I know it's early. We're not even at the All-Star break yet, but this interleague series has been as good as it gets. Could this possibly be a World Series preview? Again, it's too early to say for sure, but the Cubs are off to a great start and the Rays have almost as many wins as they did for all of last season. I just can't help it... After watching the first two games of the series, I can almost feel the cool air of October creeping in to my house.
The Cubbies have the best record in the majors, at 45-27, which is a better start than they had for their 1908 championship campaign. It's a franchise so long overdue for a World Series title, that you would have expected the fans to lose hope a long time ago. And, most years, they probably do lose hope. But not this season. I think that even the much-abused North Side faithful may actually believe that this team can get it done.
So, what's changed?
Everyone criticized Lou Piniella's decisions at the beginning of the year, but nobody has been talking lately. Putting Kerry Wood in as the closer, where he has done very well, was questioned. Heck, a lot of fans didn't even want the Cubs to re-signed Wood, who was once one of the most promising young starters in the game. Cubs management had faith, though, and it has definitely paid off.
What about the pitching? Putting Ryan Dempster in as a starter seemed like a stretch. Now, he has 8 wins, tied with ace Carlos Zambrano for the team lead. Dempster has even had a few outings where he reached double-digits in strikeouts. Basically, he's quickly become an ace starter, as well as a fantasy stud. With Zambrano healthy, they have a nice rotation and a quality bullpen - led by Wood and Carlos Marmol.
As far as the offense goes, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez have teamed with rookie Geovany Soto to anchor a dangerous lineup with plenty of pop; especially with Soriano in the leadoff position. New acquisitions Reed Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome, meanwhile, have been pulling their weight as well. Just last week, Johnson hit a game-winning homer off to defeat Toronto, his former team.
It will be interesting to see if some of the guys can keep producing like they have been, but so far, the Cubs are getting the runs they need to make a postseason push.
Unfortunately, the mark of a good team is being able to carry on when those midseason bumps and bruises seem to add up. The Cubs have been OK so far, but with Zambrano's injury, they may face a tough road ahead. Alfonso Soriano needs to make a quick recovery, and Jim Edmonds suffered some kind of injury yesterday which has yet to be disclosed. They can always bring youngster Alex Pie back up, but he really needs more time in the minors has improved his hitting stroke.
Fortunately, though, the injury bug is a very communicable disease, and the Cardinals have lost one of the leagues best players in Albert Pujols. With that injury, the NL Central should be Chicago's to lose.
Unless they have a meltdown like the Mets did last year, they will be making the playoffs, and have a good possibility of playing in the World Series. As for the Cubs having a chance to break the curse, it's been 100 years, so this is as good a story, and time, as any.
Tampa Bay Rays
Manager Joe Maddon has gone up in wins each year since he became the Rays' skipper. At 42-29, Tampa Bay is just 24 games off last season's win total.
The franchise has never spent this much time over .500, especially this deep in the season. Of course, that's not entirely unexpected when you're playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.
Tampa Bay will likely end up fighting New York for a wild card spot. The Yanks have been hot lately, too, and could be ready to make a run towards the top of the AL East. In years past, Tampa has had the Yankees number, so it will be interesting to see if this young team can hold off a veteran club. Currently, they are just one game behind division-leading Red Sox, and have managed to keep pace despite the suspensions handed out for the brawl with Boston.
The Rays have a phenomenal young pitching staff, and have used that rotation this year to do something that nobody thought was possible... win games. I'm not sure that most people realize just how good this staff is, and it's only getting better. Ace Scott Kazmir has started only nine games, but has gone 6-2 in that stretch... Not bad after missing the beginning of the season with an injury. Andy Sonnanstine, meanwhile, has been a pleasant surprise at 8-3.
The bullpen has been strong as well, and has not only kept the team in games, but helped it win when the starters didn't get the job done. As proof, J.P. Howell has already racked up five wins in relief appearances.
Like the Cubs, the Rays have done fairly well without key position players, including the afore mentioned suspensions. Through it all, they have managed to play some of the most exciting baseball in MLB. B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Willy Aybar and Carl Crawford are in the upper echelon of the game's young talent, and I know they've got me tuning in. If you haven't been watching, this team's lineup is a mix of speed, power and raw talent. Expect to see those names for a while.
Now, there's talk of adding Ken Griffey Jr. to the team, and I think it would be a great move. Even though he isn't in his prime, Griffey could bring leadership to the dugout. Plus, he could DH and maybe even get hot down the stretch. Who knows?
I'm a Yankee fan, but don't think this is the year my Bombers return to glory. So, as a sports fan, I would rather see a young, hungry team like the Rays make it to the Series. Other young teams have won or made it to the Series in the past decade - the Rockies last year, the Diamondbacks and Marlins. Why can't this be the Rays' year?
World Series 2008
This interleague battle has seen Tampa Bay win two one-run games, and as closely as these teams are matched, I couldn't imagine a World Series repeat being any less exciting!
If pitchers for both teams can stay healthy and continue to put up their current numbers, these could be the potential pitching match-ups:
Carlos Zambrano (8-3) vs. Scott Kazmir (6-2)
Ryan Dempster (8-3) vs. Matt Garza (7-5)
Ted Lilly (7-5) vs. Andy Sonnanstine (8-3)
Jason Marquis (5-3) vs. James Shields ( 4-5)
Sean Gallagher (3-3) vs. Edwin Jackson (4-6)
So here's to the Cubs and Rays... Let's see if they can keep it going, and make it to the World Series - one I would definitely watch.