O's, Jays finally for real this time

BY Bob Klapisch • April 12, 2011

Ring your call-button if, on Opening Day, you figured the Baltimore Orioles would be in first place right now, having surrendered the fewest runs in the American League East with the Toronto Blue Jays boasting the division’s top-ranked offense.

If you were prescient enough to envision any of this — congrats, you have a gift. Just about no one else saw it coming, though. Not the New York Yankees and certainly not the Boston Red Sox, both of whom figured to slug it out at least for the American League wild card.

Obviously, things can change quickly, especially this early in the season. But the Bombers are about to glimpse the East’s brave new world as they begin a rain-shortened, two-game series Wednesday with the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

“There’s no doubt this division is much, much tougher than it’s been in the past. We’re seeing that,” Joe Girardi said over the weekend, when the Yankees dropped 2-of-3 to the Red Sox. That allowed the Orioles to remain atop the division, and helped the Jays to inch within a half-game of the Bombers.

Talk about shockers: With Brian Matusz on the DL and ace Jeremy Guthrie only now recovering from pneumonia, the Orioles’ team ERA is nevertheless a run and a half lower than the Yankees’. By holding opponents to a .216 batting average, the O’s pitchers are the stingiest in the East, second only to the Rangers in the AL.

“Considering our injuries, and that we’re using two or three guys in the rotation that we didn’t expect to have, I’d say we’re doing OK,” Buck Showalter said by telephone on Monday. “Every team has to deal with injuries; no one goes through an entire season with all their bullets. We’ve just had our (problems) earlier than most, but overall, we’ve come out of this pretty well.”

The Jays, meanwhile, have ascended in even more surprising fashion. Despite an embarrassing 8-7 loss to the Mariners on Monday — Seattle scored all eight runs in the final three innings — Toronto is being hailed as “the team that’s going to open a lot of eyes before all is said and done,” according to one major league executive.

“I’m not sure if they’re ready to win the wild card, but they’re going to do some damage to the big boys down the stretch. They’re really, really good.”

The Jays are about to have an early season moment of truth — a six-game stretch with the Red Sox and Yankees, starting this weekend. In about 10 days, the East’s map figures to be a little clearer. Or to be more precise, we’re about to find out why the superpowers — New York and Boston — have made it possible for the Orioles and Jays to dream about a pennant race.

The potential reality exists only to the extent that the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ pitching allows it. Although Joe Girardi says, “I think it’s too early to say (both teams) are going to have rotation problems” — it’s clear neither team has shown any aptitude in run prevention.

The Sox, specifically, are wondering how to fix Clay Buchholz (five home runs allowed in 7.1 innings), John Lackey (15.58 ERA, 2.42 WHIP) and Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was booed thickly by the Fenway crowd after allowing the Rays seven runs in two innings in a 16-5 ambush Monday night.

The Japanese right-hander, once considered so evolved he’d actually invented a new pitch (the gyro-ball), is nothing more than ordinary now — just 0-4 with a 7.54 ERA in his last seven starts. Since 2009, Matsuzaka has a 1.55 WHIP, which is just another way of saying there’s been too much traffic on the bases every time he pitches — too many walks, too many pitches, too great a workload, no doubt dating back to his early days in Japan.

As for Matsuzaka’s gyro-ball, one talent evaluator said, “We all stopped talking about that two years ago. It was all (B.S.), nothing but a backup slider.”

The Sox were at least heartened by Josh Beckett’s brilliance against the Yankees Sunday night. He allowed just two hits, striking out 10 over eight innings in a 4-0 victory over CC Sabathia. The right-hander averaged 94 mph on both his two and four-seam fastballs, which moved so explosively Derek Jeter observed afterward, “It’s the best we’ve seen him in a long time. He didn’t throw a pitch that was straight all night.”

Still, history says the Sox are in trouble after their 0-6 start. No team that ever lost its first four games ever won the World Series, and only one (1985 Cardinals) has won a pennant. Even getting to the postseason will be a challenge. According to the Boston Globe’s research, since 1995 only two of 128 teams advanced beyond the regular season after an 0-4 start (1999 Diamondbacks, 1995 Reds).

No wonder the Jays and Orioles are dreaming big. If the Sox are this crippled and the Yankees’ pitching is this ordinary, isn’t anything possible? Actually, it depends on how vulnerable the Yankees are.

For now, New York's front office is clearly uncomfortable, having signed Carlos Silva to a minor league deal 24 hours after Phil Hughes was lit up for six runs in two innings by the Sox on Friday. And Ivan Nova continues to drive Girardi crazy with his inability to shut down an opposing lineup the second time through the order.

In a disappointing 4.1-inning performance Saturday, Nova couldn’t even make it through once, allowing the leadoff man to get on base in four of five innings — and runners in scoring position in all five.

That’s why Silva will be working out in Tampa, right next to Kevin Millwood, another retread on official stand-by. It’s why journeyman Freddie Garcia is starting Friday against Texas and why Bartolo Colon, currently a long-man in the bullpen, might just end up in the rotation, too.

It’s not a particularly pretty picture for a $205 million team, but don’t tell that to the Orioles and Jays. To them, confusion in the East is a beautiful thing.

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