Signs of summer signal races' second legs
Riding six-game streak, Jays cruising; Giants enjoy getting even
It's Memorial Day, so first and foremost it is our duty to remember. We will remember those who gave their lives while serving in the military forces of the United States, protecting our freedom and the things we cherish.
But another very American thing we shouldn't forget on this day is that there is a full slate of Major League Baseball games, and, like the weather (hopefully) on this holiday Monday, the 2014 season is just starting to heat up.
Memorial Day is a vital part of the American fabric, and it's also a significant hallmark of the Major League season. This year, it falls in the week before the baseball calendar turns to the pivotal month of June, when the official beginning of summer reaches us and the pennant races really begin to percolate.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the races as they stand right now.
In the American League East, the Blue Jays served up a weekend whipping over the previously scalding Oakland A's to serve the rest of the baseball world a reminder that the club everyone expected to be in contention last year might be asserting itself in that direction this time around.
Toronto (29-22) has won six in a row to open up a two-game division lead on the Yankees, and the Blue Jays are winning together. Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera are being catalysts, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are living up to their billing as middle-of-the-lineup mashers, the pitching staff has been solid, and, in the case of veteran left-hander Mark Buehrle, who's 8-1, sterling. The rest of the roster is doing the little things.
The fact that the Jays just beat up on a sizzling A's club that crossed the border with the biggest run differential in all of baseball -- by a wide margin -- made it that much sweeter for Toronto and its fans.
"It's great," Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ said. "This is a good team we just beat three games. They do a lot of things right, and they are in first place for a reason. We battled all three games and tried to stay on them. We did some good things right ourselves. It's been fun."
The A's, meanwhile, still maintain an advantage in the AL West, but that cushion dwindled to 1 1/2 games over the weekend as the Angels, their closest pursuers, continued to play well.
The Angels' starting rotation has built consistency and continuity of late, with Garrett Richards emerging, Jered Weaver back to ace form and lefties C.J. Wilson and Tyler Skaggs rounding out an impressive top four. All of this is happening despite Mike Trout striking out more than usual, Albert Pujols cooling off considerably in the power department since April and Josh Hamilton remaining on the disabled list.
So Oakland's got a serious challenge on its hands.
"This is a special team," Richards said after the Angels came back to beat the Royals on Sunday. "Nobody quits. Everybody thinks we're going to win 'til the last out of the game. It's a great group of guys. Winning takes care of a lot of things."
The Angels have been doing plenty of that, taking 12 of their last 16.
"The team chemistry right now is unbelievable," Trout said. "We all love each other and pick each other up."
The same vibes seem to be coursing through the veins of the team with the best record in the Major Leagues right now, the San Francisco Giants.
You might recall that the Giants won the World Series the last two even-numbered years: 2012 and '10. Maybe all they need is a year to recover from being overworked through October, which would explain their down seasons in '11 and '13. Whatever the case, San Francisco is a Majors-best 32-18 and has a five-game lead on the second-place Colorado Rockies in the NL West.
"We got a good team, better than a lot of people realized at the start of the year," starter Madison Bumgarner said after beating the Minnesota Twins on Sunday and finishing off a series sweep. "We play together. On paper, it may not be the best team, but I'd put us against anybody. We don't have anyone who's selfish. We play as a complete team."
The Giants have a better record than that AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers, who are 28-18, but Detroit has the biggest division lead in baseball right now with a 5 1/2-game advantage over the second-place Kansas City Royals and Twins.
The Tigers recently welcomed back starter Anibal Sanchez and are getting great production from Victor Martinez. They lost two in a row over the weekend to Texas and saw ace Justin Verlander get roughed up while slugger Miguel Cabrera suffered a hamstring cramp. But Verlander doesn't seem terribly concerned, and the Tigers probably shouldn't be, either.
"I'm not going to stay where I'm at," Verlander said. "I'm determined, and I've got the mental confidence to turn the page. I know how good I am, and I'm not going to dwell on past starts. It's not me, and it's never been me. I look forward to the next one and go out and give us a chance to win."
Elsewhere around the races, the Milwaukee Brewers have slowed down a bit after a storming through April but still have a 1 1/2-game lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.
And in the NL East, Atlanta remains in the driver's seat with a 28-21 record and a three-game lead, but the surprising Miami Marlins (26-25) are only three games back despite having lost right-hander Jose Fernandez for the year, and the not-so-surprising Washington Nationals (25-25) are right there, too, even without Bryce Harper in the lineup.
In other words, the scene is set for serious summertime drama in this division and all over the Major League map, and Memorial Day will get it going again.