3 Games Down, 162 To Go
So we’ve finished the first series of the 2012 season. And while it’s only 3 games in, there is a lot going on that I’m sure few people were expecting. In the East Division of both leagues, the teams that were widely considered to be the last place finishers are currently first at 3-0. In the AL East the Baltimore Orioles completed a 3 game sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. They were able to get the job done limiting the Twins offense to 5 runs over that 3 game set, which is an incredibly good sign for the Orioles. Their offense is stout, but their pitching was a question mark. The Twins struggled last season and many people think their struggles will continue in the near future, but it was still a great start for a young Baltimore team that wants to change things in that city. In the NL East, the much-maligned New York Mets looked even more impressive in a 3 game sweep of an Atlanta Braves team that many think will be playoff bound this year. Johan Santana was fantastic in his debut this season throwing 5 shutout innings of 2 hit, ball while striking out 5 against 2 walks. His bullpen also came through for him as Ramon Ramirez, Tim Byrdak, Jon Rauch and Frank Fransicso combined for 4 scoreless innings and the Mets squeaked by with a 1-0 win in the opener. R.A. Dickey followed with a strong 6-inning debut giving up only 2 runs before yielding to the bullpen, which pitched 3 scoreless innings. And in the last game of the series, Jonathon Niese took a no hitter into the 7th inning before finally relenting and giving up 3 runs, only 2 of which were earned. The bullpen went the final 3 again, giving up 2 earned runs and finishing the Braves off without any problems.
Moving to the bottom of the Eastern standings we find the aforementioned Braves in the NL and in the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox who both ended up at 0-3 after the Yankees ran into the buzz saw that was the Tampa Rays pitching staff and the Red Sox got out slugged by the new Tigers offense. So while some teams struggled and others surprisingly flourished, I found myself wondering which team in each league has the most to be concerned about after their first series and if either of the surprisingly successful teams can keep winning.
I’ll start by getting rid of the obvious choices. In the AL, we expected the Rays and Tigers to be good. So their 3-0 starts are nothing that we weren’t expecting. The same can be said for the Diamondbacks and Cardinals (who are actually 3-1) in the NL. On the other side of the spectrum, the Twins struggles aren’t overly surprising, considering their struggles in 2011 and the loss of some key players in free agency. For the moment, I’ll preclude all the 2-1 and 1-2 teams as they are square in the middle of things. So that leaves us the Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers (3-1), Mets, and Seattle Mariners (3-1) as the surprise successes this season and the Yankees, Red Sox, Braves, and San Francisco Giants as the surprise losers in the first series of the year. Which teams are the biggest surprises?
I think the Baltimore Orioles have to be considered the biggest surprise winner in the AL. This is a team that was dead last by a healthy margin in their division last season. They play in the toughest division in baseball and have had terrible pitching the last couple of years. But after a strong start by Jake Arrieta and other solid performances from the Orioles pitching staff, they handled the Twins pretty easily and got off to a great start. And while the Mariners are off to an equally strong start, the Athletics aren’t the most frightening team to play and it’s not that surprising that they were able to win 3 out of 4 against them. That brings us back to the Orioles who are hoping to continue this hot steak that I don’t think anyone saw coming. I picked them to lose the series 2-1 to the Twins. And while the Twins aren’t the class of the AL, they are better than their record last season and the return of Mauer and Morneau makes them exponentially more formidable than they were last year. I don’t think this will last as the Orioles move on to play the teams in their division, but they are off to a strong start and are hoping to win some respect if nothing else.
In the NL the biggest surprise success is easily the Mets. The Dodgers are 3-1, but they have a superstar pitcher and superstar centerfielder. The rest of their pieces are solid with plenty of experience and were good enough to turn in a 500 record last year. The Mets have the beginnings of a strong core, but Santana was a wildcard after missing so much time, Niese wasn’t anything special the last few years, and Reyes’ departure coupled with the sharp decline of Jason Bay has left this offense lacking punch. Their pitching staff came in and shut the Braves offense down, which isn’t the most difficult task as they have struggled to score runs the last few years. More impressive was the runs they were able to put up against Atlanta's pitching staff, especially in the second and third games. They scored 6 runs in 2 games off the Braves vaunted bullpen, and handled All Star Jair Jurrjens and young lefty Mike Minor with relative ease. David Wright is hitting like a star again and the younger Mets are also making noise with Reuben Tejada going 4 for 5 in the third game and Josh Thole getting two hits while driving in the go ahead run in the middle of the second game. Being at those last two games, I can tell you that they were not as close as the 4-2 and 7-5 scores would indicate. The 2 runs the Braves scored off of Dickey came off a Martin Prado home run that barely cleared the fence and barely stayed fair. And while 5 runs in game 3 seems impressive, one was unearned and another was off a solo home run from Brian McCann that would have been an out last season and barely caused a stir in the stands. There was little doubt that Francisco could come out for the third time in this series and shut down the bottom of the order in the ninth. And he did. I think the Mets are better than anyone realized, me included. They have at least 3 solid pitchers and a talented young offense led by David Wright and Lucas Duda who slugged 2 home runs in the second game. Tejada is flourishing at the top of the order, Ike Davis’ power is waiting to be a factor, Daniel Murphy just continues to hit and even Thole and Bay got into the action in this series. I still think the Mets will be watching the playoffs from home, but they may take down a few NL East opponents with them this season.
Staying in the NL, the team with the most to be concerned about has to be the Braves. The Giants were swept as well and Lincecum’s loss of velocity is quite troubling. But they lost to the team that won their division last season and faced two of their star young pitchers. In addition the Giants lost every game by 1 run. And their struggling offense scored 4 runs in the first two games and 6 in the third. They’ll be fine and will contend in a weak division. The Braves couldn’t beat one of the weakest teams in their division. They were shut out in the first game where they had 4 innings of relievers to scrape together a run but failed. They stranded a runner at third after a one out triple when Tim Byrdak struck out both pinch hitter Jose Constanza and center fielder Michael Bourn. They could’ve easily been shut out again if Martin Prado’s wall scraping home run had drifted a few feet into foul territory in the second game. They only had 7 hits in that game, one of which should have been an error and would have been if the hometown scorers hadn’t thrown Daniel Murphy a bone. It’s tough to win when you scatter 10 hits over 2 games. The 5 run outburst was a positive sign in the third game, but the 4 run 7th never would have happened if not for an unfortunate error by the Mets which included an unearned run. The solo shot that followed in the 8th never fazed the team nor the fans at Citi Field as there was little concern about Frank Francisco’s ability to get his third Save against Atlanta. Sitting in the stands I saw a subdued visitors dugout where the Braves didn’t seem to believe they could get the hits they needed, and they proved it leaving 13 runners in scoring position. They greatly struggled to drive in runs last season, didn’t address it at all in the offseason, and continued to struggle with the bats in their first series in 2012. And they left last season with a terrible taste in their mouths after falling apart in September and allowing the Cards to leap past them into the playoffs when one win in the final week would have punched their playoff tickets. Many Braves fans were worried after the second game and this article gives a good outline as to why they should have been. So the Braves are the team I worry about most coming into 2012 after collapsing last season, struggling out of the gate, and having the same issues from last season return this season after clearly making no moves to address them. In their tough division every game counts, and this was not how they wanted to start things off.
That brings us to the big newsmakers. The Red Sox and Yankees are both 0-3 for the first time since the Johnson administration (1966). For a more exhaustive view on both of these teams, as well as other intriguing opening week storylines check out Jeff Passan’s column for Yahoosports here. It’s my favorite weekly baseball column, usually called 12 Degrees, but with 36 iterations in this post. Anyway both the Red Sox and Yankees have some room to be concerned. Both also played great teams. The Yankees faced a Rays team that many picked to win the division (I picked them to win the Wildcard) and may have the best pitching in baseball. The Red Sox faced a frightening Tigers team that features MVP Justin Verlander and one of the best offenses in the game. So both teams can deploy the quality opponent excuse, but the question is, which team should be more concerned?
I think the answer to that question is the Red Sox, hands down. They are dealing with the most historic collapse in history from last year, overshadowing the Braves by one game (and a larger media market). They cleaned house after the embarrassing beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse fiasco and welcomed a new GM and manager to the field. Bobby Valentine comes in with plenty of experience, but also a knack to stirring the pot and placing the focus on him and his club. And with that focus on them, this was not how he wanted to return to the majors after so many years. He’s known for his big talk as much as his coaching acumen and some think he should focus more on winning ballgames and less on provoking the Yankees, who are probably a little miffed after the first 3 games of their season as well. The Sox offense scored only 2 runs in the first 2 games, though they broke out of it bringing around 12 in an extra innings affair on Sunday. But Youkilis is hitless and the pitching staff allowed 26 runs over the first 3 games. Things are not looking good for a Red Sox club that was hoping for a new start in 2012 after an abhorrent April and September in 2011. Instead we are seeing more of the same sort of start that hurt them last season and great struggles on the mound, specifically in the 9th inning after letting Jonathan Papelbon leave via free agency in the offseason. Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox need to turn things around and quickly. Right now Bobby V is looking vulnerable. And after so many years out of the dugout in the U.S. he’s made more noise with his antics than his team’s performance. That won’t do him any favors; neither will disagreements with the new GM Ben Cherington. The Red Sox faithful expect a lot and have dealt with a lot of letdowns recently while expecting success. If they don’t start playing better soon, they may decide to shake things up again, this time moving Bobby back out of the dugout and into the booth where he will ironically find his spot at ESPN blocked by the very man he replaced: Terry Francona. The Red Sox are a strong team and have the talent to turn it around. But they need to do it fast, or things will start to get very uncomfortable in Beantown.