From Comcast SportsNetThe Baltimore Orioles began the week with the best record in the majors, with Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals close behind. Albert Pujols was slumping, Bobby Valentine was getting booed and Derek Jeter was hitting nearly .400.Signs of the season, or mere mirages? A quick look at the big questions so far in baseball:-------- Can the Orioles stay atop the AL East? Cleveland teased fans last spring, Pittsburgh stuck around until summer. Sure looks like a charmed year in Charm City, too, coming off DH Chris Davis' improbable stint on the mound. Buck Showalter has the Birds believing, bolstered by a shutdown bullpen. The O's haven't had a winning season since future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Roberto Alomar led them to a division title in 1997 -- let's watch the next two weeks when Texas, Tampa Bay and the Yankees visit Camden Yards. The call: The Orioles fall back a couple spots before the All-Star break.-------- How many home runs will Albert Pujols hit? After ending the longest power drought of his career, the three-time NL MVP was still hitting in the .190s. He's in a new, better league, facing many pitchers he's never seen, playing in a park that's not ultra-homer friendly. His 240 million contract draws a lot of attention, but these are the numbers worth noticing -- 47 homers in 2009, down to 42 in 2010, down to 37 last year with St. Louis. The call: Pujols drops again, and finishes with 33.-------- Will Washington win the NL East? All eyes are on Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals right now. They're fresh, fun and full of rising talent. Plus, they're winning minus injured closer Drew Storen. Manager Davey Johnson provides a steady hand, and the Nats will do OK while Jayson Werth's broken wrist heals. The last time a baseball team from the nation's capital reached the postseason was 1933, when FDR was in office. It might be time for President Barack Obama to begin warming up his left arm. The call: The Nats just miss the playoffs.-------- What will Derek Jeter hit? In recent years, the Captain has become perhaps the most polarizing player in the majors. Really, try to find a single fan who stays anywhere near neutral when talking about the Yankees star. At this point last year, Jeter seemed washed up at the plate and in the field. Since homering for his 3,000th hit right before the All-Star break, he's completely rejuvenated. Manager Joe Girardi is being diligent in giving the 37-year-old shortstop proper rest, and the results appear to be showing. The call: Jeter hits a robust .321.-------- Can Bobby Valentine survive the season? This sure isn't what Bobby V had in mind when he returned to the big leagues. Battered bullpen, banged-up roster, mini-feud with popular Kevin Youkilis and angry crowds at Fenway Park. Many fans in Boston wondered how much worse it could get after last year's collapse. Well, last place isn't looking so great. That said, he won't be the first manager to get chopped in 2012 -- that's much more likely to be Kansas City's Ned Yost. The call: Red Sox management will preach patience, Boston starts playing better and Valentine makes it through the year.-------- How many more no-hitters will there be? Jered Weaver, OK, maybe some could've foreseen that. But Philip Humber's perfect game, no way. Predicting no-hitters is a tricky business. A lot of people claim they're more possible nowadays, with hitters in the post-Steroids Era. Maybe a pair of gems in less than two weeks means more are on the way. Even so, all it takes is a checked-swing blooper to wreck a bid. The call: One more this year, pitched by Matt Cain.-------- What's in the future for Mariano Rivera? The greatest closer of all-time is holding out hope that he'll pitch again this year. Such comebacks from torn ACLs have occurred, although not with 42-year-old ballplayers. If the Yankees reach the playoffs, look for daily stories on how Rivera is close to rejoining them. Mo' likely, a return in 2013. The call: "Enter Sandman" blasts away at Yankee Stadium next season as Rivera, with almost a full year to rest his arm, loses very little off his cutter.-------- Who will win the World Series? Tampa Bay looks sharp with all its pitching, St. Louis has done well as the defending champion and Miami is starting to play well under Ozzie Guillen. And how magical it would be if Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Dodgers captured the crown? The call: There can be just one champion, and that team is Texas. With Yu Darvish on his way to winning 20 games and Josh Hamilton leading a beastly lineup, the Rangers will shake off the disappointment of losing two straight World Series and hammer whichever NL team dares to get in their way.
NEW YORK – The Cubs didn’t overreact to getting swept in last year’s National League Championship Series, but the New York Mets did expose some underlying issues while a deep playoff run created a sense of urgency in Wrigleyville.
The Cubs spent like crazy on the free-agent market (almost $290 million) and wore T-shirts around spring training that literally put targets on their chests, knowing the look would go viral on social media and spark love/hate responses.
Making a statement? Sending a message? That’s so last year, when the Cubs were a team still trying to find an identity and learn how to win. The Mets are now the ones feeling the season-on-the-brink anxiety, desperate for offense and hoping to avoid worst-case scenarios with all those talented young pitchers.
So maybe this becomes a turning point for the defending NL champs, beating the Cubs 4-3 on Thursday night at Citi Field to kick off this marquee four-game series in front of 40,122 and a national TV audience.
Steven Matz, who set off alarm bells this week with the disclosure he’s been pitching with a bone spur in his left elbow, managed to work into the sixth inning and throw 104 pitches, giving up homers to Kris Bryant and Javier Baez but limiting the damage to only three runs.
Yoenis Cespedes, who revived a lifeless lineup after last summer’s trade-deadline blockbuster, energized the Mets again with a big swing in the sixth inning, drilling a John Lackey pitch 441 feet out to left field and onto the third deck, creating a 110-mph exit velocity with his 19th home run.
Lackey, the big-game starter the Cubs needed to lengthen their rotation for October, got pulled with one out in the seventh and the Mets took advantage of Joel Peralta’s shaky audition out of the bullpen and a Javier Baez throwing error in what became a three-run inning.
The Cubs couldn’t come up with an answer for Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who finished off all four NLCS wins last October. The Cubs wasted Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit, leadoff walk in the ninth inning and Ben Zobrist’s line-drive double to right field. Familia responded by striking out Bryant swinging, intentionally walking Anthony Rizzo to load the bases, striking out Willson Contreras swinging and getting Javier Baez to pop out to end the game.
NEW YORK – After his long, winding journey to the Cubs – and stunning transformation into a Cy Young Award winner – Jake Arrieta won’t attach any special meaning to starting the All-Star Game: “I’m kind of over that.”
But the back injury that forced Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw onto the disabled list could create an opportunity for Arrieta. Beyond Kershaw and Arrieta, New York Mets manager Terry Collins listed three more “legitimate names” for the National League starting assignment on July 12 at Petco Park in San Diego. San Francisco Giants teammates Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto are in the mix along with Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard.
“Clayton was one of those names,” Collins told reporters before Thursday’s Cubs-Mets game at Citi Field. “And I can tell you Jake was right near the top of the list. I kind of like my guy a little bit, too.
“I kind of feel like I know who’s going to start the game.”
That’s how Collins ended his media session, without taking any more follow-up questions, but he will get an up-close look at Arrieta (12-2, 2.10 ERA) on Saturday night, which also marks the three-year anniversary of that franchise-altering trade with the Baltimore Orioles for a pitcher who spent parts of the 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 seasons on the Triple-A level.
“I’ve kind of addressed (how) I’ve come to this point,” Arrieta said. “It’s a long way from where I used to be. I do understand that. But at the same time, I’ve kind of put most of it behind me.
“(Starting the All-Star Game) would be great. It would be an honor, obviously. If it happens, it’s something special.
“But most important for me is my start Saturday.”
NEW YORK – Let’s start with this boilerplate Theo Epstein quote and file it away for the next time Kyle Schwarber’s name appears on MLBTradeRumors.com or a fantasy-baseball proposal for the New York Yankees.
“I’m looking forward to Kyle Schwarber — who got hurt in a Cubs uniform and is working his ass off in a Cubs uniform — coming back and hitting a very big home run in a Cubs uniform sometime very early next season,” Epstein said.
The president of baseball operations clearly has a special bond with Schwarber, selecting the Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, back when the industry consensus made it sound like a reach. Schwarber helped ignite those champagne celebrations last year by setting a franchise record with five postseason home runs. Epstein felt sick watching Schwarber wreck his knee in an outfield collision during the first week of this season, allowing him to rehab in Chicago and hang out in the draft room, essentially viewing him as an untouchable player because of his left-handed power and leadership qualities.
The Mets are the defending National League champs — with all due respect, as Joe Maddon might say, quoting Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character in “Talladega Nights.” But the Yankees might be the New York team the Cubs should focus on now.
While the Mets returned home to Citi Field on Thursday as a third-place team — six games behind Washington after getting swept at Nationals Park — the Yankees will be in no man’s land on July 1 at 39-39.
The Bronx Bombers now have another month to decide whether or not they will become trade-deadline sellers for the first time in a generation, how breaking up the Andrew Miller/Aroldis Chapman/Dellin Betances bullpen could set them up for the future. And what surrender would mean for a YES Network/Yankee Stadium/27 World Series titles business plan.
Epstein viewed Thursday’s action – the San Diego Padres flipped closer Fernando Rodney to the Miami Marlins while the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired right-hander Bud Norris from the Atlanta Braves – as more of a reaction to the July 2 international signing period (and Clayton Kershaw’s back injury) than a sign that the market would start to move quickly.
“We’re talking to clubs, just trying to see who might be available and where we might have matches,” Epstein said. “But there’s nothing real imminent. There’s usually a flurry of activity around (this time). Despite the trades today, I think it might end up being more of a slow-developing market. We’ll see. We’re not close to anything.”
Remember, the Cubs rebuilt their bullpen on the fly last summer with Clayton Richard (acquired for a dollar from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate), Trevor Cahill (released by the Braves and Dodgers before signing a minor-league deal) and Rodney (a two-time All-Star the Seattle Mariners had designated for assignment).
While Schwarber-for-Miller buzz is great on talk radio and Twitter, for now the Cubs will go with the grab-bag approach, looking at internal options like Carl Edwards Jr. and Joel Peralta, hoping for good news on their Tommy John cases (Joe Nathan, Jack Leathersich) and waiting for Justin Grimm to get locked in again.
“It’s pretty rare that you rebuild a bullpen midseason through big-ticket items,” Epstein said. “Last year was actually more typical. They don’t all work out — that’s not what I’m saying. But if you have a plan and a process — and you’re willing to kind of cycle through guys (and) ride things out — you often get rewarded in the end.
“For a postseason bullpen, if you’re thinking that far in advance, you’re not talking about eight guys. You’re talking about three or four guys that you can lean on heavily. It’s being open-minded, being willing to let guys ride through their downturns and make adjustments, so that they can find it.”