New York fans got an early-season treat when the Mets and Yankees met for a three-game series over the weekend – an engagement made more compelling by the fact that both teams were sitting in first place.
But the real story is the race unfolding in the AL East. I know, we’re only three weeks into a six-month season. However, the early signs suggest that the division could be the tightest and most competitive in baseball.
As of Sunday morning, the top five teams were separated by two games in the standings. The Yanks, Red Sox and Rays were tied for first at 10-8. The Blue Jays were 9-9 and the Orioles in last at 8-10.
The AL East champ hasn’t had fewer than 95 victories since 2000, when the Yankees won it with 87. I suspect 90 wins will be good enough. A 10-8 pace translates exactly to 90 victories; no one in the division seems good enough to exceed that pace over a full year.
That’s great for baseball. The AL East was the powerhouse a decade ago, when the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was at its height. It’s no longer the best division (I like the AL Central), but it might be the most competitive top to bottom.
There’s even bad blood between the Orioles and Blue Jays, a simmering rivalry that could replace Yanks-Boston as the most bitter in the division.
Jays slugger Jose Bautista is at the heart of it. Bautista has a running feud with O’s reliever Darren O’Day. Last September, the O’s felt Bautista urged rookie Marcus Stroman to throw at Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph.
The hostility carried over into 2015. On Tuesday, O’s reliever Jason Garcia threw a pitch behind Bautista. The benches were warned. Then Bautista launched a two-run homer. He took time to admire it, flipped his bat and took a leisurely trot around the bases.
Several Orioles sniped at Bautista during his trot. Outfielder Adam Jones barked at Bautista when he headed out to right field between innings. Later, Jones called Bautista’s home run trot “bush league.”
“You pimp the pitcher, you’re pimping me, too,” Jones said.
Maybe the O’s and Jays are touchy because their pitching is so horrid. Heading into Sunday, the O’s were dead last in MLB with a 4.98 earned run average. The Jays were 28th. The Red Sox were 24th and didn’t have a starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.00.
That must be encouraging to the Yankees and Rays, who were generally picked for fourth and fifth before the season. But there they were Sunday, tied for first and looking as if they might be able to hang in for the long haul.
The Yankees were easy to dismiss because of the questionable health of their starters. But if Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy for a full season, they can win the division. And Tanaka has been very good in his last two outings after a shaky start.
“Everything’s starting to come together,” Yanks pitching coach Larry Rothschild said of Tanaka.
Michael Pineda, who missed two-thirds of last season with a shoulder injury, has been solid, too. While the rest of the rotation has been spotty, the Yanks were fourth in the AL in ERA (3.46) through Saturday.
The bullpen has been brilliant. Closer Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances had pitched a combined 16∏ innings without allowing a run. They had allowed seven hits and struck out 27.
Miller and Betances could be the best closer-setup tandem in the game. This should stir fond memories of 1996, when the Yanks had John Wetteland and a young Mariano Rivera to shut the door late in games.
Rivera would pitch two innings that year, then hand things over to Wetteland in the ninth. Rivera tossed 107.2 innings in ’96, which is unheard of nowadays. But Betances pitched two innings in a game 14 times last season and the Yanks should remain open to that option.
It comes down to pitching, which is why Tampa could hang around in its first year without Joe Maddon as manager. The Rays have the best young staff in the league, all between the ages of 25 and 27: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore.
Archer (2-2, 1.07 ERA) and Odorizzi (2-1, 1.65) are off to great starts. Smyly came off the DL and pitched well Friday. Cobb, who is out with forearm tendinitis, is throwing again. Matt Moore, who went 17-4 in 2013, is due back in June after Tommy John surgery.
Experts always sell the Rays short. But look out if they can get all five of those guys healthy at the same time. If their hitting holds up – and Steven Souza Jr. looks like a top candidate for Rookie of the Year – they could be a surprise.
Conversely, people tend to overestimate teams that add a couple of top hitters. The Red Sox brought in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, who has six homers. But they lost their top pitcher, Jon Lester, and overpaid ($20 million a year) for Rick Porcello.
I grew up a Boston fan, but how could people have assumed a 20-25 game improvement? I could see the Red Sox scoring a bunch of runs and finishing below .500, as they did on a regular basis when I was a kid.
The O’s were my pick to repeat in the AL East, but the law of averages might be catching up to them. Chris Tillman, their top pitcher the last two years, is off to a bad start. Bud Norris, who went 15-8 a year ago, has been dreadful.
Last year, the O’s took the East with 96 wins and never lost more than four in a row. They lost five in a row last week and got swept in Toronto. It was the first time Baltimore got swept by a division rival since September 2013.
No wonder they were so upset when Bautista styled his way around the bases. Things are heating up in the AL East, and it’s not even May. Something tells me it’ll stay that way, right through September.