Baseball fans have long used Memorial Day as the first milepost in gauging the season. Usually about one-third of the games, 50 or so have been played and in general the pennant races are beginning to shape up. Some teams have exceeded expectations so far, and some have disappointed. Letís take a look at the National League now.
The two teams that have unexpectedly surprised and delighted their fans so far are the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres. The Queen City Side is in first place alongside the expected occupants, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Reds have done it without Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, whom they signed to a major deal in the off-season. He is continuing to refine his craft in the minor leagues. Meanwhile, another rookie phenom, Mike Leake, has raced out to a 4-0 record with an excellent 2.91 ERA and Johnny Cueto has asserted himself with a 4-1 start. With an offense sparked by Orlando Cabrera at SS, a revived Scott Rolen at 3B, and star young slugger Joey Votto joined by dependable Jonny Gomes, the Reds also feature a deep bullpen anchored by closer Francisco Cordero. It should be a fun summer by the banks of the Ohio.
As for the Padres, everyone had them as big-time sellers of their valuable 1Bman, Adrian Gonzales, but by all accounts they are preparing for a pennant race instead, so if anything the Friars may be buyers. Their pitching has been outstanding, leading the NL with a 2.98 ERA. The crowds are starting to come back to Petco Park, a wonderful venue in a beautiful city. The Dodgers have recovered to nip at their heels, and the Giants still have great pitching if not much offense, so itís going to be a busy and intriguing summer along the Pacific Coast Highway.
In the Nationís Capital, the Washington Nationals have been a most pleasant surprise. The Nationals added Hall of Fame-bound catcher Ivan Rodriguez during the winter, and Pudge has brought winning baseball with him, but age and infirmity may have him in its grip, as he is now on the DL. The Nats probably hit their high-water mark a few weeks ago when they were 20-15, and they are off on a tough, nine-game western swing, but for now, they are in the middle of the pack in the NL East and they are awaiting with baited breath the arrival of heralded number one draft pick, Stephen Strasburg. Since I see most of my games at Natstown, I will enjoy the bigger crowds Strasburg and improved performance will bring.
Alas, the disappointments in the NL are mostly in the Central Division, and only 90 or so miles apart. I am speaking of the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs have shown some signs of life lately thanks in part to the arrival of rookie sensation Starlin Castro and his fellow rookie Tyler Colvin, and the resurgence of high-priced free agents Alfonso Soriano and Kosuke Fukudome has helped the once-anemic offense to find life. Add in the revival of Carlos Silva, a talented starter who fell into desuetude in Seattle, and the feeling on the North Side is that if volatile Carlos Zambrano can find his way back into the rotation, the Cubbies may yet fight their way into the mix.
As for the Brew Crew, the situation is decidedly mixed if not outright gloomy. With their young superstar sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and emerging Casey McGehee showing he can indeed play 3B as well as swing the bat, the Brewers are a Jekyll-and-Hyde team, .500 on the road, and dreadful 4-14 at home. Itís unlikely their pitching is going to stabilize them, especially if venerable and Hall of Fame-bound closer Trevor Hoffman canít rediscover some of the magic he once had. The woeful Astros are beneath them but the Pirates are still ahead of them. It is unlikely Milwaukee will be able to climb back into the race, especially if the home cooking continues to disagree with them.