Who’s this Berkman character?

Who in their right mind thought Lance Berkman would be leading the NL in OPS and SLG through the first 30 games of the season? I honestly thought it was a horrible signing for the Cardinals. I thought the 35-year-old had nothing left after watching him at the plate last year, plus I couldn’t imagine his legs being back in the outfield after a couple of years at first base and DH. Turns out, he’s been the best hitter for the Cards. Heck, for the entire NL and may also just be one of the best free agent signings of the year. I would have never of thought that prior to the season.

Berkman enters Friday’s game hitting .392/.462/.775 slash line with 10 home runs and a league-leading 32 RBIs in just 29 games. To put this into perspective, he hit 14 home runs total in 122 games with the Astros and Yankees combined. Even in the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, he connected for just one longball in 106 at-bat with the Yanks. Overall in 2010, he hit a homer about every 29 at-bats. But this season, he’s belting one dinger about every 10 at-bats. What a difference a year makes.

Obviously, I think Berkman is just more comfortable in the NL, especially in the NL Central where he knows a lot of the pitchers. Not to mention that hitting in the lineup around Albert Pujols doesn’t hurt matters. His home run total last year was the lowest of his career besides his rookie year and he last blasted 20+ home runs in 2009 (25 with Houston), he’s well on his way to eclipsing that total. Of course if he can stay healthy, which is always the question mark for an aging veteran.

Yankees fast start

The Yankees are tearing the cover off the ball so far this season, propelling them to an early one-game lead in the AL East. The offense easily leads the league in home runs with 46 while ranking fourth in runs scored. That’s all fine and dandy, it’s the Yankees and we have come to expect that from them. But at some point this year (playoffs or before during pennant races), the bats will cool off or run into better pitching and will the Yankees be able to rely on pitching?

They are currently getting by with AJ Burnett, who’s having a bounce back year so far, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. Phil Hughes has been horrendous (13.94 ERA), Nova is posting an ERA above 5.00 and Colon has been a nice story in April, but I don’t see him staying right for the entire season. CC Sabathia has  been solid and he’s their ace no question, but their pitching depth is very thin and they can’t afford a midseason injury or a Hughes type blowup again if they are going to compete in the AL East come September and beyond.

Runs at a premium

I shouldn’t have surprised to find out that two teams are actually scoring fewer runs than the A’s. The A’s are scoring 3.4 runs per game while hitting a slash line of .237/.304/.355. I thought that was bad, but can you name the two teams that are worse? It’s the Twins and the Padres. One playoff team from a year ago and the other a division leader for most of the season before falling behind the Giants yet still winning 90 games.

The Padres are scratching out runs at a 3.34 per game with a .218/.299/.327 slash line, but the Twins take the cake with 3.1 runs per game and a pathetic .230/.292/.323 line. When you are getting on base at a .292 clip, that is awful. With those numbers, it shouldn’t surprise anyone of the Twins 11-18 record and the Padres 12-19 record. The 16-16 A’s are getting by on stellar pitching, something the Padres and Twins (minus Liriano’s no-hitter) lack this season. How bad has it been for the Twins? Liriano’s no-hitter dropped his ERA to a 6.61 mark.

AL CENTRAL STANDINGS (as of May 2nd)

Indians        19-8        —
Royals         15-13     4.0
Tigers          12-15     6.5
White Sox  10-19    9.5
Twins            9-18     9.5

Yes, I know…it’s early. It’s only May 1st, but the Indians winning while the Tigers, White Sox and Twins lose has become a common occurrence in this early season. It’s been so common that the Indians are threatening to run away with a huge division lead. They finished the weekend by sweeping the Tigers right out of Cleveland to move to 19-8.

So do the Indians actually have a legitimate shot at winning the title. YES.

It has just as much to do with this Indians team as it does with the way the rest of the division is playing. Did you know that the Tribe currently leads the American League in offense? Probably not, but they are first with a .272 batting average and first in runs with 141. The lineup had the potential to be solid, but I’m not sure if anyone saw this coming. Young guys like Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley are healthy and producing while Travis Hafner is having a resurgence of a year. Grady Sizemore has also returned and given the Tribe a boost with a .379/.429/.822 slash line.

The surprising part about Cleveland so far this year is its pitching. They are fourth in the AL with a 3.49 ERA. The Tribe’s worst starter to date has been their ace to start the season in Fausto Carmona, who sits with a 5.15 ERA. But they are receiving stellar pitching performances from Josh Tomlin (4-0, 2.45), Mitch Talbot (1-0, 1.46) and Justin Masterson (5-0, 2.18). Masterson was always a high prospect of the Red Sox and showed shades of brilliance last year, but looks like he may be finally putting it all together. The question for this team will be can Tomlin/Talbot put together a full, solid season and can Carmona bounce back from his early struggles.

So there’s the breakdown of why the Indians are winning, but another reason they have a real shot at the AL Central title is because the rest of the division is floundering at the moment. The Tigers are looking like just an ordinary .500 team with not enough offense, starting pitching and a sketchy bullpen. The Twins seem to have run out of some of their magic and the White Sox are in the process of burying themselves early again. When a team is struggling early, you just can’t allow yourself to get buried in April and May, but the White Sox and Twins are already nine games below .500.

Last year, the White Sox started off 24-33 (nine games down as well), they did rebound to end up with 88 wins and a battle for the pennant, but they also went on a ridiculous run where they went 26-5 in a stretch of 30-plus games in June and July. Can you rely on something like that again? I’m not so sure. I think they will eventually turn it around, but I don’t know if they can get back and compete for the division.

That leaves the Royals, who like the Indians are a surprise team so far this season. Along with the Indians, they are the only other team above .500 in the Central though they haven’t been quite as exciting as the Tribe. The Royals have a lot of young talent that will hopefully help turn the corner of baseball in Kansas City, but I just don’t see this team hanging in a division hunt down the stretch.

Coupled with this talented Indians team and how the rest of the division is playing, I think the Tribe have a great shot at challenging the division. Pundits will still go with the “it’s still early” line and think the Twins and White Sox will still battle for this division. They is definitely possible, but at some point you can’t continue to use the early line and need to start stringing together some wins and actually look like a Major League team in the process, which the Twins and White Sox have not looked like so this year.

Game 3: Rays 6, Rangers 3
The Rays showed signs of life for the first time this postseason to stave off elimination for at least one game with a 6-3 victory over the Rangers. The Rangers hosted their first playoff game since 1999 and took a brief 2-1 lead on an Ian Kinsler solo home in the 7th inning, but the Rays responded in the next inning. Carlos Pena and John Jaso each had an RBI single to give the Rays a 3-2 lead and Pena added a two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning to put the game away. Carl Crawford also homered in the game for Tampa Bay. Rays starter Matt Garza went 6.0 plus innings with two runs allowed (one earned) for the no-decision and former Rangers reliever Joaquin Benoit picked up the win in relief. Nelson Cruz hit his second homer of the playoffs on a solo blast in the ninth for the Rangers final run of the game. Texas will try again to close out the series Sunday afternoon with Tommy Hunter on the mound against Wade Davis.

Game 3: Yankees 6, Twins 1  (Yankees win series 3-games-to-0)
Death, taxes and the New York Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins. The Yankees closed out their first round series at home with a 6-1 victory in Game 3 to sweep the Twinkies right out of the postseason. This one wasn’t much of a contest as the Yankees hit starter Brian Duensing early and often. With the score 2-0 in the fourth inning, Marcus Thames belted a two-run shot for the Bronx Bombers. Duensing exited after just 3.1 innings five runs allowed on seven hits. Nick Swisher also homered for New York in the Yankees 12-hit attack. Phil Hughes was stellar on the mound for the pinstripes, tossing 7.0 shutout innings allowing just four hits for the victory. Hughes struck out six. Even though it was a non-save opportunity, Mariano Rivera closed the door on Minnesota’s season with a scoreless ninth. This series marks the fourth time the Yankees knocked out the Twins in the past decade joining last season, 2004 and 2003. The Twins have lost 12 straight postseason games dating back to 2004 with the last nine games being against the Yankees. New York will play the waiting game before facing Tampa Bay or Texas in the ALCS.

Game 2: Rangers 6, Rays 0
The Texas Rangers moved within one victory of winning their first postseason series in franchise history as they blanked the Rays 6-0 in Game 2 of the ALDS at Tropicana Field. For the second straight day, the Rangers shut down the Rays behind stellar pitching holding the Rays to just two hits in the game. C.J. Wilson tossed 6.1 scoreless frames with just two hits, two walks while fanning seven for the victory. Ian Kinsler launched a solo home run to give Texas a 2-0 advantage while Michael Young delivered the big blow, a three-run homer one pitch after the umpire said Young held up on a ball, but replays show the bat went too far and wasn’t called. Tampa manager Joe Maddon argued the call immediately following the home run and was ejected from the game. Not that it mattered much because the Rangers bullpen shut down the Rays the rest of the way with a 2.2 hit-less innings from Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver. James Shields was not effective for Tampa as he lasted just 4.1 innings after allowing four runs, four hits and one home run for the loss. The Rays have shown zero offense in two games at home and now are forced to travel to Texas and need to win three straight games to advance to the ALCS.

Game 2: Yankees 5, Twins 2
Once again the Twins held a lead at home, and once again the Yankees rallied to defeat the Twinkies to take a two games to none lead with the series shifting back to Yankee Stadium this weekend. Andy Pettitte was his usual boring playoff self…by boring I mean effective as hell, going 7.0 stellar innings with five hits, two runs allowed and four strikeouts for the win. Lance Berkman was the other story for the Yanks last night as he broke a tie twice, first with a solo home run in the fifth inning and then after Orlando Hudson tied the game for Minnesota with a solo blast, Berkman responded in the very next innings with an RBI double to give NY a 3-2 lead. Curtis Granderson had another strong game for the Yankees with three hits, one run and one RBI. Like the Rays, the Twins face the difficult scenario of having to win two on the road just to get back to Minnesota for a possible decisive Game 5. I have a feeling this was the last baseball game played in Target Field in 2010.

Game 1: Giants 1, Braves 0
Pitching is paramount in the playoffs, and the Giants showed that last night in a pitcher’s duel as starter Tim Lincecum was nearly unhittable in a 1-0 Giants victory in Game 1 at AT&T Park. Lincecum fooled the Braves all night with a complete game shutout on 119 pitches. “The Freak” allowed just two hits, one walk while striking out 14 batters. San Francisco’s rookie catcher Buster Posey scored the only run of the game on a single by Cody Ross in the bottom of the fourth inning. But it was all the Giants would need as Lincecum retired the final eight batters to leave no doubt in this game. Derek Lowe took the loss for Atlanta with just one run allowed in 5.1 innings. Brian McCann and Omar Infante each picked up one double, the only hits on the night for the Braves. Atlanta will turn to the young phenom Tommy Hanson tonight in Game 2 against another solid Giants starter in Matt Cain.

Caught Looking breaks down the playoff games from the night before in a feature that will continue throughout the postseason. The opening day of the playoffs was of course dominated by none other than Roy Halladay. The best pitcher in the game over the past decade just threw the best pitching performance in the playoffs in 54 years. Let’s recap the games…

Game 1: Phillies 4, Reds 0
So much for postseason experience being so crucial? Roy Halladay added clout to his legend as he made his playoff debut by firing just the second no-hitter in MLB postseason history, second to only Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Halladay struck out eight batters on 104 pitches with his only blemish being a two-out walk to Jay Bruce in the fifth inning. Honestly, there’s nothing this guy can do anymore that really surprises me. It was his second no-no of the season as he threw a perfect game back in May. The Phillies didn’t need much offense but they quickly built a 4-0 in the first two innings with Doc even driving in a run with an RBI single in the bottom of the second. Shane Victorino drove in Halladay and Wilson Valdez two batters later with a single off Reds starter Edinson Volquez. Victorino finished 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a double.

Game 1: Rangers 5, Rays 1
The visiting Rangers jumped on Rays ace David Price early scoring two runs in the 2nd inning followed by single runs in the 3rd, 4th and 5th innings to build a 5-0 lead. Nelson Cruz and Bengie Molina provided some pop with solo home runs. Molina, who only hit two home runs all season, had a nice afternoon from the ninth spot with three hits, a homer and two RBIs. Texas put ace Cliff Lee on the mound and he picked up right where he left off in last year’s playoffs. Lee went 7.0 strong innings, five hits, one run allowed, 10 strikeouts and zero walks. The Rays had a chance early to get to Lee with bases loaded in the first off three singles, but Lee bore down to strike out Carlos Pena and Rocco Baldelli to end the threat. Lee cruised the rest of the way after that allowing only two hits the rest of the way. Ben Zobrist drove himself in for the only run of the game for Tampa Bay with a solo home run in the 7th inning.

Game 1: Yankees 6, Twins 4
The Yankees just own the Twins in postseason play. The Twins built a 3-0 lead and appeared to finally get a leg up on the Yankees, but things fell apart quickly in the top of the sixth as the Bronx Bombers finally got to Francisco Liriano with RBI singles by Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada followed by a two-run triple by Curtis Granderson to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead. After the Twins tied it in the bottom of the inning, it wasn’t tied for very long as Mark Teixeira launched a two-run bomb off reliever Jesse Crain to give the Yanks a 6-4 lead. The bullpen took over from there as Mariano Rivera worked a four out save to close the door on the Twins in Target Field, the first outdoor postseason game in Minnesota since 1970. C.C. Sabathia picked up the win in a laboring start (112 pitches in 6.0IP) with four runs (three earned) allowed through 6.0 innings. Michael Cuddyer provided the early fireworks for Minnesota with a two-run blast in the second.

Phillies-Reds

This matchup is very simple to me, I don’t think it will be much of a series. Let’s see, you have the defending two-time National League champs going against a Reds team that is making its first postseason appearance since 1995. Happy to be there versus a NL powerhouse at the moment. Not to mention Phillies ace Roy Halladay will be making his first postseason appearance, and I expect for him to showcase his best stuff on the game’s top stage. Volquez, Cueto and Arroyo just don’t have enough to match Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt (named H20) in a five-game series. Phillies win this series, I’ll even call a sweep behind the stellar pitching of H20.

Giants-Braves

The Giants moved out of the Barry Bonds era to clinch the NL West title for the first time in forever without Bonds all thanks to a potent starting rotation. Pitching is paramount especially in the playoffs, and I think the Giants are the only NL team that can match the Phillies head to head with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. They’ve been hot as of late too, that included a ridiculous 1.85 ERA in the month of September.

The Giants question mark in spring training was the offense, did they have enough to help out the pitching? Well, this team has certainly gotten better with the free agent signing of Pat Burrell along with rookie Buster Posey coming up and looking like a star in the making in the second half of the year. Posey hit .305/.357/.505 and provided some much-needed pop with 18 homers and 67 RBIs in just 108 games. Not too bad for a rook. After being dumped by the Rays in May, Burrell picked up with the Giants and belted 18 home runs in 96 games in the Bay area. Throw in a very surprising year from Aubrey Huff (.290/.385/.505, 26 HR) and this offense is suddenly a decent offense, 100 times better than it was on Opening Day.

Obviously, I like the Giants in this series. They have the better pitching, they have home field and the Braves have been sputtering the past couple of months. Atlanta held a three game lead on the Phillies on the first of September, but put together a lackluster month to fall way behind the Phils before scraping together a win in the final day to avoid possibly missing the playoffs altogether. The Braves went 13-14 in September while hitting just .247 with 17 total homers through September and October. They’re limping into the playoffs right now, and the Giants are rolling. I like the Giants in 4.

Yankees-Twins

The defending world champs are heading on the road to Minnesota, which will see its first outdoor postseason game in the Twin Cities since 1970. We’ve seen this before in 2009, 2004 and 2003 with the Yankees and Twins meeting in the first round and the Twins just looking like they were too busy gawking at the pinstripes across the field. This time the Twins have home field advantage…will it matter?

The Twins have a very good team. They used a 48-26 second half to run away with the AL Central, which was a division predicted to go down the wire. But besides Francisco Liriano as their ace, they’ve enjoyed stellar seasons from Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey and a slew on others, but come on who sees Pavano having a good postseason? On the hitting side of things, the Twins received a huge blow today when they learned Justin Morneau will miss the entire playoffs. Once again, Morneau is not there for the Twins when it matters the most. I just don’t see this team with Pavano and Duensing having enough to shut down the veteran team of the Yankees. New York in 4.

Rays-Rangers

This is the premier series of the first round as the Rays take on a Rangers team that is making only its first postseason appearance since 1999. Texas has a dangerous team too with Josh Hamilton, who had a silly year (.359/.411/.633) along with the pitching tandem of Cliff Lee (acquired midseason from Seattle) and CJ Wilson. Lee was pretty much lights out last year in the playoffs for the Phillies, so if he matches that performance again the Rangers could easily pull off an upset in the short five-game series.

Overall, I like the Rays to win it all this year. David Price has become the legitimate ace for Tampa (19-6, 2.72), Evan Longoria is a phenom, Carl Crawford can do it all and has the knack for making plays on the big stage (i.e., All-Star game). Plus, this team may be young, but they have the postseason experience already from their WS appearance two years ago. I just think it’s the Rays time for all of this young talent to come through and win the ultimate prize. But if there’s one team and series that worries me if I’m the Rays, it’s this Texas series. Anything can happen in a five-game series with one hot pitcher and Lee is the one that could do it for the Rangers. I’ll take Rays in 5, but it should be a fun series to watch which kicks off first in just a couple of hours.

The San Diego Padres aren’t done just yet. The Padres faced a bleak chance in the playoff race heading into this weekend, needing to sweep the Giants on the road to win the NL West. Well, two games down and two victories by the Padres. On Saturday afternoon, San Diego used stellar pitching, go figure, to mow down the Giants in a 4-2 victory behind Tim Stauffer‘s 6.1 innings with one run allowed. That leaves one final game of the regular season, and the Padres will turn to their ace Mat Latos.

But not only is the NL West crown still up for grabs, but the wild card spot is also vacant on the final day of the season. This is where things get complicated thanks to the Braves losing two straight at home to the Phillies. It looked like the Braves were a lock for the postseason a week ago, but heading into tomorrow, there’s a real possibility that Sunday’s game could be Bobby Cox’s last. Let me attempt to easily break down the scenario for Sunday:

— If the Braves and Giants win: Giants are NL West champs, Braves are the wildcard. Padres are stuck wondering “what if” had they not lost 10 straight games last month.

— If the Braves and Padres win: There would be a three-team tiebreaker, the first in MLB history. This is definitely a scenario I’m interested in.

— If the Padres win and the Braves lose: Padres are NL West champs, Giants earn the wildcard and Braves are saying goodbye to Cox.

— If the Giants win and Braves lose: Giants are NL West champs and the Padres travel to Atlanta for a one-game playoff on Monday for the wild card.

What a finish it should be. As I mentioned above, Latos will be on the hill for the Padres. He’s been stellar this year with a 14-9 record and 2.92 ERA. The Giants will counter with Jonathan Sanchez (12-9, 3.15).

Meanwhile in Atlanta, the game will also feature two solid pitchers as Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.09) takes the mound for the Phils against Tim Hudson (16-9, 2.76). Hudson has been the Braves best and most consistent pitcher this season, so it only makes sense for their season to be on his shoulders.

It should make for a dramatic afternoon in the baseball universe during an NFL Sunday. Not only are these two spots on the line, but if the Yankees end up losing Game 2 of their doubleheader against the Red Sox (tied in extras right now), then the AL East division will also come down to the final day. Plus, we still aren’t sure who gets home field advantage in the American League between the Yankees, Rays and Twins.

Enjoy the games tomorrow. Consider me at least one fan who’s rooting for the Padres and Braves, so we can see the first ever three-team tiebreaker!