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Take Five: Baseball's early-season surprises

Today, I'm beginning a new feature called Take Five. It'll be a list of five things that happen to be on my mind that day, about any subject. It could be my five favorite actors or five pet peeves, although it would tough to winnow my peeves down to five. Everyone loves lists, don't they?

The inaugural installment will be my list of five surprising developments in baseball as we approach the quarter-pole of the 2015 MLB season:

1. ALEX RODRIGUEZ IS REBORN

I thought my son was nuts when he told me that A-Rod would hit 30 homers when he returned from a year's suspension for steroid use. In spring training, there was speculation that Rodriguez might not even make the Yankees, despite his $22 million salary. Joe Girardi barely mentioned his name.

Well, not only has A-Rod played, he has been the Yankees' best hitter (admittedly a low bar these days). He's batting .250 with 10 home runs. As of Monday, he was slugging .561, seventh in the American League. A-Rod had 19 extra-base hits on the season. One Seattle's Nelson Cruz had more (20) in the AL.

Rodriguez appeared to be hitting the skids in early May, when his batting average dipped to .227. But over the next 11 games he hit .300 with four homers and a .700 slugging percentage. He also cut down on his strikeouts.

It's hard to see him maintaining such a pace. A-Rod's slugging percentage dropped for sixth consecutive seasons from 2008-13. Still, if he finishes with 30 homers and a .500 slugging average, it will equal what he achieved five years ago for the Yanks.

A-Rod turns 40 in July. He's bound to fade. But at this pace, he would join Barry Bonds as the only players in history to hit 40 home runs during a season when they were 40 years old. Whatever you think of A-Rod as a person, his comeback has been remarkable.

2. THE ASTROS HAVE THE BEST RECORD IN THE AL.

What? The same sorry Astros who lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011 to 2013? They were expected to improve after losing 'only' 92 games a year ago. But no one expected Houston (24-13 through Sunday) to be 5 1-2 games upin the AL West and on pace for 107 wins on May 18.

They're doing it with power, pitching and resourceful play under manager A.J.Hinch. The Astros lead the AL in homers (57) and stolen bases (38). They're seventh in the AL runs despite a league-low .229 batting average. That shows you how meaningless a stat batting average can be.

Houston is 10-2 in one-run games and 12-4 on the road. Maybe there's some luck involved, but it's the sign of a focused maturing team. They won their fifth in a row on Sunday by completing a four-game sweep of the reeling Blue Jays.

The Astros have one of the game's best young lefties in Dallas Keuchel (5-0,1.87) and a good No. 2 in Collin McHugh (5-1, 3.38), who is 12-1 since last August 1. The rotation isn't deep, but the bullpen sure is.

Will Harris, Pat Neshek, Tony Sipp, Chad Qualls and closer Luke Gregerson are a combined 9-2. In 76 innings, they have combined for 13 walks, 84 K's and only 45 hits allowed.

Houston has a rising star in second baseman Jose Altuve, who is hitting .323 with five homers, 24 RBIs and 13 steals. The 5-6 Altuve led the AL in batting, hits and steals last year and finished a scandalous 13th inthe MVP voting. He'll finish a lot higher if the Astros keep this up.

3. IS IT TIME TO SELL ON "MONEYBALL?"

Oakland had lost nine of 10 heading into Houston on Monday night (do I hear the columnists" law of averages calling?). The A's were 13-26 and had the worst record in baseball after making the playoffs the last three seasons.

The A's were expected to slip after losing a number of players to trades and free agency, but Billy Beane's team wasn't expected to fall this far. That's my hand in the air. I picked them to be a wild card.

Hitting hasn't been the problem. They're third in hits and runs in the AL. Catcher Stephen Vogt was tied for the league lead in RBIs with 30. Young shortstop Marcus Semien, acquired from the White Sox in the Jeff Samardzija trade, is hitting .314 with six homers and six steals.

The team ERA is right around the league average. So why are they so bad? Well, Beane doesn't put a priority on defense and it shows. The A's have allowed 29 unearned runs, easily the most in baseball and twice the MLB team average.

Oakland is also 1-13 in one-run games. Beane also doesn't believe in overpaying for relievers.

4.ROCKY TIMES FOR TULO IN COLORADO.

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado's all-star shortstop was expected to have a big year if healthy. That's a big if, considering that he had missed 222 games for a variety of ailments the last three seasons.

Well, "Tulo" has been relatively hale, but he's having the worst year of his big-league career at age 30. Through 32 games, he was hitting .284. But he had only two home runs and, most disturbing of all, just two walks and 29 strikeouts. He has one RBI in May.

A year ago, Tulowitzki had 50 walks and only 57 Ks. So he's lost the strike zone and not driving the ball in a great hitter's park. He has one homer every 60 at-bats. For his career, it's been one in 20.

Regarded as one of baseball's top defensive shortstops, Tulowitzki has been grading out poorly as a fielder this season. Maybe he's taking his batting woes out to the field. He's nursing a quad injury (now THAT's no surprise), which caused him to miss the last two games of the Dodgers series last weekend.

Tulowitzki began the 2015 season with six years and $118 million left on his contract. He met with his agent last Thursday to decide whether to ask the Rockies to trade him. He opted not to make any demands. But it could be just a matter of time before he's out of Colorado.

5. STRIKEOUTS ARE ACTUALLY DOWN IN BASEBALL!

Last year, strikeouts in the Major Leagues increased for the ninth consecutive season -- to another record high.

But through the first 1,126 games of this season, batters were fanning at a slightly lower rate. Strikeouts per game per team were at 7.56, down from 7.70 a year ago. They're back to the approximate rate of 2013, when strikeouts were at 7.55 a game.

Runs scored are up, too. The average team is scoring 4.24 runs a game. Last year, scoring dipped to 4.07 runs a game, the lowest in baseball since the 1981 season.

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