Here are the five biggest surprises so far in the 2011 season.
5. Tribe Revival
The 2010 Cleveland Indians had their share of problems: they were one of the worst hitting teams in the league, their pitching staff gave up the most home runs in baseball, and they also walked more batters than any other club except one. So, there was little reason to believe 2011 would be much different for the Indians, who finished last and lost 93 games in 2010. But, the Indians are one of the youngest teams in the league, and maturity has come sooner than anyone anticipated. The Indians have led the AL East most of the season, helped by an eight-game winning streak early in the year and 18 wins in April. The keys have been the performance of the bullpen, namely Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, and Tony Sipp. 25-year old Asdrubal Cabrera has emerged as a star, with 12 homers already in 2011- twice as many as he’s hit in any other season before. Cabrera is also a dazzling defensive shortstop. The Tribe have come back to the pack with lackluster play in May and June, and they may not win the division, but with the maturity of their young players they’re one of the surprises so far this season.
4. Rays are Still Relevant
The Rays won 96 games and their second AL East title in 2010, but they weren’t expected to contend at all this year after an off-season where players left Tampa Bay like a hurricane was approaching. Joe Maddon’s club has a new DH, a new first baseman, new left fielder, new right fielder, and new shortstop. But led by the hot bats of Matt Joyce and Casey Kotchman, and the performance of the Rays bullpen (with well-traveled closer Kyle Farnsworth), the Rays are right in the mix in the very competitive AL East. Three outstanding starting pitchers are also leading the way: James Shields, David Price, and Jeremy Hellickson. All three are under the age of 20, with Price and Hellickson under 26. That bodes well for Maddon and the Rays long-term success.
3. Diamondbacks Show Bite Under Gibby
Like the Indians, the Arizona Diamondbacks were woeful in 2010, losing 97 games and finishing in the cellar of the NL West. The club axed manager A.J. Hinch at mid-season and brought in Kirk Gibson, he of the many clutch dramatic post-season home runs. Gibson has brought his trademark intensity with him to his new role as skipper, navigating the team to the top of the division much of the 2011 campaign. He’s also shown surprising skill at handling a largely patched-together pitching staff.
2. Bucs Back from the Dead
Since they lost a heartbreaking Game Seven of the 1992 National League Championship Series to Atlanta, the Pirates have endured 18 straight losing seasons. In their last six seasons they’ve lost at least 94 games every year, including 105 in 2010. It’s a horrifying time to be a Pirates fan. The once proud franchise has fallen apart and become a laughingstock in all of sports. But, in 2011, that may all be changing under new manager Clint Hurdle. Hurdle knows something about reclamation projects, he was on the staff of the Rockies when that club surprised everyone by winning the NL flag in 2005. Thanks to the exciting play of center fielder Andrew McCutchen the Pirates are over .500 this late in the season for the first time since 1999. The quartet of starters Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, and Paul Maholm each have ERA’s under 3.75 and Hurdle has concerted Joel Hanrahan into the NL’s best closer so far in tha 2011. The Bucs may not make the post-season in 2011, but they’re no longer pushovers.
1. The Puzzling Minnesota Twins
For a decade the Minnesota Twins have been one of baseball’s success stories. A small market team with a rabid fan base that contends for the playoffs every year while playing exciting and sound baseball. The Twins have won six AL Central titles in the last nine seasons, and they were chosen by most experts to win again in 2011. But the Twins inexplicably collapsed the first two months of the season, burying themselves 16 1/2 games out of first after the Tigers completed a sweep of them on June 1. At that, Ron Gardenhire’s club was in unfamiliar territory – 20 games under .500. Adding injury to insult, the Twins have had several key players on the disabled list, including catcher Joe Mauer, closer Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span. Just as puzzling as their dreadful start to the season is their play since their nadir: the Twins are 10-2 since that loss to Detroit and have nearly cut their deficit in the standings in half. Amazingly, with roughly 90 games to play and Mauer being activated from the DL this weekend, the Twins can’t be counted out yet in the topsy turvy AL Central race.