By Charlie Vascellaro
This time last year, Baltimore's Birds were baseball's biggest surprise soaring to the top of the American League's Eastern division after pulling out to a 22-11 start.
While no clear front-runner has emerged this season, the Toronto Blue Jays are the most improved team in what figures to be a very competitive division. Toronto made off-season noise with the signings of free-agent pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, catcher Bengie Molina and slugging third baseman Troy Glaus, who served notice of the Blue Jays newfound muscle with two home runs and a pair of doubles in a 9-7 victory over the O's on their first visit to Baltimore, May 1.
The Blue Jays pitching staff is led by righty Roy Halladay, who last year was 12-4 with a 2.41 ERA on his way to Cy Young Award contention before he was sidelined by a broken bone for the final three months of the season. Rounding out the Jays rotation are lefties Ted Lilly and Gustavo Chacin, and former Oriole right-hander Josh Towers.
Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons acknowledged the Blue Jays improvements, "Their pitching staff, starters to relievers, is as good as it gets in our division," said Gibbons.
The addition of southpaw Ryan, who posted a career-high 37 saves with Baltimore last year, gives the Jays a bona fide closer and a deep bullpen featuring lefties Scott Schoeneweis and Scott Downs, whom Kevin Millar calls the best three left-handed relievers on any team in the league.
But it is with the bats that the Blue Jays have done the most damage after the season's first six weeks, pounding the ball at a .301 clip as a team with three players among the league's top 10 including outfielder Alex Rios who leads the AL with .389 average followed by DH Shea Hillenbrand at .356 and outfielder Vernon Wells, .355.
"Toronto is very tough. They're for real," said new Orioles first baseman/DH Millar, sizing up the division's competition. "The parity in the east is phenomenal," he said. "All the way to Tampa Bay anybody can beat anybody on any given day."
Millar's former team, the Boston Red Sox, are in town for a three-game set beginning Monday, May 15. This off-season, Boston acquired hurler Josh Beckett in a seven-player deal that also brought third baseman Mike Lowell. Perhaps the Red Sox biggest off-season move or non-move was retaining the services of enigmatic outfielder Manny Ramirez after failing once again to accommodate his annual request to be traded. Together with DH David Ortiz the pair packs the most potent 3-4 wallop in baseball and makes the Red Sox automatic contenders.
Meanwhile the perennial division favorite New York Yankees exacerbated its famous rivalry with Boston by snatching center fielder Johnny Damon from the bean eaters. Outside of acquiring Damon, the Yankees had a relatively quiet winter and will lean hard on the return of aging pitchers, Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, both of whom have pitched well early on, to anchor a staff that received surprising support last year from minor league call -ups Aaron Small, Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon. Starting pitchers Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright both began their seasons on the bubble with Pavano on the disabled list suffering a bad back and sore backside while Wright sputtered to a 0-2 start with a 5.63 ERA. Still with the best top-to-bottom batting order including a healthy Jason Giambi and MVP Alex Rodgriuez slugging from the corners and steady run producers like Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield driving in Damon all year, the Yankees began the season as most experts' favorite to win their ninth straight division title.
The Orioles were swept by Boston in the first three-game series between the teams in Baltimore April 7-9 and dropped two of three to the Yankees in New York, April 21-23. Toronto has taken three of the first five meetings with the Orioles. The Red Sox swept the Orioles again last weekend at Fenway Park by a composite score of 25-9, putting the Orioles at 0-6 versus the Red Sox and 7-16 in crucial games against AL East division rivals. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the only team in the east that the Orioles have a winning record against this season going 3-2 in five games and even Tampa looks better this year.
"They've got some young pitching that needs to mature but they've got a great offense," said Gibbons.
Right fielder Johnny Gomes has shown surprising power and was among the American League's leaders with 11 home runs as of May 8.
For its part the Orioles can also be seen as an improved team this year dropping some dead weight with the departures of problematic pitcher Sidney Ponson and aging sluggers Rafael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa while picking up pitcher Kris Benson and catcher Ramon Hernandez who both got off to impressive starts.
As of this week the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays have begun to distance themselves from the Orioles and Devil Rays, which has been the pattern for the past eight years.
But as the Orioles were reminded last year, there's an ebb and flow to the 162 game season and even if the Yankees are the odds-on favorites, it doesn't mean this won't be the year somebody knocks them off.
"We're planning on it," said Gibbons optimistically, the way you can when optimism is readily available in early May, "We're trying. Hopefully it will be a dogfight [between the entire division] all year. That would make it a lot of fun," said Gibbons, adding, "We're going to beat each other up. We saw a little bit of it last year but even more this year now with every team being competitive."
While the Orioles may not have gotten off to the kind of start that had Birds fans optimistic at this juncture last year, a more realistic look at the team's chances in a very tough division would be for the O's to fight to remain at or near .500 while the heavyweights beat each other up, providing an opportunity to sneak back up on the pack with a late season surge similar to last year's early start.
Issue 1.3: May 11, 2006