As Season's Midpoint Nears, MLB is Full of Surprises
Stan McNeal - SportingNews.com
Jun 16, 2011
The halfway mark of the season is approaching and the Seattle Mariners are one game out of first place, the Pittsburgh Pirates one game over .500 and Adam Dunn's average remains in the .180s. Just like you predicted before the season, right?
A closer look at some of the season's biggest surprises:
Alex Avila has been the AL's top catcher
The Detroit Tigers decided to make Victor Martinez their primary DH because of Avila's superior defensive and game-calling skills. Avila, however, has given them much more than defense. He has nine homers and is hitting .304/.367/.550. With Joe Mauer injured and Russell Martin fading, Avila deserves to start the All-Star Game.
Ryan Franklin has lost it
One of the majors' most reliable closers the previous two seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals' 38-year-old righthander told me in spring training that he no longer was considering retirement after the 2011 season. If he keeps pitching this poorly, the choice might not be his. Franklin blew four of first five save chances, lost his ninth-inning role and was booed by the supposedly gracious Cardinals fans.
Manager Tony La Russa, in fact, admitted to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he didn't pitch Franklin at Busch Stadium for more than a month because of the potential for a nasty reaction. Franklin's stuff is still flat. He allowed seven hits—two of them homers—while getting just five outs Wednesday at Washington.
With the Cardinals' bullpen carrying a heavy workload in the past two weeks, La Russa hardly can afford to continue to protect the veteran righthander. With veterans Miguel Batista and Trever Miller also scuffling, the Cardinals soon might have to make some difficult decisions.
Curtis Granderson is mashing lefthanders
In his first seven seasons, Granderson averaged a home run once every 38.9 at-bats against lefthanders. This season, one every 8.2. His nine homers against lefthanders are three more than any player in the majors. Granderson isn't just hitting lefties, either. Since last August, when he shortened his swing, Granderson leads the New York Yankees with 35 homers.
Matt Joyce is hitting .322
It was much more surprising when the Tampa Bay Rays' right fielder led the league with a .370 average at the end of May. But considering Joyce began this season as a career .243 hitter, he and the Rays gladly will take any average north of .300 this deep into the season.
The Mariners are contending
They still can't hit, but the AL's top-ranked rotation and, just as important, strong leadership from new manager Eric Wedge have the Mariners in second place in the AL West. The latest example: Wedge sat slumping Ichiro Suzuki for a game last week without seeking the superstar's approval. Ichiro refused to talk about the benching with reporters but has responded on the field. He had two hits in each of the first five games since the sitting.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are, too
Kirk Gibson is another manager who has done more than talk about changing the culture. Clubhouse high jinks have been discouraged, and he has assembled a staff of former players as hard-nosed and intense as he was. Well, almost.
Of course, managing is more pleasant with a J.J. Putz-led bullpen, as opposed to the one that finished with a record-bad 5.74 ERA in 2010.
Michael Morse is playing like an All-Star
Think the Mariners would like to have him back? Ryan Langerhans, whom Seattle acquired for Morse two seasons ago, is in the minors. Morse, meanwhile, has developed into one of the NL's most feared hitters with 12 homers and a .312 average. With Adam LaRoche out for the season (shoulder surgery), the Washington Nationals have found their new first baseman.
The Pirates are over .500
Yet another first-year manager making a difference. Clint Hurdle has a loud, booming voice that he apparently is putting it to good use on his young players.
The Minnesota Twins aren't contending
Not yet, anyway. But they have won 10 of their past 12 games, righthander Carl Pavano has turned things around and their health is improving. If Joe Mauer can play like Joe Mauer, a second-half run wouldn't be surprising.
Dan Uggla is hitting .178
And Adam Dunn is at .183, Chone Figgins is at .198 (even after last season, that is mildly disappointing) and Hanley Ramirez is at .206. Chris Carpenter and Ubaldo Jimenez each have only one win. And they all have run out of time to use the "it's early" excuse.
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