A’s stymied by early season struggles

A quick look at this morning’s standings had me shaking my head and thinking about my erudite cohort who sits directly across from me on the 21st floor of the USA TODAY tower.

I’m talking about Paul White, who, after picking the Phillies to win the NL East in the preseason, is looking like Paul “Right.”

Meanwhile, my pick to win it all, Oakland, is making me look like the same guy who thought Rodger was getting the boot off Survivor last Thursday. The A’s are 2-8 and have lost five in a row.

Yes, it’s early. No time to panic. Look around; all kinds of crazy things are happening. Slugging Kansas City first baseman Mike Sweeney is hitting .125. Andruw Jones is hitting .222. Mark Grudzielanek is tied for the second in the NL in homers. Jose Hernandez is second in the NL with 12 RBI (seven coming in one game). Minnesota is in first place in the AL Central. The Cubs are 6-4.

Everybody goes through slumps. Even the Yankees hit one last year, although it came at the end of the regular season when they already pretty much had a playoff spot wrapped up. When you hit a slump in the first two weeks of April, it’s magnified, because it’s not mixed in with a six-game winning streak or a 10-for-20 hitting streak.

It’s a long season, and getting too worked up about anything this early is just plain silly. Why, then, do I have a bad feeling?

Is it because a good start sets the tone for the year? Is it because, if you have a slump right off the bat, it means you can’t have one later?

The A’s seem to have it all: Two great young starters, one a righty (Tim Hudson), the other a lefty (Barry Zito). They have a good bullpen, the reigning AL MVP (Jason Giambi), the best leadoff hitter in baseball (Johnny Damon), the best young left side of the infield in the AL (shortstop Miguel Tejada and third baseman Eric Chavez), a possible Rookie of the Year candidate at second (Jose Ortiz). They gave the Yankees their toughest series in last year’s playoffs, and, being a young team, figured to be even better this year.

Their problem, at least their biggest one, is that they couldn’t hit sky if they fell out of a hot air balloon. Tejada is batting .200, Chavez .222. Those two look like Todd Helton compared to Damon, who is hitting .189.

Last night Damon fouled out with the bases loaded in a 13-1 loss to division rival Texas.

The worrisome thing is that seven of the A’s 10 games have come at home, the A’s are 2-8 this season. The five consecutive losses match the team’s longest losing streak last season. “They’re having hard times over there,” said Rangers second baseman Velarde, who played with Oakland last year. “They’re not playing up to their capabilities and everyone seems to be having a bad day.”

Just call the A’s “Nasdaq” for now. And like stock market investors, their fans have to show patience.

Things have got to turn around eventually, right?

Let the battle begin: It’s only Easter weekend and already things are heating up in the AL East, where longtime rivals New York and Boston are facing off in a four-game series that ends Monday. Another three-game series in New York begins Friday night. Last year, the teams didn’t meet until May 26.

The aquisition of Manny Ramirez is already paying dividends for Boston. He grounded a two-run single up the middle off of New York’s Mariano Rivera to give the Red Sox a 3-2 in 10 innings last night.

“He’s worth every penny,” winner Derek Lowe said of Ramirez, who signed a $160 million free-agent contract.

Ramirez is just the guy you want in that kind of situation, because of his mindset. He doesn’t overthink; he adheres to the old Nike credo of “Just Do It.” Unencumbered by thought, he relies on his instincts, which are as good as any in the game.

Rivera could have chosen not to pitch to Ramirez. With runners at second and third after a passed ball and two outs, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre went to the mound and asked him what he wanted to do. Rivera opted to take his chances rather than face Troy O’Leary with the bases loaded. He knew Ramirez was 0-for-12 lifetime against him.

If you think that game was good, how about today’s matchup: Pedro Martinez against Roger Clemens, pitching in his old ballpark. It really, really, really doesn’t get any better than that.

A gift from above: A SkyDome accident might have been all Chris Michalak needed.

With an added day of rest, Michalak combined with three relievers on a four-hitter to win his second consecutive start as the Toronto beat the Kansas 2-1 yesterday.

Two panels in the stadium’s retractable roof crashed into each other because of a mechanical malfunction, postponing Thursday’s game. Michalak said he was ready to go Thursday, but, “the extra day helped me out physically. My arm was a little bit rested, and I was a bit sharper.”

Steve Parris was scheduled to start Friday, but he’s 0-2 with a 16.88 ERA. So they went with Michalak, considered the fifth starter out of spring training. “They could have just sat me down for five days, so it felt good,” Michalak said. “It was a real boost to my confidence that they gave me the ball. I’m grateful that they did.”

Michalak (2-0), who last pitched in the majors in 1998 with Arizona, allowed just one run and three hits in six innings against Kansas City. He struck out five and walked one.

Below the radar: The aforementioned Cubs are 6-4 mostly because of — get this — pitching. And it hasn’t even been the two guys you’d think, Kerry Wood and Jon Lieber, neither of whom have won a game this year. Instead it has been the three-four-five guys in the rotation: Kevin Tapani (2-0, 0.69 ERA, 14 strikeouts), Julian Tavarez (2-0, 0.73 ERA), and Jason Bere (2-0, 4.09 ERA). Yesterday Bere walked one and struck out eight in a 4-2 win over the Pirates, blanking them until giving up an RBI single to Jason Kendall in the sixth.

The ERA of the Cubs starters is now 2.66, and they have allowed only 19 earned runs over 64 1/3 innings. The Cubs have used won three in a row and moved two games over .500 for the first time since June 18, 1999, when they were 33-31.

As surprising as the staff has been, Chicago’s biggest pitching surprise has been new closer Jeff Fassero, who struck out the side in the ninth yesterday for his fifth save in as many opportunities. He’s replacing Tom Gordon, who’s on the 15-day DL with a strained right triceps (went on March 23) and is out indefinitely. Before the season, when asked what would happen if Gordon couldn’t go after having Tommy John elbow surgery, both manager Don Baylor and president Andy McPhail said, in effect, they were up the creek without a paddle. So Fassero might be the biggest surprise of the entire baseball season so far. “Now all I think about is throwing strikes mixing up my breaking ball and fastball,” Fassero says. “All the guys in the bullpen are being aggressive and I think success breeds success.”

Chatter: Boston’s Hideo Nomo has already no-hit the Orioles, and Tampa Bay’s Albie Lopez was on his way last night, with a no-no through five innings. He finished with a three-hitter, walking two and striking out four. It was Lopez’s third career shutout and sixth complete game. Lopez tossed a perfect ninth, getting Cal Ripken looking for the final out. Perhaps the most noteworthy item of all, though, was that the contest took only two hours, five minutes…

Limited to pinch-hitting duty because of an injured left hamstring, Ken Griffey Jr. is 0-for-7 this season. The Reds hope he’ll be able to make his first start of the year Tuesday…

There was a lot of preseason concern about Houston second baseman Craig Biggio, had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in August. People were saying that he was slipping even before the injury, but it appears he’s the Biggio of old, batting .395. He hit a two-run homer against St. Louis last night …

I’m not saying they’re going to finish ahead of Chicago or Cleveland, but the Twins’ fast start isn’t a huge surprise. They’ve got good young talent, and with so many left-handed hitters and pitchers, they pose matchup problems for a lot of teams…

Cleveland rookie C.C.Sabathia notched his first major league win yesterday. It came against Detroit …

Marlins right-hander Chuck Smith is scheduled to make his first rehab start today with Class A Brevard County…

Looking at the AL home run leaders through Thursday, you see names like Delgado, Glaus, Gonzalez … and Quinn. That’s Kansas City’s Mark Quinn. Power is not necessarily his game, but he’s a legitimate hitter, a guy who could one day vie for a batting title …

This is one of the things I left off my 65 Reasons Why Baseball Rules: it’s the only sport where the players have their own signature tunes played over the loudspeakers when they come to bat. Most guys using existing songs (for instance Mike Sweeney, a devout Catholic, uses DC Talk’s “Freak for Jesus”). But Toronto outfielder Raul Mondesi gets introduced by himself. He has a salsa album coming out soon and uses a cut from that. Hey, if wonder if he and Jose Lima could get together and cut a duet?