- Phil Rogers
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In honor of the Stanley Cup playoffs, let's hear it for the Yankees, Giants and -- gasp -- Royals.
They are the hottest teams in the majors, rolling to a combined 47-10 record through Tuesday. And they all opened the season playing short-handed.
All three of these teams lost key parts to injuries. But instead of slowing them down, the losses seem to have brought them together.
"You always know you're going to have injuries,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "You hate it when you're without players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but you know these things always happen. Teams are tested all the time. The important thing is to pass these tests because once you get your guys back you can really feel good about yourself.''
Torre's right. The Royals wear a badge of courage for having jumped to an 11-3 start playing without center fielder Carlos Beltran, who returned last weekend. The Yankees and Giants likewise gain confidence daily, which will benefit them once they get to full strength -- or, more correctly, closer to it given normal attrition.
Jeter, Rivera, Robb Nen and Beltran are among 15-20 top players who were either sidelined on Opening Day or have since been injured. But only Atlanta, which has only one start so far from Paul Byrd and Mike Hampton, and perhaps Cincinnati and San Diego have stumbled out of the gate because of injuries.
Cincinnati felt the absence of Ken Griffey Jr. during a stretch in which it lost nine of 11. San Diego got off to a 7-7 start without Trevor Hoffman and Phil Nevin, but slipped into a losing streak after catcher Gary Bennett was also lost to injury.
Arizona can't blame its horrific start on injuries, although Randy Johnson's first trip to the disabled list since 1996 will make it even tougher to make up the football field's worth of ground they've already lost to San Francisco. St. Louis held its own without Jason Isringhausen and J.D. Drew, but had to be discouraged losing Albert Pujols to a strained elbow just when Drew was due back.
Montreal and Colorado have sprung some early surprises without Orlando Hernandez and Juan Uribe and Denny Neagle, respectively. But, not surprisingly, two teams coping the best with their injury problems, the Giants and Yankees, have deep pockets.
Here's a look at three teams doing a lot better than hanging in there:
Bad karma seemed to be descending when a turbulent spring was followed by the loss of Jeter to a separated left shoulder during an ugly collision with Toronto's Ken Huckaby on Opening Day. For the first time since he took over for Tony Fernandez in 1996, the Yankees were faced with an extended absence from their shortstop and team leader.
Opponents had to be rubbing their hands together in glee. But not anymore.
Erick Almonte, a 24-year-old Dominican who hit only .238 in the minors last season, has been a pleasant surprise. Veteran Enrique Wilson, who instantly accepted his role as Almonte's mentor, has also played well.
When Almonte was promoted, some wondered if the Yankees would wind up having to trade for a shortstop. But Almonte is hitting .259, which is more than good enough when three guys in the lineup have four-figure OPSes. He's been somewhat shaky in the field, with five errors in his first 15 games, but solid enough to help win the tough games. New York is 6-3 in games decided by one or two runs.
Those tight victories required solid work from the bullpen. The Yankees have gotten that, even though both Rivera (strained groin) and set-up man Steve Karsay (bursitis) remain on the disabled list.
While Almonte is a rarity for the Yankees -- a need filled from within -- owner George Steinbrenner's resources have been invaluable in rebuilding the bullpen. The White Sox coveted Chicago-native Juan Acevedo, who entered free agency after saving 28 games for Detroit in 2002. He would not sign for the $750,000 he was offered, however, and wound up signing a deal with the Yankees that included only about $200,000 guaranteed.
He was to receive $1.1 million if he earned a spot on the Opening Day roster. That appeared uncertain for most of spring training, but he was there when Rivera and Karsay were ruled unavailable. Acevedo has three of the Yankees' four early saves.
Rivera and Karsay are throwing, but appear to be 1-2 weeks, at least, away from returning. Jeter hopes to soon get clearance to begin swinging a bat and could be back by mid-May.
If anyone ever mentioned Beltran as an MVP candidate, it was in terms of the value he might bring to a team that traded for him. But the Royals have played so well without the 1999 Rookie of the Year that he might be able to have a huge impact for Kansas City.
The Royals averaged a solid 5.1 runs per game while Beltran was sidelined. Mike Sweeney (.245-3-15), catcher Brent Mayne (.378-3-10) and outfielder Raul Ibanez (.343-4-12) picked up the slack to help support a talented but inexperienced pitching staff.
Veteran Michael Tucker, the former Cub, replaced Beltran in center. He's hitting only .264 with two home runs.
Beltran is hitless in his first four games back. Once he gets going, he should be able to help the Royals sustain their early success.
Instead of trading Beltran at midseason, Kansas City general manager Allard Baird could wind up holding on to him. This franchise needs some magic.
Few teams count on their closer more than the Giants. Nen had all 50 of San Francisco's saves last year, including seven in the playoffs.
His sore shoulder contributed greatly to the shocking loss to Anaheim in Game 6 of the World Series, which led to arthroscopic surgery in November. New manager Felipe Alou was counting on having him back, but that hope vanished literally hours before the first game, when the Giants admitted they might have pushed Nen too hard in spring training.
Now, with Nen having undergone a second shoulder surgery last Friday, it's unlikely he'll be back before July and he could possibly be gone all season.
"We're strapped,'' pitching coach Dave Righetti said when Nen went on the disabled list. "We're in a bind.''
Oh, really? The Giants built their 15-2 start by winning all six games decided by two runs or less. Veteran Tim Worrell has been a cowboy for a bullpen also missing lefty Jason Christiansen, earning six saves in seven chances. He had entered the season with seven saves in 392 career relief appearances.
"We've been able to weather out some pitching concerns, not having use of our stopper,'' Alou said. "It's tough to get off to a good start with no stopper. Other guys have stepped up, especially Tim Worrell.''
They'll need to keep it in gear, because Nen's not coming back any time soon. But it must be good to know they can play great without him.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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