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Five Surprises After a Fifth
May 13, 2010

The season is more than a fifth over, and if you are an Orioles fan, your "fifth" is an empty bottle of whiskey in the corner of a room filled with nothing more than empty dreams at this point.  Luckily in baseball, as one team falls, another team rises, so let's look at five teams still surprising us in a good way as we head ever so close to the first session of meaningless interleague play:

1. San Diego Padres (21-12, .636)
The shocker of the season so far.  Peavy is dealt, Young has hardly pitched, yet the Padres lead the majors in ERA.  Garland is loving Petco and Clayton Richard has more than outperformed the incumbent Jake Peavy so far.  On offense, it has been a season of timely hitting as no one including Adrian Gonzalez has performed above average, but they have managed to score just enough runs to win more often than not. 

In my "haiku" Season Preview, I wrote that San Diego's only hope is low scores, and so far that has held true as the Padres have only given up 101 runs to date.  On a positive note, even if the pitching slips a bit (and it will), there is still room for improvement in the lineup to help offset an increase in runs allowed.  Support your team, San Diego, because they are earning their money this year.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (24-10, .706)
Yes, everyone knew they had talent, but NOBODY thought the Rays would stay white hot through mid-May in the AL East where division title dreams go to die.  David Price has re-found his groove, Rafael Soriano has stabilized the 9th inning, and Evan Longoria is playing an MVP-caliber third base. 

It isn't just Price and Soriano impressing on the mound, however; the team ERA is a miniscule 2.80, an unheard number in the American League.  Another couple weeks like this and 100 wins will be very attainable even with a slump or two (currently on pace for 114 wins).  Regardless of the division, 100 wins in this day and age usually means October baseball.

3. Washington Nationals (19-15, .559)
When a middle reliever has 7 holds and 7 wins on May 13th, you know things are going your way.  Tyler Clippard is the fortunate soul, but the Nats are doing more than just getting lucky late.  Clippard and Capps have made the late innings the perfect time for the team to pick up the less than impressive starts of Stammen, Lannan, and others.  Marquis was supposed to be the veteran anchor, but injuries shifted that choice and now Livan Hernandez is turning back time.  Fortunately, as soon as hitters realize Livan Hernandez is not Cy Young, a guy named Strasburg will be called up and likely dominating from the first pitch onward.

Josh Willingham has been a pleasant surprise and Pudge Rodriguez (.406 OBP) has silenced the critics who questioned the multi-year signing.  With Dunn and Zimmerman doing their thing, Washington has a solid lineup that could keep the team competitive through September if Strasburg is as impressive as the franchise hopes.

4. Minnesota Twins (22-12, .647)
No Nathan? No problem.  It's not a surprise that Minnesota is leading the Central but rather how easily they're doing it.  Jon Rauch has saved 9 of 10 and picking up Carl Pavano is looking like a very wise move.  Liriano looks like he's back to his pre-surgery self, and that has taken the pressure off the less-than-impressive back end of the rotation.

The offense doesn't quite match the boppers in the East, but it's the best among the Central and West teams (169 total runs) and the only hitter getting regular at bats who has been scuffling has been Jason Kubel.  The Twins must like Target Field.  I'm not sure in Minnesota can keep up the .647 winning percentage, but they are winning without playing above their heads, so there's no reason to think they can't hang on to the division lead through most of the summer.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (20-16, .556)
The Reds were in contention here, but the Jays' success is a little more surprising given that Toronto was treating 2010 like a rebuilding year which likely meant a last place finish in the East.  Losing the irreplaceable Halladay and getting inconsistent results from newcomer Brandon Morrow hasn't helped.  Lyle Overbay has been arguably the worst everyday hitter in baseball so far, and Adam Lind hasn't found his '09 stroke yet (.215 BA, .666 OPS).

Only Vernon Wells has been consistent since Day 1 and some timely power from John Buck and Alex Gonzalez have lifted the Jays on occasion.  Everyone else has been a bit of a disappointment, yet there they are, four games over .500 in the toughest division in baseball.  The only was I can explain it is that players have found roles in which they fit now.  Downs and Frasor have proven they are not closers, and with Kevin Gregg's success in the 9th inning so far, the relief corps (Downs particularly) is performing steadily.  Meanwhile, young guns like Marcum and Romero have blossomed this year as they exited Halladay's shadow with ease.  With the current record seemingly a gift based on the overall play, Toronto can get even better this year and maybe even hit the 90-win mark.
Baseball Express