Look out below!
Teams are falling!
Not that we should be the least bit surprised.
As usual, the first two months of the MLB campaign featured several surprise packages showing good early foot. But, for as long as we can remember, many teams off to unexpected quick breaks from the gate are apt to lose steam once the summer months approach. After all, the term “dog days” had to begin somewhere, didn’t it?
And for a few of the teams on our “fade alert” for this week, 2012 looks to be turning into a re-run of past disappointments.
Such as the Baltimore Orioles.
Many long-suffering O’s backers still haven’t gotten over what happened in 2005, when Lee Mazzilli’s Orioles got off to a flying start, leading the AL East for the first two-and-a-half months of the season, hitting an apex with a 41-27 record in mid-June. By early August, however, the pitching staff had collapsed, and Mazzilli was forced to walk the plank, replaced by Sam Perlozzo after the O’s lost 28 of their next 38 games to fall out of contention en route to another dismal 74-88 mark.
Fast-forward to 2012, and some of the same things seemed to be going right for the Orioles in the first two months of the campaign. Surprising effectiveness from an underrated pitching staff and a hot-hitting lineup fueled the early charge. But, as in 2005, cracks have begun to form at the base of the foundation, mostly pitching-related.
Indeed, Baltimore enters this weekend’s series in St. Pete against the Rays in the throes of a five-game slump that included being swept aside in and have lost eight of 10 entering June. A once comfy lead atop the AL East has disappeared in short order.
As in 2005, the O’s are beginning to have pitching problems, although the cracks began to form early in May. Manager Buck Showalter has been forced to use his bullpen earlier and earlier in games as the month progressed. Showalter’s rotation is wobbling, with the likes of Jake Arrieta (8.00 ERA last five starts), Jason Hammel (allowed four runs in three of last four starts), Brian Matusz (4.97 ERA last five starts after encouraging work previously) and Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen rarely working beyond the sixth inning. The bullpen, which held up remarkably well in the first six weeks, is starting to spring leaks, and closer Matt Lindstrom remains on the DL.
And injuries are starting to pile up for the everyday lineup. The latest malady involves OF Nick Markakis, likely out for all of June after suffering a broken hamate bone in his wrist. Second baseman Brian Roberts, battling back from a concussion suffered in spring training, has just begun his rehab assignment and is a few weeks from being activated. Outfielder Nolan Reimold, sidelined since May 1 with a bulging disc in his neck, remains out.
In other words, we’re looking against the O’s until further notice.
As we might be with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
We acknowledge the fast start by the Blue Crew and their 110-or-better win pace from the first seven weeks of the season. But most observers knew the Dodgers were playing over their heads, and the schedule couldn’t have worked better for most of April and May.
But, as in Baltimore, cracks are beginning to form at the Dodger foundation, too, and the Vin Scullys enter Colorado this weekend in the throes of their first real slump of the season, dropping four in a row to the visiting Brewers in a midweek series at Chavez Ravine.
Concerns now revolve around the offense, which managed just eight runs total in the recent four-game sweep administered by the Brewers, and L.A. now faces the prospect of again being without do-everything CF Matt Kemp for the next month, if not until the All-Star break, after he reaggravated a hamstring injury that had caused an earlier stint on the DL in May. The Dodgers survived Kemp’s earlier absence but asking Don Mattingly’s crew to go for another month or longer minus arguably the league’s best hitter could be asking for trouble.
Keep in mind that June and early July were rough times for the Dodgers last year, as they slumped to an 11-21 mark between June 1-July 6. The offense went on the blink during that period, and efforts vs. the Brewers, and Kemp’s absence, suggest another similar slump could be forthcoming.
The home sweep administered by Milwaukee also removed that veneer of invincibility the Dodgers had developed at home, where they had won 21 of their first 26 games. On the road, the Blue has barely been above .500, and having played 30 of their first 51 at Chavez Ravine, now embark upon a road-heavy stretch of their schedule.
The Dodgers have some other injury issues, too, including 2B Mark Ellis, a very pleasant surprise in the first six weeks but on the DL until at least the All-Star break after undergoing leg surgery. Juan Rivera and Juan Uribe are also currently on the DL, as is lefty starter Ted Lilly, who had been a pleasant surprise in the first six weeks of he season but now is sidelined with shoulder inflammation. Dodger starting pitching depth was a concern entering the season and could soon become an issue if more injuries hit the rotation.
Meanwhile, although 2011 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw is off to a good start, the staff has not been as dominant as hoped. Even Kershaw has looked mortal of late, losing two starts in a row, and Chad Billingsley has been struggling since late April, with an ERA of 5.44 over his last eight starts. How long Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt continue to coax better-than-expected efforts from Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, and how long each can avoid injury, remains to be seen.
The bullpen has also taken some hits, with Javy Guerra in and out of the closer role after already blowing three save opportunities.
With the Giants indicating that they might be ready to give chase, and Arizona one hot streak away from getting back into the race, the Dodgers could be looking at another difficult June, as was the case a year ago.
Meanwhile, this week’s “shade tracker” notes the recent upswings by the Chicago White Sox (eight wins in a row entering June) and the aforementioned Milwaukee Brewers, who could use their 4-game sweep of the Dodgers and five-game win streak entering June to catapult them back into the NL Central race.
We wonder, however, if the horse is already out of the barn regarding those two sides. But there’s another team we have warned about earlier and might continue to shade as we enter June.
Look out for the Pittsburgh Pirates!
Clint Hurdle’s Bucs have climbed back to .500 entering the month and sit just three games out of first place in up-for-grabs NL Central. Taking two of three from the recently-hot Reds has not only cooled Cincy but revived talk around the Golden Triangle that the Pirates might be prepared to stick in this race longer than a year ago, when things began to go pear-shaped after the All-Star break.
Last summer’s fade coincided with a meltdown of the pitching staff, but coach Ray Searage’s arms are showing no signs of similar fatigue. The Bucs’ 3.25 team ERA ranks third in the bigs, and the offseason addition of ex-Yankee and Blue Jay A.J. Burnett is beginning to pay dividends. Burnett, who missed the start of the season after a freak spring training batting injury, has been lights-out in recent starts, winning three in a row, with the Bucs prevailing in his last five starts. Moreover, Burnett hasn’t allowed a run in his last two outings against the Cubs and Reds, and has allowed two runs or fewer in seven of his eight starts. He looks like the new ace of this staff.
But a bigger story at PNC Park is the recent revival of a sluggish offense that has finally begun to put some hits and runs together. Do-everything CF Andrew McCutchen continues as an effective catalyst and looks a cinch for the All-Star team considering his .331 BA, .389 OBA, eight homers, 25 RBIs and 10 steals.
The Bucs have also begun to make PNC Park a nice fortress, now standing 16-11 at home, and can begin to look like a real contender if they can start to win on the road. Keep an eye on this weekend’s series at Milwaukee, long a mine field for the Pirates, who have lost 43 of their last 49 at Miller Park. Taking this weekend’s series from the Brew Crew would be yet another indicator that Pittsburgh means business.
Best of all, they continue to be undervalued by the oddsmakers, providing fertile wagering opportunities.