Brave old world
for some teams

May 12, 2003 11:51 PM

The old adage in baseball still holds true. The cream does rise to the top.

Each baseball season does offer surprises such as two years ago when the Twins enjoyed a remarkable resurgence despite talk the franchise might fold. Last year saw the Angels take off like a rocket after a 6-14 start and win the World Series.

Talented players, proper teaching and good organization (not necessarily the highest payrolls), will be in the pennant races in August even if they get off to bad starts. Here are some teams that have risen fast after shaky starts.

Oakland: Many anointed the A’s as the best in the American League in spring training. Then Oakland began April at 8-8 record, including a six-game losing streak. As fast as that six-game skid happened, the A’s won six in a row and now look like the team that amassed 103 victories in 2002.

Don’t worry about the A’s, they’re loaded. Oakland’s pitching staff has the best ERA in the AL and second best in all of baseball. Last week the A’s went into Yankee Stadium and took 2-of-3, limiting the mighty New York offense to eight runs in three games. Lefty Barry Zito shut out the Yanks 2-0. Then Mark Mulder blanked the White Sox. The UNDER had began 10-2 in Oakland’s first 12 games. This week, Oakland is on a six-game road trip against offensive-challenged Detroit and Cleveland. The A’s were 5-1 against that anemic duo last month.

Atlanta: The Braves revamped their pitching staff for the first time in years. There were lots of question marks with three of last year’s starters gone. Newcomers Mike Hampton and Paul Byrd wound up on the DL. The bullpen also had new faces and even Greg Maddux was getting smacked around during Atlanta’s sluggish 4-8 start.

The Braves have won the NL East every year since 1991, but that run appeared in jeopardy through April. Fast forward to May when Maddux and Russ Ortiz began pitching better. Hampton is back, lefty Horacio Ramirez has been strong and closer John Smoltz is on pace to break his NL record of 55 saves set last year. After that poor start, Atlanta went 17-3 to leapfrog Montreal and Philadelphia to regain the division’s top spot starting the week.

Seattle: After winning 116 games two years ago, Seattle won 93 last year and missed the playoffs. After a 4-6 start, it appeared the ancient Mariners might be sinking fast. Wrong.

The Mariners have gone 17-7 since mid-April to challenge Oakland for first place in the AL West. Seattle has speed, defense, pitching depth and great balance. The Mariners had the fourth best pitching staff in the majors (No. 2 in the AL behind Oakland), the 7th best batting average and were second in the AL in walks, behind the Yankees.

Seattle uses patience at the plate as a key formula for winning. John Olerud and Edgar Martinez have a unique ability to take pitches and draw walks, which forces opponents to throw more pitchers. This process forces opposition starting pitchers to tire and bullpens to become overworked. Not to mention an increase in both players’ OBP (on base percentage).

It’s more important to have an excess of pitching than hitting, which separates Atlanta, Oakland and Seattle from the rest of the competition. All three play in large, pitcher-friendly parks. The big parks not only help the staffs, but also encourage the philosophy of manufacturing runs, rather than waiting for the long ball.

Slugging teams like the Red Sox, Rockies, Rangers and White Sox are at a disadvantage when visiting those parks, and it’s no coincidence that those teams are already chasing Seattle, Oakland and Atlanta in any Wild Card race