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Some hoping April showers turn to May flowers

It's been a topsy-turvy April in Major League Baseball.

Aside from the two-time reigning American League-champion Rangers storming out to a 17-6 record and the 2011 World Series-champion Cardinals holding a three-game lead in the National League Central, not much went according to expectations through the season's first month.

The new-look Angels find themselves in last place -- a whopping nine games behind the Rangers -- and superstar Albert Pujols has not only yet to go yard, but also is hitting only .217.

The five-time reigning NL East-champion Phillies are struggling without the right side of their starting infield, sitting in fourth place, while the offseason buzz created in Miami has yet to show on the field for the last-place Marlins.

Although it's no surprise that the Rays lead the AL East, it's the Orioles -- not the Yankees or Red Sox -- in second. The Red Sox, despite winning seven of their past eight games, are the ones holding Baltimore's old spot at the bottom of the division.

And, of course, the Dodgers are the talk of the NL as they've jumped out to a league-best 16-7 record.

What does it all mean? Well, there's still a lot of season to be played. So while a hot start is nice, it's just that -- a start.

"It does matter, but it doesn't matter any less than those games at the end of the season matter," Rays infielder Ben Zobrist said. "If we have a good start and a bad end to the season, we're not going to make the playoffs. If we have a bad start and a great end to the season, who knows? We may or may not."

And just because some teams started hot and others not so hot doesn't mean those trends are going to continue. When it comes to deciphering between contenders and pretenders, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said one month is too small of a sample size to be sure of anything.

"The team identity takes around 40 games to have a snapshot. For individuals, it's at-bats, about 125-150," Hurdle said. "That breaks down to about a quarter of the season for guys playing a significant amount of time."

The Pirates (10-12) have been victims of a difficult early-season schedule. Pittsburgh is in the midst of an opening stretch of 28 games against eight teams that averaged 87 wins last season, including three of the NL's four postseason teams.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, may have been helped by a favorable schedule. Los Angeles has played seven games against the last-place Padres and the only above-.500 teams it has faced are the Nationals and the Braves.

The Orioles also took advantage of a relatively easy schedule, as the only AL East foe they faced more than once was the Blue Jays, against whom they went 5-1. Baltimore was swept by the Yankees in one series -- and lost to them again on Monday -- but left an impression on Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

"They're an improved team. They're athletic," Girardi said. "I think the big thing is they have pitched a lot better than they have in the past."

Despite their April success, a 13-game stretch that started Monday in New York could help show just how much the Orioles have improved. After the Yankees, they'll face the Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and Yankees again.

The Rays sit atop the division despite already facing the Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox and Rangers. Manager Joe Maddon said he's happy with his team's start, especially because of the tough division.

"I talked about it because I thought Baltimore was better, thought Toronto was better. Understanding that Boston and New York are going to be good, I thought the division was going to be thicker with the ascension of Baltimore and Toronto, thus you really don't want to get behind," Maddon said. "I thought it was really important to get off to a good start because of that."

That also was in the Rangers' minds, who felt a bit of a threat from the Angels after they won the offseason by signing Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson. Even if the Angels find their way -- which everyone expects -- Texas is in prime shape to lengthen its lead over them later this month. After the two preseason AL West favorites meet for the first time May 11-13, the Rangers have a 10-game stretch that features series against the Royals, A's, Astros and Mariners.

Although its early, the Angels needs Pujols and their bullpen to start producing. Like the Rangers, the Halos also have, on paper, a relatively easy stretch of games after they play Texas. The weekend after their three-game series with the Rangers, the Angels play the Padres, A's and Mariners in succession -- although those two AL West teams currently sit ahead of the Angels in the standings.

St. Louis has opened its lead in the NL Central by beating up on division rivals. The Cardinals don't play out of their division until Monday -- after 28 games -- and, along with a three-game series against the Dodgers, will face stout pitching against the Braves, Giants and Phillies. Their challenging May could provide an opportunity for the past two division winners -- Cincinnati in 2010 and Milwaukee in 2011 -- to make their moves.

The AL Central features little separation, with Cleveland, Detroit and the White Sox within one game of each other, thanks in some part to the Tigers dropping eight of their past 10 games. Because of that, Kansas City (6-15) and Minnesota (6-16) are still within striking distance, but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire knows his squad will have to turn it around quickly -- like all teams must if they don't want a losing April to turn into something more.

"How far do you want to dig yourself a hole here? It's early but it's also too early to lose games like this, too," Gardenhire said. "We need to win some baseball games. We need to shake hands a little bit. It's the atmosphere you worry about. Guys keep take a beating in there and they can get up so many times, but we need to win a game and shake some hands. We need to have that feeling."