My phone blew up seconds after Wilson Betemit hit his three-run walk-off homer Sunday, lifting the Orioles to a 5-2 victory over the Athletics.
It was my brother-in-law, Brian, doing what he does every season when the Orioles get off to their usual hot start.
Making postseason plans.
“And the magic continues,” Brian said in a text. “First place on the first of May.”
Never mind that one day remains in April, and the Orioles could fall out of their first-place tie with the Rays when they make their first visit to Yankee Stadium on Monday night.
Never mind as well that the Orioles were 6-1 in 2011, 6-2 in ’09, 6-1 in ’08, 11-7 in ’07 and 20-9 in ’05 — remarkable starts for a team that has produced 14 straight losing seasons.
It’s nice that the Orioles are at it again, opening 14-8. But now they will play three games in New York and three in Boston, followed by nine at home against the Rangers, Rays and Yankees.
Not that Brian is worried.
“If you want, you can stay with us in October,” he said. “Most of Taiwan will have the downtown hotels booked.”
That would be a reference to Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, who in Brian’s view is the leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
Seriously, though, there are things to like about the Orioles — most notably, that they rank second in the American League in ERA after finishing last in that department in 2011.
The rotation’s improvement is due largely to Chen and right-handers Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter. Four right-handed relievers — Darren O’Day, Matt Lindstrom, Luis Ayala and closer Jim Johnson — have combined to allow one earned run in 37 1/3 innings.
Hammel, who starts Monday night against the Yankees, qualifies as the biggest surprise. I was one of many who didn’t like the Orioles’ trade of righty Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies for Hammel and Lindstrom. But Hammel, 3-0 with a 1.73 ERA, has outperformed Guthrie, who went on the disabled list Saturday with a right shoulder sprain that he suffered in a biking accident.
Some considered Hammel to be a passive competitor in his previous stops with the Rockies and Rays. Orioles GM Dan Duquette, however, viewed him as a dependable innings eater who would benefit from his experience pitching at Coors Field and in the AL East.
Hammel, 29, showed signs that he was figuring things out last September, posting a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings for the Rockies, who had removed him from their rotation in August. Getting out of Coors certainly didn’t hurt him, either.
The improvement of the Orioles’ rotation has enabled manager Buck Showalter to bring order to his bullpen. And lefty Zach Britton, recovering from a shoulder impingement, could be back starting in a month.
Also, you can bet that Showalter and his staff already are dreaming about using right-handed uber-prospect Dylan Bundy as a late-inning reliever if the team somehow plays meaningful games in September. Bundy, 19, has yet to allow a hit in 13 innings at Class A, striking out 21, walking one.
Alas, reality could begin to set in against the Yankees and Red Sox.
“They can’t pass the Buck,” Brian said. “This time, it’s for real.”
I doubt it. But who am I to spoil things for my dear brother-in-law?
PINEDA: WARNING SIGNS?
One rival executive whose team had interest in right-hander Michael Pineda last offseason said his club had reservations due to Pineda’s second-half decline and his velocity drop in his final start against the Twins on Sept. 21.
The Yankees were fully aware of both, which is why they required both X-rays and MRIs of both Pineda’s elbow and shoulder and spoke with him before agreeing to their trade with the Mariners, general manager Brian Cashman said.
In the Yankees’ view, Pineda’s second-half decline wasn’t as pronounced as the differences in his ERA (3.03-5.12) indicated. Pineda’s strikeout and walk rates were virtually identical before and after the All-Star Game, but the defense behind him wasn’t as good.
As for his final start, Cashman said the Yankees were indeed aware that Pineda threw his fastball 89 to 91 mph — well below his season average of 94.2 mph, according to Pitch F/x data on Fangraphs.com. But Pineda in that game was pitching for the first time in 11 days.
“I can’t tell you it was because of the layoff,” Cashman said of Pineda’s velocity drop. “I can tell you it’s what we believed it was and what the Mariners believed it was. It made sense. But that’s why we insisted upon the physicals and MRIs. We did more on this one than we’ve ever done.”
All of the tests came back clean, Cashman said, but a pitcher’s health never is guaranteed. Pineda either had an undetectable problem or was injured in spring training. He will undergo season-ending surgery Tuesday to repair a labrum tear in his shoulder.
Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the AL East:
What if the Rays can hit?
Looks like that might that be the case — the Rays rank fifth in the AL in runs per game after finishing eighth in that department last season.
Outfielder Matt Joyce and third baseman Evan Longoria rank fifth and ninth in the league in OPS, respectively. First baseman Carlos Pena is 24th and another free-agent addition, designated hitter Luke Scott, would be in the top 20 if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
The Rays also are building position-player depth, a quest that did not simply end with their signing of free-agent infielder Jeff Keppinger. Club officials began seeking additional help after learning that outfielder Sam Fuld would miss most of the season due to a right-wrist surgery.
The Rays claimed Brandon Allen on waivers from the Athletics and signed Hideki Matsui to a minor-league contract on Monday, creating more options at the bottom of their roster. Matsui will report to extended spring training Wednesday.
Catcher and shortstop remain positions of weakness — the Rays rank 13th in the AL in OPS at catcher and 14th at short. The bullpen, without injured closer Kyle Farnsworth, is 13th in ERA.
Still, the Rays’ combination of improved hitting, dominant fielding and elite starting pitching could make them the team to beat in the division.
D-BACKS: HERE COME THE YOUNG ARMS
Rival executives predicted that the Diamondbacks’ rotation could evolve as the season progressed, citing the talent of prospects such as right-hander Trevor Bauer and left-handers Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs.
The transition is happening sooner rather than later.
Lefty Wade Miley replaced injured righty Daniel Hudson, and the D-Backs promoted Corbin from Double A on Monday to replace ineffective righty Josh Collmenter. Meanwhile, Bauer is 5-0 with a 1.26 ERA at Double A, Skaggs 0-2, 4.24.
For now, the D-Backs are trying to remain within reasonable distance of the division-leading Dodgers while awaiting the returns of Hudson, shortstop Stephen Drew and center fielder Chris Young — and while right fielder Justin Upton plays through a bone bruise on his left thumb.
All could be back by June 1, at which point the D-Backs could take off. The team went only 11-15 last April, but ended up winning 94 games and the NL West title.
NATIONALS’ ROTATION: WOW!
The Nationals, who are off Monday, will finish April with a 1.78 rotation ERA, becoming the first team to end the month below 2.00 since the 1985 Cubs (1.94).
The last team to finish with a lower rotation ERA in April, according to STATS LLC, was the ’78 Athletics (1.75). The last NL team to do it was the ’72 Dodgers (1.72)
Not that such a start portends a successful season.
The ’78 A’s finished 69-93; they were last in the league in runs scored. The ’72 Dodgers finished 85-70; they played only 15 games in April due to a strike.
ATHLETICS’ PITCHING: NOT BAD EITHER
Sunday’s ninth-inning meltdown aside, the Athletics’ pitching has been downright stunning, considering that the team traded left-hander Gio Gonzalez, righty Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey last offseason and still is without injured lefty Brett Anderson.
The A’s rank third in the AL in ERA, and free-agent right-hander Bartolo Colon is only part of the story.
Two of the pitchers that the A’s acquired in trades — left-hander Tommy Milone and righty Jarrod Parker — are now in the rotation; Milone, who came in the Gio Gonzalez deal, is 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA. A third acquisition, righty Ryan Cook, has thrown 10 scoreless innings in relief, allowing just one hit.
Two other players from the Gonzalez deal also are performing well at Triple A. Right-hander Brad Peacock is 2-1 with a 3.49 ERA, and catcher Derek Norris has an .898 OPS in 89 plate appearances.
BEST LINEUP CARDS IN BASEBALL
Brewers bench coach Jerry Narron writes his lineup cards in calligraphy, and this season he’s using letters from three different alphabets — English, Japanese and Hebrew.
The last name of Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoiki is written in Japanese, and the word, “Yeshua” (Jesus) is written at the top of the lineup card in Hebrew.
Narron, a man of faith, says the Hebrew is for his daughter, Callie, and son-in-law, Devin Mitchell, believers in Jesus who have lived in Israel for the past 12 years.
As for the rest of the card, Narron writes the last names of left-handed hitters in red, switch-hitters in green and right-handed hitters in black.
He does not use vowels for the last names of bench players unless they are Hall of Fame caliber — Narron would spell out, “J-o-n-e-s,” for example, if Chipper Jones began the game on the bench.
The most amazing part?
Narron, after years of using calligraphy, says it doesn’t take him any longer to do lineup cards that way than it would if he wrote them in longhand.
Speaking of Narron, he is reunited this season with his older brother Johnny, the Brewers’ new hitting coach.
Back in 1974, Jerry hit third and Johnny fourth for the Yankees’ Rookie League affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn. Johnny was an assistant hitting coach when Jerry managed the Reds in 2007.
PATHETIC PIRATES DEPT.
With one game left in April, the Pirates are averaging 2.33 runs per game. The last team to average fewer runs in April, according to STATS LLC, was the 2004 Expos, who averaged 1.88.
The Pirates also have failed to score more than five runs in their first 21 games, the longest streak to open a season since the ’72 Brewers, who set the major-league record with 31 straight.
Rival execs actually like the top of the Pirates’ order — outfielders Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen. But from there things deteriorate, in part because third baseman Pedro Alvarez — the second overall pick in the 2008 draft — has failed to develop into a middle-of-the-order threat.
The good news: The Pirates are third in the NL in ERA, behind only the Nationals and Cardinals.
AROUND THE HORN
• Rival executives already anticipate that the Tigers will make a strong push for starting pitching at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, if not before.
Right-hander Doug Fister eventually will return from a left ribcage injury, but right-handers Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer and lefty Adam Wilk have combined for a 7.38 ERA in 12 starts.
• The Angels’ feeble lineup and leaky bullpen have conspired to botch a remarkable run of starting pitching.
In the past 13 games, Angels starters have averaged nearly seven innings per outing, producing a 2.82 ERA.
The team’s record during that time?
• Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez is off to a hot start, raising the question about whether he is finally ready to reach his potential at 26.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin is a big believer that speedsters often take time to develop as hitters, citing Otis Nixon, Tom Goodwin and Lance Johnson as examples.
Gomez’s tools are so impressive that Melvin says if you put him in a tryout camp, he’d generate the same type of buzz among scouts that Yoenis Cespedes did last winter.
Gomez and Cespedes are the same age.
• The Marlins’ Emilio Bonifacio went only 2-for-12 with a walk batting leadoff in a weekend series against the D-Backs, but you can see the logic behind manager Ozzie Guillen’s decision to hit Bonifacio first and drop Jose Reyes to second.
Bonifacio leads the NL with 4.72 pitches per plate appearance. Reyes has the eighth-lowest average at 3.43. Bonifacio’s number represents a significant spike from his career norm.
• Yes, Bryan LaHair is 29, and yes, the Cubs have another left-handed hitting first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, on the rise. But LaHair is showing signs that he may be a keeper, even if he needs to move to the outfield.
LaHair’s biggest hit last week was a game-tying, opposite-field home run in the ninth inning Tuesday against Cardinals lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski. But his best at-bat came the previous night, when he worked a 12-pitch walk in the ninth off Cardinals closer Jason Motte, fouling off six consecutive pitches.
The rap on many so-called “4A” players is that they can’t hit velocity. But LaHair hung tough against Motte, who was throwing 98 mph.
• Who says the Blue Jays needed Prince Fielder?
Edwin Encarnacion, who did not hit his first homer last season until May 29, has seven in his first 87 at-bats.
Encarnacion is a streaky hitter within seasons, but he finished with a .787 OPS in both 2010 and ’11. He hit for more average and less power last season, his first mostly as a DH. Now his power is back, though he probably won’t sustain his 1.005 OPS.
• It’s no shock that the Indians intend to welcome outfielder Johnny Damon on Tuesday, as reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Damon could have requested his release on that date if he was not added to the major-league roster within 24 hours.
The truth is, the Indians need him.
Left fielder Shelley Duncan, after a hot start, is 5-for-34 with 16 strikeouts. Damon figures to play left against most right-handers, while Duncan will be limited to facing lefties.