Tigers roaring early in AL

Apr 13, 2004 6:45 AM

It took one week for the Detroit Tigers to become the biggest surprise in baseball.

The Tigers are tied with defending World Series champion Florida for the best record at 5-1. Their wins have come against last season’s AL Central champion Minnesota and Toronto, a team that finished 10 games over .500 last season.

Seattle has started just 1-5 and needed a ninth inning rally Sunday to force extra innings just to get that lone win. Toronto is also 1-5.

Anaheim, Oakland and Tampa Bay have gotten off to nice starts while the New York Yankees have struggled with their offense in starting a mediocre 4-4. Aside from a 12-run outburst in winning a game in Japan, the Yanks have averaged just 3½ runs per game in their other seven contests.

Florida has the best record in the NL and already leads favored Philadelphia by four games. The Phillies are already a big disappointment. To be fair, Philly has played all six games on the road, but that poor start does not sit well with Larry Bowa. The volatile Bowa could easily be the season’s first managerial casualty if the Phils don’t reverse direction by the end of April.

Arizona has been disappointing in the early going and the first two efforts by ace Randy Johnson are of serious concern. With the departure of Curt Schilling, Johnson is expected to carry the load for the D’backs. Johnson’s recent history of injuries combined with age could signal that 2004 will be a struggle for this former best pitcher in baseball.

April is often a time to look for signals in teams that will ultimately show dramatic improvement or drastic decline from the previous season. Here’s a look at four early season series of interest played this weekend between teams expected to contend for division titles.

Marlins at Braves: Philadelphia was expected challenge Atlanta’s streak of a dozen straight division titles but it may well be the defending champion Marlins. Florida resembles many of the outstanding Atlanta teams with a strong rotation, and just enough offense. There’s a nice balance between power and speed, not to mention Jack McKeon who shuns the limelight as much as Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. The Braves have the better offense, Florida the better rotation. Play Marlins as an underdog except if Darren Oliver starts. Then, play the "over." Otherwise go "under" at 9½.

Dodgers at Giants: This old rivalry will be as intense as ever with both teams fairly even. Much of the focus will be on Barry Bonds as he takes over the third spot in the all time home run race, passing Willie Mays. The Dodgers have a solid rotation, the game’s best closer in Eric Gagne, and an offense showing signs of significant improvement. Until Jason Schmidt returns, the Giants rotation has no ”˜ace’ or ”˜stopper.’ Play Dodgers as underdogs and look at the "over if posted total is below 9.

Yanks at Red Sox: The Yankees and Red Sox meet for the first time since Aaron Boone eliminated the Sox in last season’s ALCS. Right now Boston appears to be the more complete team with better starting pitching and offensive production in the first week. The underdog is always worth a look in this intense rivalry. The Yanks’ best chances should be with either Kevin Brown or Javier Vazquez on the mound. Play each as a dog against Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling. Go "under" if 8 or higher in any matchup involving these four hurlers. Anything else, go "over" at 9 or less.

Athletics at Angels: Both started 4-2 and winning with their strengths. Oakland relies on a limited offense but outstanding starting pitching. The Angels win with one of the most potent lineups in all of baseball and merely average starting pitching with the exception of ace Bartolo Colon. Should Colon oppose Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito, play the "under" at 8. Go "over" if 9 or lower in games involving other Anaheim starters, even Oakland’s "Big Three" are on the mound. Play "over" at 10 or above if A’s pitch someone else. Play Angels in all games if priced as a +130 dog.