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Orioles rolling right along



Special to ESPN.com

May 1

There are several factors that have gone into the Orioles' best start since they held down first place for the entire season in 1997, not to mention proving that this is the best home for Sammy Sosa.

Baltimore's offense leads the majors in runs scored, mainly because the top third of its order is unrivaled: Brian Roberts (.465 on-base percentage, 1.182 OPS and eight home runs), Melvin Mora (.376 OBP and .952 OPS) and Miguel Tejada (.417 OBP, 1.154 OPS and nine homers). Pitching coach Ray Miller has done a marvelous job teaching the art of changing speeds to Erik Bedard, Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen, while young right-hander Daniel Cabrera continues to learn. The O's bullpen has stopped the bleeding, with closer B.J. Ryan (21 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings pitched), Jorge Julio (one earned run allowed in 12 2/3 innings pitched) and the surprising Todd Williams (one earned run allowed in 12 innings pitched).

Miguel Tejada
Miguel Tejada leads the majors with 32 RBI.

But the players point to one man as the main reason for the club's turnaround. "There's no doubt in my mind that Miggy [Tejada] is the best player in the game," Roberts says. "Start with his position. He's by far the best at a [the] middle-infield skill position. Then, if you watched us every day, you'd see [Tejada's] RBI are not a fluke. He has an uncanny ability to knock in runs. Then, most of all, there's his energy. He is always up, pushing everyone and making the entire team better."

"I've never been around anyone like him," B.J. Surhoff says of Tejada.

"I played with Pete Rose and coached Kirby Puckett," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley says, "and Miggy is just like them. He is the best player in the game, hands-down. Like Rose and Puckett, he puts it out there every day, and they are those rare players off whom teammates feed. You can crunch every number you want, you can't put a premium on the energy one player can bring to an entire team. This franchise changed the day he arrived."

Adds a Red Sox official: "We watched him from the stands during BP. And we could not believe his energy, his enthusiasm, and how teammates feed off him. He is special."

Not to mention durable. "If some kid comes to the park to see me," Tejada says, "I had better be on the field." In the last five years (2001-2005, as of May 1), Tejada had played in 548 games, most of any player, and his 500 RBI rank third behind Albert Pujols' 504 and Alex Rodriguez's 501.

Summing up April
Through Sunday, Baltimore has the second-best record in the majors at 17-7 (a .708 winning percentage). The White Sox have the best at 18-7 (.720). Since 1976, 13 teams have finished April with a .700 (or better) winning percentage, and 10 have made the playoffs. The following is the gross data, and teams that were at those percentage levels heading into Sunday:

May 1 winning pct.; teams, made playoffs, pct. Teams heading into Sunday
Over .700; 13, 10, 77% White Sox
.600-.700; 46, 24, 52% Cardinals, Orioles, Twins, Marlins, Dodgers
.550-.599; 39, 16, 41% Braves, D-Backs
.500-.549; 42, 11, 26% Angels, Red Sox, Nationals, Cubs, A's, Giants, Mariners, Blue Jays, Tigers
.450-.499; 36, 8, 22% Rangers, Padres, Mets
.400-.44; 36, 2, 6% Yankees, Phillies, Reds, Astros, Brewers
Under .400; 54, 1, 2% Indians, Devil Rays, Pirates, Rockies, Royals

A Royal mess
The most disappointing team in April was likely the Royals. "I know a lot of our fans are disappointed and frustrated," K.C. general manager Allard Baird says. "But we have to build the right way. This is the way we have to go, and if anyone has to be fired, then fire me."

Baird is encouraged by his young pitching. Zack Greinke, Denny Bautista and Runelvys Hernandez (who still is getting his command back after undergoing Tommy John surgery) are the core of a future rotation, while Andy Sisco (20 strikeouts, two earned runs allowed in 18 innings pitched) was a great Rule V pickup from the Cubs, and Ambiorix Burgos shot out of Double-A hitting 98 mph on the radar gun.

Come July, the Royals will be looking to make some deals for young players. Mike Sweeney would love to go to the Dodgers. Brian Anderson could be available, as could Jeremy Affeldt, who will be a fourth-year arbitration case at the end of the season.

Baird's problem is that ownership doesn't breed relationships with young players. Affeldt had to go to arbitration over a $200,000 difference. Ken Harvey was shipped to Triple-A Omaha to open the season for arbitration reasons. That undermines what Baird and manager Tony Pena are trying to accomplish.

News and notes
• Red Sox executives who watched Wade Miller's first outing at Triple-A Pawtucket said he was "good, not great." Miller threw between 87 and 92 mph, and sat mostly at 89, with a very good breaking ball. He doesn't have the run -- especially back over the plate to lefties -- that he had in Houston, when he threw across his body, but he has diligently worked on pounding both sides of the plate with his fastball.

• The Red Sox are very encouraged by the maturity of catcher Kelly Shoppach (.413 OBP, seven home runs in April, threw out two runners attemtping to steal the night Miller pitched). They feel Shoppach is the best catcher in Triple-A, and if the Sox don't need to use him, Shoppach could be midseason trade bait when and if Boston tries to deal for a first baseman.

• The Red Sox, Cubs, Nationals and several other teams are waiting on Tampa Bay to see if Aubrey Huff will become available.

• Baltimore is looking for a right-handed bat to compliment Rafael Palmeiro, Jay Gibbons and Larry Bigbie. Shea Hillenbrand is one possibility.

• There isn't a lot more that can go wrong for the Cubs, so here is one piece of good news: Matt Murton, the outfielder they acquired with Nomar Garciaparra last July, is hitting close to .450 a Double-A.

• Tony Pena was astounded to get a phone call from Pedro Martinez, wanting to know if there was anything Pedro could do to help Tony and Pedro's cousin, Denny Bautista.

Jim Bowden
Bowden

• When Nationals GM Jim Bowden revisited the White House this past week, he, too, was astounded to see a picture of himself, Frank Robinson and the Nationals players with President Bush on the wall of the West Wing. "That," says Bowden, "was the thrill of a lifetime."

• Koby Clemens threw the second no-hitter of his high school season Friday -- against his dad's alma mater, Spring Woods. Koby is signed to pitch at Texas next year. No surprise.

• If and when Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola, Jr. leaves the team to replace Sandy Alderson in the commissioner's office to work with John McHale, there is speculation that Pat Gillick will replace Garagiola. Gillick has had a long-standing replationship with D-Backs general partner Jeff Moorad.

• The Hall of Fame is holding its own fantasy camp, October 5-9 in Cooperstown, N.Y. HOF members George Brett, Lou Brock, Phil Niekro and Duke Snider are among the players participating, but there are only 48 spots available. Check the HOF website or call 888-Hall-Of-Fame for information.

• Once Mike Cameron gets back from his injury rehabilitation this week, Mets manager Willie Randolph has to find a way to get Victor Diaz four games a week in left and right field. "This kid can really hit," says one NL scout. "Cliff Floyd is in great shape and having a tremendous year, but Diaz may develop into their most dangerous hitter."

• The morning after Kevin Millwood threw 45 pitches in the first two innings but endured to give the Indians seven innings and a chance to win, GM Mark Shapiro called the veteran pitcher. "I just wanted to tell him how much I respect him," Shapiro says. "Pitching 200 innings is no minimal accomplishment. It takes a lot of physical and mental toughness, and Kevin has both."

• That sort of respect is why Indians players trust that they, Eric Wedge, the coaches and front office are all pulling in the same direction, so that C.C. Sabathia passed up an opportunity to become a 2006 free agent at the age of 26 to take a two-year, $17.75 million contract extension. Sabathia, who won't be 25 until July 21, already has 56 career wins. For some perspective, the only active pitchers with more wins before their 25th birthday are Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, who had 60. Next in the under-25 group? Jake Peavy, who has 35 wins.

• The best rivalry thus far this season has been Dodgers-Diamondbacks, with all six games between the teams coming down to the last pitch.

• When Johnny Damon agreed to do a book with Peter Golenbock, he should have proofread the photo galleries, because it is embarrassing to refer to bench coach (and current manager) Brad Mills as "Brian."

Sizing up the end of the game
Florida now has to go with Todd Jones, Jim Mecir and Matt Perisho while they await closer Guillermo Mota's return from the disabled list. The Giants know Armando Benitez is likely gone for the year, and will mix and match with Jim Brower and friends until they determine which young minor-league pitchers might fit in their bullpen along with Scott Munter.

The Cubs, meanwhile, have scrambled for a month waiting for Joe Borowski to return. "There really isn't much of a [trade] market," Marlins GM Larry Beinfest says. "No one's giving up on May 1st, and why should they?" In Florida's case, losing Mota, who was throwing very well, is their worst-case scenario.

It's the same case with the Giants. "The one thing we're convinced of is that throwing strikes is more important than throwing the hardest when it comes to the closer role," Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti says.

Ugueth Urbina
Urbina

The Tigers are trying to win, and won't trade Ugueth Urbina (whose velocity is in the 91-92 mph range, up considerably from last season) until and if they can extract a huge talent from another club. Tampa Bay has been willing to discuss dealing Danys Baez, but only for a Scott Kazmir fortune. That might make Affeldt very attractive come midseason.

Of course, if the Phillies continue to flounder and are buried in the NL East come the All-Star break, it will be very interesting to see what GM Ed Wade -- already in the public crosshairs -- will do with Billy Wagner.

If one believes that power bullpens win in October, it should be noted that the Twins and Angels ended April ranked first and fourth (with Cleveland and Seattle between them), respectively, in bullpen ERA (and Joe Nathan has gotten back to his '04 velocity). Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields have combined to have 34 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings, and Angels relievers have thrown more innings than relievers on any team above .500. Going into the weekend, Angels relievers had inherited 23 runners, and one had scored.

If one believes that opponents' OPS is a valid measure of stuff, then check the lowest four staffs in OPS through April: Cleveland .534, Minnesota .599, Seattle .610, L.A. Angels .669. The Indians are 5-for-8 in save opportunities. Boston's bullpen has the worst opponents' OPS (.838) in the American League, a bad sign when Curt Schilling and David Wells are disabled. Best in the NL -- Houston (.621) and Florida (.635).

Perhaps the most remarkable handling of a bullpen the first month was Jim Tracy's survival without Eric Gagne. The Dodgers' pen is 6-1 with nine saves in 11 opportunities with Yhency Brazoban 8-for-9. "Brazoban has done an outstanding job," Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta says. "But there is no doubt that getting Eric Gagne back makes us much better, because it pushes Yhency into the seventh and eighth innings and pushes everyone else back."

Gagne might be back within two weeks, and Wilson Alvarez is expected to return this week. With Brad Penny back in the rotation, the Dodgers finally are close to having their pitching in its expected order, and with Jayson Werth on rehab, Tracy might also have his lineup in place.

All about the record
Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, has always looked for pitchers who can pitch in the powerful AL East. Here is a list of pitchers who currently (or in Pedro Martinez's case, once pitched) work in the division and their record against AL East foes:

P. Martinez 39-22
David Wells 57-50
T. Wakefield 41-25
Sidney Ponson 21-36
Rodrigo Lopez 20-14
M. Mussina 61-40
K. Brown 33-25
Roy Halladay 28-16
Ted Lilly 10-9
(Source: Elias Sports Bureau)






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