AL East: It’s all about the O’s

May 3, 2005 3:06 AM

The first calendar month of baseball has finally turned and, as always, there are surprises both good and bad.

The stumbling high priced Yankees and Red Sox have been the biggest negatives, with both suffering pitching injuries and concerns. This has opened the door for some lower payroll teams to impress, with several having stepped up and rewarded high early profits.

White Sox: While there’s been nothing but bad news out of the Cubs camp, the Chicago Southsiders have taken off like a rocket. This is an oddball collection of offensive players, with veterans like 1B Paul Konerko teaming with newcomer 2B Tadahito Iguchi, plus former castoffs from other teams like Carl Everett and Jermaine Dye. Their .308 on-base percentage offensively is one of the worst in the AL.

The glue that really holds this team together is the starting pitching. Freddy Garcia (3.21 ERA), Mark Buehrle (3-1, 3.89), Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (2.35) and Jon Garland (4-0, 1.80) anchor what thus far has been a rock solid starting rotation. The White Sox lead the AL in ERA (3.22) and started a sizzling 10-4 on the road! Sports bettors have done very well backing the Pale Hose, returning nearly 48 percent return on investment.

Orioles: While the White Sox are winning with pitching, the Orioles have stormed out of the gate with offense. Sammy Sosa has joined a lineup of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, Javy Lopez and Melvin Mora that has been relentless on American League pitchers. They are 7-3 against the Red Sox and Yankees.

Lost in the shuffle of all those sluggers are two little guys, 2B Brian Roberts and CF Luis Matos, who’ve been getting on base and stealing bases. The Orioles lead the AL in steals, home runs and batting average. Their defense is third in the AL, but one wonders how far they can go with no mound ace and a team ERA close to five. Regardless, this offense will provide headaches for opposing pitching coaches all summer.

Nationals: The NL East is loaded with strong teams, which makes it even tougher on the former Montreal Expos. The new-look Nationals have been competitive, behind former Expos 1B Nick Johnson, 2B Jose Vidro, all-purpose Brad Wilkerson, plus newcomers RF Jose Guillen and 3B Vinny Castillo.

The starting pitching is not very strong, but the bullpen has been making up for it. You may not have heard of 23-year old Chad Cordero, but he’s an outstanding young closer.

Let’s hope the franchise does well so they can sign some of their good young talent, instead of watching it walk away to the highest bidder.

Diamondbacks: Who lost 111 games? Last year is a distant memory for Arizona with a strong start after a major offseason makeover. Newcomers 3B Troy Glaus and RF Shawn Green have pumped up what had been a dreadful offense. The real story of this attack is diminutive 2B Craig Counsell, who is Mr. Patient at the plate, walking 16 times in his first 64 at bats and owning a .415 on-base percentage.

Arizona is third in the NL in walks and first in fielding (99 percent). Brandon Webb and Russ Ortiz are fine starters, and Javier Vazquez (acquired from the Yankees for Randy Johnson) is beginning to turn things around. Last week they won six in a row. This is not the same group that was the laughingstock of the NL a year ago.

Dodgers: What’s been surprising about the Dodgers is how so many new players have fit right in. The offense tops the NL in on-base percentage (.358,) getting a big lift from newcomers 2B Jeff Kent, C Jason Phillips and outfielder J.D. Drew. They are also hitting .283, second behind Colorado in the NL.

The pitching staff was expected to be anchored by Brad Penny and Odalis Perez, but free agent acquisition Derek Lowe has been lights out. They hope to get Jeff Weaver straightened out around the time ace closer Eric Gagne returns. If so, LA could keep rolling right through the summer, which would be good for the fans after seeing the Lakers and Clippers miss the playoffs.