Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MLB Notes From Las Vegas: Might Be The Best Season Ever!

By Micah Roberts

Daily walk-off wins make 2011 start awesome!
I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of feeling like this is the greatest start to a baseball season ever. I think I say that every year, but I may actually believe it more this year because of everything that has gone on.

We’ve had dramatics happening daily where every night there seems to be a walk-off win. We’ve got two of the unlikeliest two teams battling early on this week for the AL Central lead and we also have found an NL team that looks capable of playing with the Phillies down the stretch.

We’re just getting into seeing starting pitchers for the fourth time around and I know it’s early, but the more I watch, the more I realize that this truly is the best game on the planet. All the daily storylines, managerial strategy, meaningful statistics and of course wagering with true odds in the gambling world help elevate baseball’s status to the top for me.

AL Central Battle
One, or maybe both of these teams will likely drop considerably by June, but what the Indians and Royals are doing right now is very impressive. The Royals are one game behind the Indians in the AL central division as the two began a four game series in Kansas City Monday. Unless there is a sweep, both have such huge lead already that their positions will still be maintained when it’s over. The White Sox bullpen has let them down almost every other game and are four games back while the two teams most predicted would win the division, Minnesota and Detroit, are mired at the bottom.

Indians bullpen has been terrific 
Cleveland has been getting great pitching, the fifth lowest ERA in baseball, while also getting consistent timely hitting, which ranks third in the AL. The Indians get a boost at the top of the order on Sunday with the return of Grady Sizemore who homered in his first game. They also have gotten a boost from the past by someone who has been MIA the previous three seasons with Travis Hafner. He may not have that menacing rage look anymore, but he’s whacking the ball at a .358 clip with four home runs.

The Royals have the top hitting AL squad with four regular starters hitting .328 or above led by a healthy Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. Their pitching has been almost as impressive with Bruce Chen, Jeff Francis and Luke Hochevar giving quality starts and allowing perhaps the best closer in the game, Joakim Soria, to slam the door shut on opposing teams.

Do I think it will last? Probably not, but it sure is fun seeing these players run out to the field with their fans being truly excited about something for the first time in a years. You can’t help not to root for these teams, regardless of who your favorite teams are.

Johnny Damon Affect
New place, same story with Damon
Since starting the season 0-6, the Rays have stormed back to win six of their last nine and four of those wins can be directly attributed to Damon with the other two helped indirectly because of his the type of winning attitude he brings to a club. Everywhere Damon has gone, his demeanor inside the club house and actions on the field have helped inspire his teams. He was the architect of “The Idiots” at Boston where he helped reverse the curse of the Bambino. His heads up play of taking an extra-base with no one manning third in the ninth inning of game four in the 2009 World Series against the Phillies was the pivotal moment for the Yankees winning their 27th title.

This season the Rays are without the offensive staples of Carl Crawford and their best player, Evan Longoria, who is on the disabled list. They couldn’t get anything going at the plate and then Damon lit the fire against the White Sox and he hasn’t stopped since. In the process, he’s kept all the players on the team loose and helped ease the tension of a young team struggling at the plate. His play has been infectious the last nine games

We don’t think of Johnny Damon as a hall of fame type player, but he’s approaching 2,600 hits and has been involved in some of the greatest baseball moments of the last half century. The argument could be made that Damon’s contribution the game itself far outweighs what mere stats say and entitles him one day for serious consideration into Cooperstown.

Young Pitchers on the Rise
We could just say the entire Rangers starting rotation is one to watch, but the young guns of Matt Harrison (3-0, 0.91 ERA) and Alexi Ogando (2-0, 2.33 ERA) have been the standouts. Ogando hadn’t given up a run in his first two starts and finally gave in to the Yankees Sunday night, but he’s going to be a pitcher you should be able to count on at the bet window.

Harrison has had some success each of the last three seasons, but always had control issues and allowed too many free passes to cross home plate. This year he’s got hitters off balance and he’s throwing more strikes getting ahead in the count.

Gio Gonzalez (2-0, 0.47 ERA) burst onto the scene last season in his third season with the A‘s with 15 wins and a low ERA, but has come out this year as a force allowing only one run in three starts.

West is Best
The AL West has the top three pitching staffs in baseball in regards to team ERA. Oakland (2.59), Anaheim (2.68) and Texas (2.95) have been baffling teams nightly with their starting pitching and all three are winning at a pace of .500 or above. The Rangers and Angels came into Monday’s game in a tie for first place and the Rangers should consider themselves quite fortunate that they don’t have to face both in their three-game series.

Wednesday’s game will feature the Rangers Harrison against Weaver in the matchup of the day. Weaver has the looks of a Cy Young award winner with four wins in four starts, 31 K’s in 27 innings and an ERA of 1.30. Haren will miss the series; lucky for Rangers, because he’s on the best run of his career starting out with four wins and an ERA of 1.16. In 31 innings, Haren has allowed only two walks and has been nearly un-hittable.

Twins struggle
Nothing has gone right for the Twins this season. Outside of Francisco Liriano, their starting pitching has been very good and kept them in ball games, but their two leaders haven’t been getting it done and so manager Ron Gardenhire did something about it.

Joe Nathan missed all of last season due to elbow surgery. He came back strong early this season getting three saves in three chances, but then blew save opportunities two chances in a row over the weekend against Tampa Bay forcing the team to make journeyman Matt Capps the closer.

Their all-star catcher Joe Mauer was put on the disabled list because of dead legs and no one seems to know what the cause of it is even after seeing a couple different specialists. He’s lost almost 20 pounds during the process. Mauer had only eight hits in his nine games played for a .235 batting average, well below his career average of .326.

The Mauer and Nathan issues are only part of the problem that has seen the Twins drop to last in the AL Central. Only Denard Span and Jason Kubel have been hitting consistent with the likes of Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span all getting failing grades thus far.

Mile High Madness
Tulo early MVP candidate
The Colorado Rockies have traditionally been slow starters opting to make their amazing runs for the playoffs in August and September, but this year they have come out of the gate strong and have baseball’s best record. Every night there seems to be a new hero. Troy Tulowitzki is looking like the early leader for MVP and the popular MVP pre-season choice, Carlos Gonzalez, hasn’t even started hitting like he's capable of. The straw that has stirred the drink the most, outside of Tulowitzki, has been 2B Jonathan Herrera who seems to be on base every other inning. Herrera is batting. 400 with an on-base percentage of .543.

So far the starting pitching has held up and on Tuesday they get a lift when Ubaldo Jimenez come off the DL and takes the mound against the Giants. Their bullpen has been outstanding in both short and middle relief.

If Tulowitzki can stay healthy all year, the Phillies definitely will have their hands full come playoff time. By the way, the Phillies and Rockies don’t meet until a short two game series mid-May. The Rockies get a nice chance to pad their record along the way with eight games against the Giants, three each against the Cubs, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Mets, Padres and Pirates before facing Philadelphia.

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