This baseball season has been full of surprises so far.
In the National League, the Phillies lead the Eastern division, while the Cubs and Brewers battle atop the Central, and every team in the Western division is hovering around .500.
In the American League, the Athletics and White Sox have been tremendous disappointments, and the Red Sox, Indians and Yankees, have been as good as most observers expected.
But the two biggest surprises in the American League, and probably in all of the game, has been the play of the Twins and Mariners. Both teams have been winning with a combination of good pitching, good defense and timely hitting. Both have enough talent to be in the race until the end.
The Twins shocked many people by getting off to such a fast start coming out of spring training. But they’ve continued solid play throughout the first month of the season, winning a series at Yankee Stadium last week.
Most knew the Twins would be able to pitch, but they’ve been solid with the bats as well. Doug Mientkiewicz has been at or above .400 this season, and is also the best defensive first baseman this side of J.T. Snow.
Shortstop Christian Guzman already has seven triples going into the weekend, after leading the league in that category last season. He also gives the Twins great speed at the top of the lineup and a solid glove in the field.
Outfielders Matt Lawton and Jacque Jones have yet to get going, but with the team’s pitching and defensive ability, the Twins don’t have to score too many runs to win games.
The starting rotation has been the main reason for Minnesota’s success. The Twins’ ace, Brad Radke, is 6-0 going into the Twins’ weekend series against the Royals, with a 2.22 ERA. He’s walked just four batters all season, and has started 2-0 just twice to hitters all year. Left-hander Eric Milton is 4-2 with a 2.25 ERA after shutting out the Yankees this week. Radke and Milton are currently ranked second and third in the league in ERA, behind only Pedro Martinez.
The team’s third starter, Joe Mays, is also 4-2 with a sub-3.00 ERA. As a team, the Twins enjoy a 3.53 ERA, and while the starters have been great, the bullpen has been pretty good also. LaTroy Hawkins has saved 11 of 12 opportunities, and Bob Wells and Eddie Guardado are a fine right-lefty setup combination.
The Mariners can’t be considered quite as big a surprise as the Twins. After all, they did make the playoffs last season, and advanced to the American League Championship Series before losing to the Yankees.
But the Mariners lost Alex Rodriguez to free agency, after losing Ken Griffey and Randy Johnson in the previous years. But the Mariners didn’t do what teams usually do when they unload payroll.
Instead of sitting on the money, the Mariners went out and spent the cash on a number of serviceable veterans including Bret Boone and Jeff Nelson. Their pickup of Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki has been the catalyst of the team’s surprising offense. He has one of the better throwing arms, out of right field, in the game.
The team may not have an awful lot of power, but centerfielder Mike Cameron is having a great season. With Suzuki and Cameron at the top of the order setting the table for Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, Seattle can score enough runs. The Mariners don’t beat themselves with bad defense, and they finally have a bullpen that manager Lou Piniella can work to his advantage.
In the rotation, Freddy Garcia has the stuff to be an All-Star for years to come, and Aaron Sele must still be considered the team’s ace.
Jamie Moyer is back from an injury-plagued 2000 season and John Halama and Paul Abbott are, at worst, average American League starters.
Kaz Sasaki is a great closer. With Jeff Nelson, Jose Paniagua, rookie Ryan Franklin, rejuvenated lefty Norm Charlton and Arthur Rhodes, the Mariners have the deepest bullpen in the league.
Neither of these two teams should be considered surprises anymore. They’ve both played well against tough competition. They play low-scoring games that puts the pressure on their opponents, because most American League teams aren’t used to that style of play. They could use another bat in the lineup, but they have the pitching and the cash to make a deal for a hitter at some point this season.
The Mariners enjoy a big enough lead to probably coast into the postseason. A .500 record the rest of the way would put them around 90 wins for the season, which will likely be enough to make the playoffs.
The Twins, meanwhile, have to deal with the Indians, who’ve been incredibly hot of late. And while Cleveland should continue to play well, don’t expect the Twins to fall off the face of the Earth.
They also could use another hitter, but pitching, defense and good managing should be enough to keep the Twins over .500 all season.