A meaningful Twins-Royals result

Before the season, a Kansas City 5-3 win against Minnesota would be nothing to talk about. I pegged the Royals as my surprise team this year and the Twins as an improving, but lower-division ballclub. In what should have been met with a “big deal,” though, turned out to be somewhat of a surprise. The Royals’ victory snapped Minnesota’s six-game winning streak and marked just the fourth ‘W’ in 13 tries this year for K.C.

Talking about these early-season surprises, someone I respect said, “You need to examine why these teams are winning or losing.” For instance, we knew Minnesota had good pitching. But it is in first place because it’s getting unexpectedly good hitting. Designated hitter David Ortiz is batting .375. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is hitting .348. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz is at .368 with 12 RBI. Can those guys maintain that pace? Meanwhile, the Royals have struggled because two of their top stars, Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye, are hitting .173 and .224, respectively, and their new closer, Roberto Hernandez, has an ERA that would make a good basketball scoring average.

The Cubs are leading the National League Central because of their three-four-five pitchers and closer Jeff Fassero. At this rate, Fassero is going to finish the season with 81 saves. At least, with the Cubs, starters Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood have yet to notch a win and closer Tom Gordon is on the DL. So there’s a chance for a transfer of production.

The Royals are showing signs of breaking out of their funk. Dye hit a two-run homer yesterday and Hernandez notched his second save in as many days.

So yes, it is early, and players’ slumps are magnified. Even so, it’s interesting to see who’s hot and who’s not, so here is the “U-Know-It’s-Early” team. This isn’t a list of flukes; some of them are just blossoming, and their names aren’t simply of the household variety yet. This, simply, is a list of guys tearing it up now who aren’t likely to be members of their league’s postseason All-Star squads:

  • Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski, Twins (.348 through Monday).
  • First base: Doug Mientkiewicz, Twins (.368, 12 RBI).
  • Second base: Mark Grudzielanek, Dodgers (5 homers). (Hey, by the looks of these first three guys, it helps to have lots of vowels in your name.)
  • Third base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals (.413, 34 total bases).
  • Shortstop: Jose Hernandez, Brewers (.295, 12 RBI)
  • Outfield: Mike Darr, Padres, (.390); Todd Hollandsworth, Rockies (.324, 10 RBI), Chad Curtis, Rangers (.308).
  • DH: David Ortiz, Twins (.375).
  • Starter: Julian Tavarez, Cubs (2-0, 0.73 ERA).
  • Closer: Jeff Fassero, Cubs (6 saves).

And, the flip side, the All-U-Know-They’re-Better-Than-This teams. There are so many candidates for this — could it be the new strike zone? — that I split them into American League and National League squads:

AL

  • First base: Mike Sweeney, Royals (.173).
  • Second base: Damion Easley, Tigers (.205).
  • Third base: Tony Batista, Blue Jays (.170, 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position).
  • Shortstop: Miguel Tejada, A’s (.229).
  • Catcher: Pudge Rodriguez, Rangers (.224 before getting three hits yesterday).
  • Outfield: Magglio Ordonez, White Sox (.244); Jermaine Dye, Royals (.234); Raul Mondesi, Blue Jays (.240).
  • Starter: Rick Helling, Rangers (0-2, 12.46 ERA)
  • Closer: Roberto Hernandez, Royals (0-2, 15.19)

NL

  • First base: Ryan Klesko, Padres (.186)
  • Second base: Edgardo Alfonzo, Mets (.120)
  • Third base: Scott Rolen, Phillies (.190)
  • Shortstop: Edgar Renteria, Cardinals (.217)
  • Catcher: Mike Lieberthal, Phillies (.237)
  • Outfield: Steve Finley, Diamondbacks (.073); Geoff Jenkins, Brewers (.224); Richard Hidalgo, Astros (.220)
  • Starter: Andy Benes, Cardinals (0-1, 10.67)
  • Closer: Curtis Leskanic, Brewers (0-2, 8.22 ERA, 1 save)

Finley is the poster child for the NL squad. Last night he was 0-for-3 and is hitless in 29 at-bats.

Overall, runs per game are down from 10.3 to 9.65 and strikeouts are up from 12.6 to 13.7, so batters, not pitchers, seem to be having the biggest adjustment to the new strike zone.

Below the radar: Houston right-hander Wade Miller took the loss against Pittsburgh yesterday, dropping to 2-1, but his ERA is still an impressive 1.99 and he ranks fourth in the majors in strikeouts with 27, ahead of Kerry Wood and just one behind Randy Johnson. (Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling rank one-two with 31 and 30 K’s, respectively.)

A second-year starter, Miller was thought to be a fifth-starter type in the preseason and a candidate for demotion when Shane Reynolds returned to the rotation after offseason knee surgery. But his fine work has entrenched him the rotation, leaving Kent Bottenfield as the odd man out.

Miller now has to prove he can mow down another lineup besides Milwaukee. In his first two starts against the Brewers this season he struck out 23.

Last year Miller, 24, went 6-6 with a 5.14 ERA after being called up from Class AAA New Orleans in July, but those numbers are deceptive, because he had some really good quality starts mixed with a couple really bad outings. He had the best baserunners-per-nine-innings ratio among Astros starters at 12.8. He has a hard sinking fastball that gets into the 92-94 mph range. That pitch causes a lot of ground balls, important when pitching in Enron Field. He has a power curveball and power slider that makes him tough against right-handed batters. He’s legit.

Chatter: Gotta love the Seattle Mariners. They lose Alex Rodriguez, and Lou Piniella just keeps them chugging along, playing good fundamental baseball (they’ve drawn a major league high 71 walks already) and beating their top divisional rivals, Oakland and Texas. They’re 10-3 and beat the Rangers 9-7 last night. Thing is, the club is smart, taking the money it saved when it lost A-Rod and investing in good quality players such as Ichiro Suzuki and Jeff Nelson. What’s more, their fans have kept their sense of humor. Last night, with former Mariner Alex Rodriguez making his first Seattle appearance after signing a $252 million deal with Texas, a fan held up a sign that said “A-Wad.” … Maybe it was because of the chilly air. Or maybe it was because they were playing the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Or maybe there’s just not much interest in a team bereft of a star with the free agent loss of Mike Mussina, injury loss of Albert Belle and fading light of Cal Ripken. But the Orioles had their smallest crowd in Camden Yards’ history last night. The announced crowd was 24,558, but with no-shows it looked like well under 20,000 … Reason No. 67 Why Baseball Rules: 11 a.m. Patriot Day starts in Fenway Park. (The game is timed so that fans can flock to nearby Kenmore Square as Boston Marathon runners approach the finish line.) … Reason No. 68 Why Baseball Rules: Everybody knows what 56 straight means. … Atlanta closer John Rocker has two blown saves — and two wins. One might say, “he must be living right,” but don’t we know better? … The Marlins and Braves have split their last 16 games … The Yankees’ first four batters — Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill and David Justice — went 1-for-15 against Boston yesterday and were 8-for-63 in the series.