrast, the best news for the Yankees and the rest of the AL East is that the Orioles have been the surprise leaders of late -- with a heavy emphasis on "surprise." They haven't won their division since 1997, and they've had 14 consecutive losing seasons.
That said, Baltimore's hitters smash the ball like their forefathers -- such as the two Robinsons (Frank and Brooks) and Boog Powell -- and Baltimore's relievers have formed the game's best bullpen. The problem is, Baltimore's starting pitchers won't be confused with their forefathers Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.
That shaky pitching rotation eventually will sink the Orioles in the standings. Such also will be the fate for the equally light-hitting Indians, currently leading the AL Central, mostly be default.
For the longest time, the Indians have ranked as the only team in their division with a record above .500. But both the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox are threatening to change that. When they do, the Indians will resemble last year's club: The one that soared in April and May, but swooned in June, along the way to finishing two of the last three months of the season with a losing record.
The Washington Nationals can relate -- to the losing part. The last time the Nationals finished a season with a winning record was when the franchise was in Montreal prior to its arrival in Washington in 2005.
The Nationals have rising stars in pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper, and they also have enough complementary players around them to produce the NL's top pitching staff in ERA and just enough hitting to scare opponents.
So the Nationals will join the Atlanta Braves (and maybe the Miami Marlins and the New York Mets) through late summer as the most formidable teams in the NL East.
At least until the Phillies get rolling.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.