With May, the baseball season is in full swing. Hot starts are beginning to cool, pitchers are catching up to batters, and the weekly rhythm of daily games--marquee weekend series, Friday and Saturday nights with a Sunday afternoon closer, limited Monday schedules and "getaway day" Thursday afternoon games--takes on a cruising hum.
For people who follow the game statistically (cough), May is the first time you can sensibly look at the accumulated at-bats and start evaluating performance without the crushing sample bias that comes with anything less than 50-75 ABs. In May, fantasy coaches can safely deal underperforming yutzes without undue fear of making the dreaded "panic move"--cutting or trading a player shortly before he takes off with a surge that lasts the next five and a half months.
But even if you hadn't the least idea about sample bias or what time the games are on what days, if you are a fan of the Red Sox, Yankees, or Tigers then you know not to get too high or low in the first couple of weeks. This tends to apply to each going back several years, but particularly this year the rule was to be ignored at fans' peril. Detroit raced out to margins above .500 not often experienced by the Tigers since several Robert Downey rehabs ago. And yet there they were at midmonth, waking up on April 15th with a 6-2 record and 1st place in the AL Central. And then as if the ides of March had forgotten to turn their calendars over, that night the Blue Jays pounded the previously potent pitching Tigers 11-0. At presstime they sit at 13-14, 3rd place, 3.5 games out.
Of course, the only unexpected part is the 6-2 record, but boy, in the midst of it Tigers fans dreamt dreams of 80, 85, NINETY win seasons? The spoils of soft bigotry have come to roost, but following Detroit it could not be wholly unexpected.
But that's just a warmup. While the Cubs have a longer record of failure, more parched taste of success in modern playoff competition and a reputation built more aroung a stadium and a mythos than an expectation of winning, you've got to hand it to Red Sox fans for the enduring agony of near-perfection. They're on a particularly smooth roll lately; for six seasons dating back to 1998, the order of finish in the AL East has been Yankees 1, Boston 2. The margin of victory has ranged from 2.5 games to 22 games, but more than that the scenario always seems to be the same: the Sox come out of the gate strong, while the Yankees either struggle or just can't keep up with how great Boston is doing. The Boston press starts to bring in the "this is our year" chant, while the New York media intones "end of dynasty" notes, and George starts getting antsy. Then summer comes, and with the big home and home series the Yankees get the edge and from there, the Sox just run out of gas. For a Yankee fan, it's really been quite comforting.
So only the most guileless of Sox fans would have gloated with abandon when, having defeated the Yankees in 6 of 7 games during April, and taken a commanding 12-6 record to the top of the AL East, leaving the New Yorkers floundering behind even the resurgent Orioles. The Red Sox finished the month with a 15-6 record, and the Yankees trying to keep pace with even win/loss columns. And then the calendar turned, and the Sox stopped winning. Being swept by the Rangers, including two on Saturday night, quickly took the buzz out of the Boston clubhouse. Meanwhile down I-95, the Yankees swept both the As (taking down Hudson, Mulder and Zito in order) and the Royals. I'm sure the Red Sox were happy to go to Cleveland, while New York filed onto airplanes for a return series with the As in Oakland.
Both teams started off slowly, and things deteriorated from there. The only difference between the two games was, really, Alex Rodriguez. I seem to recall a trade not consumated, and then one that was. Hmmm. Anyway, down 8-3 in the 7th, A-Rod ripped a pitch off of Mulder that fell into the bleachers in the deep corner of left center, cutting the lead to two. It took another clutch Ruben Sierra hit down the left field line to take control of the game (and Mariano Rivera's 10th save in 10 tries to seal the deal), but it was A-Rod's homer that clearly got Mulder down, and he showed it afterwards. "It's embarrassing when you can't hold a 7-1 lead," Mulder said. "It's ridiculous." Yeah.
So with the assurance of an Eric Gagne appearance becoming an Eric Gagne save (71st in a row tonight, pitching even more lights out than Rivera if that's possible), things that seem farfetched and out of place in April, look to right themselves right about Mayday. And by the way--that makes 350 for Rodriguez, the fastest ever. And 1,000 RBIs, third fastest ever. A-Rod's 12-game hitting streak ended Saturday, but with the improbable win tonight, and Boston's inexplicable bat silence against an outmatched Indians staff, the Red Sox and Yankees are once again tied for first in the division. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is true of April and May.