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Baseball Surprises, Moods, and Injuries

   by Bryan Leonard - 04/29/2008

One aspect of handicapping that’s important to focus in on, especially now that we are several weeks into the season, is the mood of a team. Some clubs are off to better than expected starts, like the Orioles, White Sox and Marlins. Players on teams like this can be excited about coming to work each day and look forward to playing. Other times, players and teams can be disappointing because of high expectations or injuries.

The Yankees and Blue Jays, for instance, have stumbled out of the gate. Toronto’s biggest problem is pitching. Ace Roy Halladay has thrown well but has a losing record, while A.J. Burnett has been a bust with an ERA over 6. When the Red Sox traded for Josh Beckett three years ago the organization was split: Half wanted Beckett, half wanted to keep young shortstop Hanley Ramirez and sign free agent Burnett. They lucked out. They wouldn’t have won the World Series last season with Burnett in place of Beckett.

Individual players can be affected by a change in their routines, such as rain outs or not enough sleep on a long road trip from coast to coast. The 2008 Red Sox just lost four straight. They have battled a terrible road trip to Japan as well as a slew of injuries. 3B Mike Lowell has been out, Big Papi is on the shelf with a knee problem and Curt Schilling is out until at least August.

The White Sox have played well with an improved offense. Jermaine Dye and A.J. Pierzynski have found their stroke, behind old reliable Jim Thome and newcomers Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera. The production has allowed wacky manager Ozzie Guillen to have patience and stick with struggling players more, something he couldn’t do last season. A day after calmly defending his decision to stick with Juan Uribe at second base, Guillen was a lot more animated about persistent questions concerning Uribe's fit in the lineup. Guillen again defended the decision to keep Uribe and his .167 batting average in the lineup because of what he deems stellar defense.

This is in stark contrast to April of 2007 when the White Sox had injuries to Scott Podsednik and Jim Thome. Paul Konerko was at .194, Jermaine Dye was at .203, Tadahito Iguchi was at .210 and Joe Crede was at .205. Chicago started 20-12 under the total in 2007 with the worst batting average and on base percentage in the AL (10-5 under at home). This season they started 12-10 over the total.

Speaking of contrasts, there’s a huge one in Baltimore from the Orioles of 2007 and 2008. Taking a series from the Yankees keeps the O's near the top of the AL East standings. Outside of Steve Trachsel's blow up in Toronto, the Orioles' pitching has held its own. Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff continue to form a strong duo of production. The pitching has been surprisingly good, starting 15-8 under the total. George Sherrill is 6-for-6 in save opportunities and also has recorded one win. It is a happier clubhouse, a stark difference from a year ago when the Orioles were in more bad moods than good ones. After a collapse in Boston in April of 2007, where they squandered a five-run ninth-inning lead, they vowed not to let that loss linger, but during the next series they looked uninterested at some points and discouraged at others. Jay Payton and Melvin Mora nearly fought in the dugout. 'It's a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing,' designated hitter Jay Gibbons said. 'Stuff happens.â€쳌 Of course, outside of the 1973 Oakland A’s, fighting doesn’t occur on winning, harmonious teams. They are not fighting in 2007, except against the opponents.

And how about those Cubbies! Lou Piniella’s Cubs have had a strong start in the NL, and historians will point out the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. Two years ago the Florida Gators won the championship in college football in the 100th year of their football program. Are the Cubs going to win the title in the 100th anniversary of their last title team?

Pitching depth is the most obvious sign of their success, but here’s another: Steals. The Cubs had 27 steal attempts in their first 23 games. Only San Francisco (33) and Houston (30) had more in the National League. That puts the Cubs on pace for 190 this season. Last year, with several more lumbering players on the roster, the Cubs ranked 10th in the league with just 119 attempts. Piniella said, ''We're creating more opportunities, and we're forcing other teams to adjust a little bit to our aggressive style of play.'' Keep in mind the Cubs are averaging over 6 runs per game at home where they started 10-4. It’s nice to see Chicago fans happy at Wrigley, before they get sweaty palms in October.

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