White Sox look even betterthan last year’s champs

May 2, 2006 5:04 AM

The baseball season is a month old and already there are some major pleasant surprises and disappointments.

The defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox have picked right up with their 17-7 start to 2006, the best record in baseball. Their starting rotation appears every bit as strong as in 2005, with Javier Vazquez replacing Orlando Hernandez. The addition of Jim Thome has strengthened the offense and the ChiSox appear poised to become the first team to successfully defend a World Series title since the New York Yankees of 1999 and 2000.

Division rival Detroit has fashioned a strong 16-9 start for new skipper Jim Leyland. The Tigers are just 5-5 at home, but a strong 11-4 on the road. Detroit has much upside with a young and developing pitching staff, but probably will not be able to keep pace with the White Sox after midseason. If healthy, Detroit can make a legitimate run at the Wild Card, especially if they continue to play well away from home.

The strongest division may well be the NL Central. Five of six teams have records at least three games above .500. Surprising Cincinnati and St. Louis are tied atop the division at 17-8, a half game better than defending NL champion Houston. The Astros have gone 16-8 without ace Roger Clemens who, should he decide to not retire or sign elsewhere, is now eligible to rejoin the team. His decision may be influenced by Houston’s fast start, a dramatic reversal from last season when they were 15-30 in late May.

In contrast, four of the five teams in the NL East have losing records. Atlanta and Philadelphia are tied for second with 10-14 marks. The slow starts of the Braves and Phillies have enabled the New York Mets to open a six game lead largely by feasting on fellow division rivals. The Mets are 10-4 against the NL East, 6-4 versus everyone else.

No other division leader is up by more than a 1½ games, the margin by which surprising Colorado leads San Francisco in the NL West. The Rockies are another surprise team, especially with a major league best 10-3 on the road, where they have historically struggled. Colorado has received much better pitching than expected and the emergence of some young offensive talent has helped overcome the absence of star Todd Helton for more than a week.

Fittingly, the first meeting of 2006 between long time rivals Boston and the New York Yankees finds the pair tied atop the AL East. Boston hosts this two game series Monday and Tuesday with the return of Johnny Damon to Fenway Park as a member of the hated Yankees sure to bring out the emotions in what has long been one of baseball’s most heated and competitive rivalries. The teams have split their last 90 meetings since 2002.

The high scoring of early April leveled off somewhat over the latter half of the month. For all of April teams combined to average 9.9 total runs per game, up three quarters of a run from April 2005. Part of the increase can be attributed to a greater lack of control among starting pitchers. In April 2005, starters allowed 2.98 walks per nine innings. The rate is up nearly 10 percent to 3.24 per nine innings in 2006. This phenomenon puts additional stress on both starters and bullpens. It may result in increased scoring in July and August as starters get fatigued and bullpens become overworked.

Here’s a look at four series of interest this weekend.

Astros at Rockies: Houston has gotten outstanding pitching from youngsters Taylor Buchholz and Wandy Rodriquez to complement aces Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Scoring has declined markedly in Colorado in recent seasons. In 2004 nearly 12.7 runs per game were scored in 81 games at Coors Field. Last season that average dropped to 11.1. In 10 games this season, it’s 10.3. Preferred picks: UNDER 11½. ASTROS starting Buchholz and Rodriguez. ROCKIES as underdogs when facing Oswalt or Pettitte.

Brewers at Dodgers: Milwaukee has a solid pitching rotation supported by a power hitting lineup that has hit more home runs than all but one team in the majors. The Dodgers have also relied on above average pitching, but their offense has been well below average. Dodger Stadium has long been a pitchers’ ballpark, which sets up nicely for a series of low scoring games. Preferred picks: UNDER 8. BREWERS in starts by Chris Capuano, Ben Sheets and David Bush. DODGERS -140 starting Brad Penny or Jae Seo if facing other hurlers.

Yanks at Rangers: Two of baseball’s most potent offenses square off in hitter friendly Texas so offense should be the theme for this three game series. New York right-hander Mike Mussina has had a stellar start to his season. Preferred picks: OVER 11 in most. UNDER 10 if Mussina faces Kevin Millwood or Vicente Padilla. RANGERS as a dog vs. Randy Johnson. RANGERS -125 against Jaret Wright or Chien-Ming Wang. YANKS -140 with Mussina.

Indians at Mariners: Both teams are off to disappointing starts. Cleveland leads the majors with a .302 batting average, but ranks fifth from the bottom with a 5.52 ERA. Seattle’s pitching has been average, but the offense is in the lower third of all 30 teams. Only two teams have hit fewer homers in April. Preferred picks: M’S -120 with Jarrod Washburn. INDIANS as underdog against heralded young Felix Hernandez (ERA above 5.00). INDIANS -125 with lefty Cliff Lee. UNDER 8 if Washburn faces Lee.