Commentary

Month of May delivered the unexpected

After being awful in April, Red Sox and Diamondbacks picked up their play in a big way

Originally Published: May 31, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Just as we all expected in May …

A second baseman (Wilson Valdez) won a game as a pitcher. … A guy who was 0-for-39-days (Jason Giambi) hit three home runs in a game. … A relief pitcher (Vin Mazzaro) gave up 14 runs in one appearance. … And the hottest team in baseball (the Diamondbacks) was a team that was more games out of first place after April (6½) than the Nationals.

We don't know anyone who saw any of that coming. So what better excuse to look back at the crazy month of May and try to make sense of what just happened:

Boston Red Sox

AL team of the month -- Red Sox

The Red Sox are nature's way of reminding us how long the baseball season really is. They were once 2-10 -- and then went 22-10. They were once 5-11 -- and then went 25-11. So now here they are, just weeks after tying their worst 12-game start in the 111-year history of the franchise, in a virtual tie for first place in the AL East. And kids, don't ever try THAT at home, because MapQuest says you just can't get to first place from 2-And-10-Ville.

OK, actually, it's not MapQuest. It's the Elias Sports Bureau that reports the Red Sox just became only the fifth team in history to start a season 2-10 or worse and recover to occupy first place at any point in a season. Even more incredibly, they also became the first team ever to travel from 2-10 to first place in fewer than 40 games.

So how'd they go from those depths to the best May record (19-9) in the American League? With apologies to Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, it's mostly because the offense finally heard the alarm go off. The Red Sox were 21st in the majors in runs scored in April. But not only have they scored the most runs in May (149), just two AL teams (the Yankees and Blue Jays) are even within 30 runs of them. That'll get you rolling every time.

Arizona Diamondbacks

NL team of the month -- Diamondbacks

The Red Sox aren't the only team in America that made an unprecedented turnaround in May. The Diamondbacks (also 19-9 this month) were 6½ games out of first at the end of April -- and roared into the NL West lead four weeks later. Elias tells us they're the first team ever to take over first place in any league or division in May after being that far out when they flipped the calendar after April.

So how have they pulled off that unprecedented U-turn? Well, they've led the league in runs scored over the past 2½ weeks, which always helps. But given their funky home-road splits (.825 OPS, 5.7 runs/game at home, .657 OPS, 3.9 runs/game road), that doesn't figure to last. What might, though, is that they've finally put their pitching pieces in order. They've gotten Daniel Hudson going (5-1, 3.22 in May), plugged Josh Collmenter (0.65 May WHIP) and Zach Duke (7 shutout IP in his debut) into their rotation, and watched their starters go 12-2 over the past 17 games, with a 2.85 ERA.

Meanwhile, GM Kevin Towers has done that inimitable bullpen fix-up thing of his again, rebuilding a 'pen that has a 2.35 ERA this month. J.J. Putz (16 saves in 16 tries) has been one of the best free-agent signings in baseball. (More on that shortly.) And Kirk Gibson looks as if he has the hang of this managing gig, wringing the max out of a roster that still has 14 survivors from the 97-loss debacle of last year.

May history lessons

There may be a whole lot of baseball yet to be played -- but maybe not as much as those teams that haven't gotten their act together might think. As we prepare to say hello to June, here are some startling facts those clubs need to know:

• The Diamondbacks will be happy to learn that of the 88 teams to make the playoffs in the 2000s, 52 of them (59 percent) were already hanging onto a playoff spot at the end of May.

• Nine more teams were within a game of a playoff spot coming out of May, meaning that nearly 70 percent of all postseason participants in the 2000s were no more than a game out heading into June.

• On the other hand, the Rockies (25-28) won't want to hear that just 12 of those 88 teams that made it to October (14 percent) headed into June with a losing record.

• The Dodgers (5½ back) won't be thrilled to hear that a mere eight of those 88 teams (9 percent) were five games or more out of a playoff spot or more when they arrived at June.

• And the White Sox (25-31) and Twins (17-35) really, really won't want to hear that only four of those 88 teams (5 percent) were more than five games under .500 at the end of May. But those, friends, are the actual facts.

Hitter of the month -- Jose Bautista

Ho-hum. Just another month of never-ending offensive fireworks (11 homers, .346/.470/.802) from Bautista, a fellow who is now the official answer to the question: "Who's the best hitter in baseball?" We owe a tip of the cap to Jay Bruce, who had a sensational May (12 HR, 32 RBIs, .757 slugging percentage). But once again, no hitter in baseball out-mashed Bautista. How much has this man dominated this sport over the past two seasons? Here's one more way to look at it:

May was Bautista's FIFTH month with 10 or more home runs since Opening Day 2010. All the other hitters in the American League combined have had THREE months like that. And nobody else in either league has had more than one. Somebody send this man that Year of the Pitcher memo.

Josh Beckett
Beckett

Starting pitcher of the month -- Josh Beckett

We could easily have made a case for Jair Jurrjens (5-1, 1.65), Anibal Sanchez (3-0, 1.53), Justin Verlander (only 29 hits allowed in six starts), Yovani Gallardo (5-0, 1.29 in his past five starts), Jeremy Hellickson (4-1, 1.36) or about a half-dozen other aces. But you'd have a tough time convincing us that any of them outpitched Beckett in May, even if he did get outdueled by Verlander on Sunday, dropping his quasi-meaningless win-loss record for the month to only 2-1. Here are the facts:

Josh Beckett made six starts this month -- and gave up one run or none in five of them. His bullpen blew two saves for him. And rain forced him out of another start while he was working on a one-hitter in the fifth inning. He faced 142 hitters in May -- and allowed exactly one extra-base hit (a Brennan Boesch double). He was just the seventh Red Sox pitcher in the live ball era to rip off five straight starts allowing one run or zero. And other than Sunday, when the Red Sox got shut out by Verlander, Beckett's team never trailed for more than a half-inning in any start he made all month.

So thanks to win-loss issues beyond his control, he probably won't win the official Pitcher of the Month award. But that doesn't mean he wasn't the best May starter on earth.

J.J. Putz
Putz

Relief pitcher of the month -- J.J. Putz

Once upon a time in Seattle, Putz was one of the most untouchable closers in baseball. Now he's finally made it all the way back from his 2009 elbow surgery, rediscovered his man-eating slider and racked up more saves just this month (11) than he'd converted in the previous two-plus seasons put together. He's also on pace to become only the fourth reliever ever to make it into the More Saves Than Hits Club in two different seasons. (The others: Trevor Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, Armando Benitez.)

But more importantly, Putz has transformed the ninth inning in Arizona into an inning of actual sanity. And that sure wouldn't have been the word you'd have used to describe it a year ago, when the Diamondbacks' three primary closers -- Chad Qualls, Juan Gutierrez and Aaron Heilman -- had a combined 7.81 ERA in save situations, 4.76 in the ninth inning or later.

This year, on the other hand, their new closer just had a month only one relief pitcher in the whole sport (Carlos Marmol, last September) duplicated all last year -- 11 saves, no blown saves and a 0.00 ERA. Have we mentioned in the past six paragraphs that Putz was one of the great free-agent signings of the year? Well, let's do that again anyway.

Rookie of the month -- Justin Turner

We easily could have chosen about a half-dozen other rookies for this prestigious honor. Want to argue that Jeremy Hellickson (4-1, 1.36 this month), Michael Pineda (0.91 WHIP in five starts), Eric Hosmer (five homers, .505 slugging percentage in his first 95 big league at-bats) or Mark Trumbo (.506 SLUG) deserved this pick? Go right ahead.

But you just can't beat the Justin Turner story. A seventh-round draftee, as a college senior. Bounced from the Reds to the Orioles to the Mets over six minor league seasons. Plucked off the waiver wire by the Mets a year ago, mostly to supply Triple-A inventory. Finally got his shot, at age 26, when Ike Davis and David Wright got hurt. And boy, did Justin Turner know what to do when he got it.

This was his month: Hit .342, with a .395 on-base percentage and .876 OPS. Never went more than two games in a row without reaching base. And, according to Elias, just became the third rookie in history, and first in 81 years, to drive in at least one run in 13 out of 15 games. We don't know where this guy goes from here. But he'll never forget his first three weeks in a big league lineup.

Five great Mays nobody is talking about

1) Matt Joyce, Rays: .412/.464/.729, as many extra-base hits as strikeouts (13).
2) Jhonny Peralta, Tigers: .342/.412/.684, as many HR (7) as he hit in four months for Cleveland last year.
3) Cristhian Martinez, Braves: 12 IP, 4 hits allowed, 10 strikeouts.
4) Sergio Romo, Giants: 7⅓ IP, 3 hits allowed, 15 strikeouts.
5) Zack Greinke, Brewers: 39 strikeouts, 3 walks in 28 IP, and hit a home run.

Injuries of the month

• Player division: Marlins reliever Clay Hensley fell down the stairs at the team hotel, fractured his scapula and landed on the disabled list.

• Coaching division: Padres bullpen catcher Justin Hatcher needed two shots of penicillin -- after getting bit by a squirrel IN the bullpen.

Box score lines of the month

First prize: Vin Mazzaro, in RELIEF for the Royals, May 16 vs. Cleveland: 2⅓ IP, 11 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 1 HR, 77 pitches to get 7 outs.

What's up with that: Mazzaro was the first relief pitcher to give up 14 earned runs in one outing since 1942, and the first pitcher since 1900 to give up 14 runs in any role without getting at least nine outs. Oh, and he also allowed more earned runs in one appearance than Mariano Rivera has allowed in six different SEASONS.

Second prize: Sean O'Sullivan, also for the Royals, Saturday in Texas: 5⅔ IP, 15 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 5 home runs, 9 extra-base hits.

What's up with that: O'Sullivan was the first pitcher since 1940 to give up 15 hits, 10 runs and five home runs in one day's work, the first pitcher in the live ball era to add nine extra-base hits to that package and the first in the live ball era to include back-to-back-to-back gopherballs in a five-homer, 15-hitter.

Third prize: Phillies utility whiz Wilson Valdez moved from second base to the pitcher's mound in the 19th inning Wednesday and, while facing a Reds team that had gotten 11 hits off Roy Halladay that very night, spun off this mind-blowing line: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 HBP and a fastball that hit 89 mph on the radar gun.

What's up with that: Valdez was the first player to start a game in the field and win that game on the mound since Babe Ruth in 1921, the first second baseman to win a game as a pitcher since Cub Sticker in 1888 and the first position player in at least the past 50 years to win a game before his league's starting pitcher in the previous year's All-Star Game.

All that leaves this sport a tough act to follow in June. But we can't wait to see what the great sport of baseball has in store for us next.

Ready to Rumble

• Never before, in the 111-year history of the Twins/Senators franchise, had they lost at least 17 games in April AND May. But the 2011 Twins have done that, meaning only a miracle could keep them from turning into trade-deadline sellers for the first time since 2007.

Clubs that have checked in with the Twins say they're not ready to unload anyone yet. But if they're still in this mess in July, an executive of one team says they'll talk about dealing any of their prospective free agents (Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Jim Thome, Matt Capps), even though they'd have interest in bringing back several members of that group.

"They're not afraid to trade guys like Kubel and Cuddyer and then re-sign them," said an executive of one club. "They did it years ago with Rick Aguilera, and I think they'd do it now. Aguilera was a guy who loved Minnesota and wanted to go back. And I don't think it's any different with Kubel and Cuddyer."

One complicating factor: MLBtraderumors.com projects Kubel as a player with a chance to be a Type A free agent, meaning he would cost the Twins a draft pick (though probably only a second-rounder) if they traded him and then re-signed him.

Carlos Beltran
Beltran

Jose Reyes
Reyes

• Jose Reyes might be the Mets' top attraction these days. But the consensus out there is that the Mets are actually going to have an easier time dealing Carlos Beltran in July than Reyes.

For one thing, about the only contenders you could project to be looking for a shortstop are the Giants and Rays, plus possibly the three NL Central contenders -- the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers. For another, the Mets "are going to feel the need to get more for Reyes than Beltran, given his age and the need to get more than draft picks back," said one AL exec.

Meanwhile, Beltran has played so well over the past month and a half (.291/.379/.544 since April 9), that in a market that figures to have very few attractive outfield bats, he's going to prove surprisingly marketable if he stays healthy.

• With the draft a week away, it's hard not to wonder if this will be the last draft ever to include only players born in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. An international draft of some sort is going to be kicked around in the labor talks this summer. But it's amazing how little consensus there still is, after all these years, on whether an international draft is even feasible.

"I was always a hard-liner against a world draft, but now I feel like we've got to do something," said one longtime scouting director. "The dollars that are being asked now in Latin America are a joke. And this is the only way to address it."

But skeptics predict that what seems like a logical idea will lead to chaos, with multiple teams drafting the same player under different names, too many countries that won't participate and a full-fledged "logistical nightmare," in the words of one GM.

"We know we have to implement something," said one AL exec. "But this has a chance to be like arbitration. Once it's in place, you might be saying, 'Oh, crap. What did we do?'"

• There's also massive disagreement among clubs about what changes to the current draft they'd like to see in the next labor deal, with or without foreign players. We've heard big-market AND small-market teams lobbying against a slotting system, for instance.

"A true slotting system doesn't help the lower-market teams," said an official of one small-market club. "It actually takes away one of the inefficiencies in the system that a small market can actually capitalize on. The way it is now, if you're one of those teams, you can at least make a choice how much to spend on the draft. A slotting system takes that decision out of the clubs' hands.

"If you're a small-market team," he went on, "you can't add top-five-level talent on the free-agent market. But you can do that in the draft if you're willing to spend a little more. So if that gets taken away, it's even a bigger advantage for teams like Boston and New York."

• Most interesting prediction we've heard about the future of the draft: Move it back to July, hold it during the All-Star break and, says one GM, "turn it into an event."

Jonny Venters
Venters

• If Bruce Bochy is looking for a left-handed setup man for his NL All-Star roster, is it too early to nominate Braves left-hander Jonny Venters? In 30 appearances this year, Venters has allowed a hit in only seven of them. And his 0.53 ERA leads all relievers in baseball who have pitched at least 20 innings.

"His sinker is probably the toughest ball I've ever had to catch," Brian McCann told us earlier this year. "That's a 96-97-mile-an-hour bowling ball that just falls off the table.

"I've never caught a sinker like that. He throws a 97-mile-an-hour sinker that legitimately looks like a right-handed slider. I can't tell you how many guys last year faced him for the first time, looked at me and said, 'Where'd you get THIS guy from?'"

• Finally, as long as we're campaigning, is it OK for Rumblings to campaign to get Brandon Phillips' astounding, charging, between-the-legs May 3 throw to first base -- to nail Astros sprint champ Jason Bourgeois -- reinstated as the Web Gem of the Year? Most inventive play of the year by far. So let the campaign begin. And let the record state Phillips is with us all the way.

"I just feel like for a Web Gem to be play of the year, it's got to be something nobody's ever seen before," Phillips told Rumblings, "similar to the [Mark] Buehrle play [last year]. That was a play nobody's ever seen before from a pitcher.

"And my play, I don't think you'll ever see another second baseman do that or try it. Actually, somebody from the Pirates -- they tried it. And what did they do? They threw it in the sand. And that [Asdrubal] Cabrera play? I've done that play before. That [Yuniesky] Betancourt play? I've done that play before. Now don't get me wrong. Those are plays that are nice plays. But to be the Web Gem of the year, it has to be a play that nobody's ever seen before."

Phillips' hilarious description of where that play came from: "Sometimes, my basketball skills just come out on the baseball field. I feel like I can play for the Harlem Globetrotters next."

Five Astounding Facts of the Week

1) Not only did Carl Crawford have back-to-back four-hit games last week. But as loyal Twitter follower Michael Rosenberg pointed out, he had two doubles, two triples, a homer and three singles in nine plate appearances, but never did hit for the cycle. According to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index, Crawford was just the second player in the last 93 seasons to cram that many doubles, triples and homers into back-to-back four-hit games. The other two were Bobby Murcer, on Aug. 27-29, 1972 and Lou Boudreau on April 26-29, 1948.

2) Mariano Rivera just became the first pitcher in history to appear in 1,000 games for just one team. But here's what makes that feat officially astounding: Of the other 14 men to pitch in 1,000 games or more, 11 of them worked for at least five teams, and eight of them pitched for at least EIGHT teams. So which member of the 1,000-App Club pitched for the most teams? Roberto Hernandez, with 10.

3) We've seen nine home runs by pitchers this season -- and those homer-happy Houston Astros have served up FOUR of them. In case you were wondering (and of course you were), they're the first team in the DH era to serve up four homers to opposing pitchers before the end of May.

4) You've probably already heard that on Friday, the Royals launched three home runs in the 14th inning, making them the first team ever to hit three homers in an inning that late in any game. But as ESPN Stats & Info kernel-collector Doug Kern reports, the Royals also got a game-tying homer from Alex Gordon in the ninth inning of that game. Last team to hit only four homers in a game, all of them from the ninth inning on: The Marlins hit four in the ninth at St. Louis on Aug. 26, 1998.

5) And one more tremendous note from our buddies in Stats & Info, now that Jo-Jo Reyes' streak of 28 consecutive winless starts is finally over: Bet you didn't know that 374 different pitchers started and won a game in the big leagues in the 2 years, 11 months and 17 days that poor Jo-Jo Reyes was busy winning NO games.

Tweets of the Week

Looks as if @FakeFredWilpon wasn't as thrilled as he looked to have new Mets minority partner David Einhorn stop by Citi Field the other day.

• First tweet of the day from FakeFred:

Einhorn is looking at this deal the same way that Anna Nicole Smith looked at her marriage to J. Howard Marshall II.

• Final tweet of the day from FakeFred:

Was just told by stadium staff that everytime Einhorn has ordered something he says to "put it on the Wilpon tab".

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from the parody kings at theonion.com:

CLEVELAND ENTERS SECOND MONTH
OF COMPLETE SILENCE
SO AS NOT TO JINX INDIANS

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter:

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com