- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Lest anyone forget, the Tampa Bay Rays were 9 games behind the Boston Red Sox on the evening of Sept. 1 last season, with 27 days left in the regular season. On the same night, the St. Louis Cardinals were 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves, and now the Cardinals' players have the burden of trying to figure out whether to wear their championship rings on a daily basis.
So late May is probably not the time to blow up a team.
There have been early-warning phone calls placed by general managers of some struggling teams. If their respective teams don't start playing better, they are saying, they'll probably be active before the July 31 trade deadline -- so they're suggesting that other teams evaluate them for any interesting possible targets now. "It's just a heads-up," said one general manager.
But the addition of a second wild-card team to each league may keep teams believing in their chances longer than they might have in the past.
Consider the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In the first 49 days of their season, they saw their new Hall of Fame-caliber superstar have the worst start of his career; fired their hitting coach; demoted their closer; and lost a $21 million outfielder to a major injury. This was Murphy's Law, times two.
But in the aftermath of Dan Haren's dominant outing against the Mariners, the Angels are sitting a comfortable 3.5 games behind the Blue Jays in the standings for the second AL wild-card spot -- not where they expected to be, but certainly not in a place appropriate for panic.
Albert Pujols has 13 hits in 40 at-bats (.325) in his last 10 games, with four homers and four walks; he hit his 450th homer Thursday, as Bill Plunkett writes. The injury to Vernon Wells was probably a blessing in disguise for the Angels, because it cleared some of Mike Scioscia's lineup complications and allows him to play his best defensive outfield possible. The Angels' starting pitching is turning out to be as good as expected: The LAA rotation leads the AL in starters' ERA. And the addition of Ernesto Frieri has been a spectacular success, stabilizing the Angels' bullpen: He hasn't allowed a hit in nine appearances, and 19 of the 26 outs he has registered have been strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the start of the season has been disastrous for the Diamondbacks, but Arizona is 5 games out in the wild-card standings. The Brewers have been ravaged by injury, and they are 6.5 games out; the Rockies are 8 games out. Detroit is one good week away from the front-runners. There are miles to go before they sleep.
From ESPN Stats & Information, how Haren shut out the Mariners:
A. He threw 84 of 126 pitches (66.7 percent) to the outside part of the plate or further away, his fourth-highest percentage in a start in the last four seasons. Mariners hitters were 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts in at-bats ending with a pitch in that location.
B. Seven of Haren's career-high 14 strikeouts came with his slider/cutter, his most strikeouts with the pitch in a start in the last four seasons. Mariners hitters were 1-for-11 overall against the pitch, and all but one of the outs with the slider/cutter were recorded on the outside part of the plate.
C. Mariners right-handed hitters were 1-for-13 against Haren, including 0-for-10 against the slider/cutter, missing on 13-of-22 swings (59.1 percent) on the pitch.
D. Mariners hitters were 2-for-14 in at-bats ending with Haren's fastball. Haren recorded six strikeouts on the fastball, his most in a start since May 21, 2010.
Haren became the fifth pitcher over the last 10 seasons with at least 14 K's in a shutout. The pitcher with the most K's during this span was Toronto's Brandon Morrow. He had 17 in an August 2010 game against the Rays.
• The Braves' heavy use of their primary relievers last season received heavy scrutiny from within the organization during the offseason, and naturally, there has been significant adjustment.
Through the first 45 games of the 2012 season, Craig Kimbrel has eight fewer appearances than he did through the first 45 games of 2011, and Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty each have seven fewer appearances.
• In the Frank McCourt era, the Dodgers might've averaged about $200,000 annually in their international signings. On Thursday, they announced signings that cost them something in the range of $400,000-$500,000, another sign of change for the organization under the team's new ownership.
Agree completely. If Oswalt wants to get paid significant dollars, I don't think Texas will be the team to give him that for a half-season of work, especially in light of Oswalt's history of back trouble.
• The Indians' sweep of the Tigers and the Reds' four-game sweep of Atlanta felt like statements for each of those teams -- and Ohio baseball rules, as of this morning; both Cleveland and Cincinnati lead their respective divisions. The Indians beat Justin Verlander, as Dennis Manoloff writes. From his story:
- "That was a fun series, huh?" asked Indians closer Chris Perez. "Very entertaining. The energy in the ballpark was amazing."
Perez spent four days cracking the fan base for lack of support, then three days doing his job under a cumulonimbus cloud. He saved Tuesday night's game for Ubaldo Jimenez and Wednesday night's for Pestano, both times receiving ovations throughout.
The playoff structure in baseball has every team in play for longer, and the Angels are a perfect case in point.