Here's a team that, going into the season, everybody had pegged to finish no higher than fourth in the American League East. Yet, as we flipped our calendars from April to May, the O's were comfortably perched in third place with a shocking 14-12 record (counting the April 30 rainout that was made up the following afternoon). That's two games over .500, people (and as of press time one game over .500, but who's counting). Sure, it's early, but let's celebrate success while we've got it.
Truth is, things could be a lot worse. Just look around the league. As of May 1, the Twins, who were a consensus pick to win the AL Central this year, are doggy-paddling two games below sea level. The Mets, with all their big-name free agent acquisitions, are five games under. Heck, even the Anaheim Angels aren't playing .500 ball, and they're the defending World Champions.
To find the last time the Birds finished April with a winning record, you'd have go all the way back to . . . OK, so maybe you'd only have to go back to 2000, but still--our boys are just a paltry three and a half games back in the wild card race. And don't go giving me all that mathematical mumbo jumbo about extrapolating. Sure, if you wanna get all technical about everything, then yes, three and a half games per month times six months translates to finishing 21 games out of the wild card slot. But I don't want to hear it. Not today. Because it's May 1, and my Birds are flying high.
Some might say they should be flying even higher. After all, the scheduling gods were mighty kind to Hargrove and Co. in April: two games against Detroit, five against Cleveland, and a whopping 10 against Tampa Bay. (Last time I saw a schedule that light was spring semester of my senior year in college, when I was only taking three classes, one of which was sociology--pass/fail.) Certainly a far cry from September, when the O's are slated to face the Yankees and Red Sox seven times each, not to mention the A's and Mariners three times apiece.
But this isn't September. Not yet, anyway. It's May, and all I know is that the last two times the Orioles finished April exactly two games over .500, good things happened. Very good things: They went 14-12 in April 1996 on their way to a wild card berth and an appearance in the AL Championship Series. Before that, they went 11-9 in April '83 on their way to . . . well, you know what happened in '83.
Difference is, in '83 and '96, people expected good things from the Orioles. Not so this year. Still, the home team has surprised early on. Here are five reasons why (not including the aforementioned schedule):
1) Jerry Hairston. As the O's leadoff man, his primary responsibility is to get on base, and that's exactly what he's been doing. Hairston's .398 on-base percentage is third among all American League leadoff hitters. What's more, after two seasons of playing mostly every day, the speedy Hairston seems to be taking his running game to the next level. After swiping 29 and 21 bags respectively in 2001 and 2002, the O's second baseman has already notched nine steals--good enough to lead the AL--while getting caught just once. Granted, it's early, but at this pace, Hairston would become only the third Oriole ever to steal more than 50 bases in a season, and the first since Brady Anderson stole 53 back in 1992.
2) Luck. While the Orioles haven't killed themselves with the leather, they haven't exactly helped themselves either. But despite committing 18 errors in April--only five AL teams missed the ball more--the Birds have given up just six unearned runs. Only the Yankees have yielded fewer (three). Chalk it up to luck. Or to playing young, inexperienced, dare-I-say bad teams who wouldn't know a scoring opportunity if it bonked them on the head.
3) Control. Another reason the errors haven't been so costly. O's pitchers have been downright selfish with the free passes, issuing an impressively low 2.7 walks per game. Once again, among AL teams, only the Yankees have been better (2.3). In case you're wondering, this is the bright side to not having a rotation full of flamethrowers who ring up double-digit strikeouts on a consistent basis.
4) Jason Johnson. A month ago, he was the Birds' No. 3 starter, at best. Today, he's No. 1 with a bullet. Johnson's 2.12 ERA is fourth best in the AL. Opposing teams are hitting an emaciated .192 against him, also fourth best in the league. And, oh yeah--he's won four games without a loss, including not one, but two wins over the Greatest Pitcher of Our Time (Pedro Martinez). Let's just hope this is the year Johnson finally puts two solid halves together.
5) Melvin Mora. Leading off, playing second base. Batting second, playing center field. Batting second, playing right field. Batting eighth, playing shortstop. And that's just the last four games. Mike Hargrove's über-exchangeable part has also played left field, and hit in the sixth and seventh slots, and we're only a month into the season. All while fielding flawlessly (no errors) and producing at the plate: Add up his .435 slugging percentage and his .607 on-base percentage, and you've a plump OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.042--best among O's starters.
Now . . . if only every month were April.
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