Fast starts propel teams right to the top
Brewers, Blue Jays among teams thriving out of gate early this season
The Milwaukee Brewers are doing it. The Toronto Blue Jays might be doing it, too. The Boston Red Sox? They're not doing it yet, but they did it last year, and we all know how that ended up.
We're talking about getting off to a fast start in a Major League season, and while these three examples might represent nothing more than classic presentations of Small Sample Size Theater, they also could mean a lot when October arrives on the calendar.
In Wisconsin these days, people have a reason to be excited. The Brew Crew, a playoff team only three seasons ago, couldn't come close to matching the 96 victories of that year after Prince Fielder departed via free agency in the winter of 2011, and Milwaukee failed to make the playoffs in 2012 and last year.
But a revamped starting staff that kept Yovani Gallardo and added Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, a deep bullpen and a core led by Ryan Braun and young position players such as shortstop Jean Segura, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, outfielder Khris Davis and second baseman Scooter Gennett has the Brewers riding high early this year.
The Brewers won nine games in a row before dropping a pair to the Cardinals at home this week, but they rebounded with a win over St. Louis on Wednesday and are 11-4. Milwaukee knows this might not mean a whole lot if the club doesn't continue to play well, but it's better than the alternative.
"I knew we were going to have a good team," Brewers reliever Will Smith said. "We have a bunch of solid pitchers on this team. The starting five is unreal. The bullpen is really good. The biggest thing is, we just have confidence and we believe in ourselves. That's what can set you apart."
The Blue Jays -- and most of the pundits and prognosticators -- believed in their chances before last season after a flurry of trades and acquisitions had given them the makings of an All-Star team. But Jose Reyes was injured, R.A. Dickey had back problems and never recovered his National League Cy Young Award form from the previous year, and a 6-9 record after 15 games never got much better. Toronto lost eight of nine and 10 of 12 early to sink to 10-21, and by the end of the 162-game grind, the club was a non-factor at 74-88.
That bad start has given way to a more promising 8-6 one this year, and while Reyes has missed more time with hamstring problems, he's due back soon. Starter Mark Buehrle has been excellent, young starters who were hurt last year are healthy and, perhaps most important, the offense is coming around. In other words, there's reason to believe that this good start could lead to a good finish.
"You're not always going to have 20 hits ... so I think it's just about picking each other up," Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie said. "When some guys don't get it done at the plate, they're going to get it done in the field and vice versa -- just picking each other up. [We've been] doing the little things, getting guys over and scoring runs when we need to."
Last year, the Red Sox didn't have much mojo going into Spring Training. They had finished 2012 with a 69-93 record, they had dismissed manager Bobby Valentine and brought in John Farrell, they had added veteran free agents Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and David Ross, and they were still looking up at the other teams in the tough American League East.
Boston needed a good start more than most teams, and the Red Sox got it. Starters Jon Lester and John Lackey proved right away that they had recaptured their best form, the team won seven in a row in April to get to 12-4 after 16 games, and they finished off the first month at 18-8. It was the perfect jumping-off point. Boston never looked back until it had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals in six games in the World Series.
"We felt there was a very good core group of players here that finished last year with injuries, and a number of returning players that were driven and motivated to rewrite their own story," Farrell said after the team won the Fall Classic at Fenway Park. "There was a tremendous feeling of embarrassment here a year ago, and guys came into Spring Training determined, and the players that came in to augment those returning came in as a very strong team."
The Indians ended up having a very strong team last year despite not getting off to a great start -- a turnaround from 2011, when they were 30-15 on May 22 and crumbled the rest of the way.
In 2013, Cleveland was 5-10 after 15 games before winning 10 of its next 14 to get over the .500 mark at 15-14 in May. The Tribe hung around the AL Central all year, took advantage of improved performances out of starters Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez and a talented young nucleus, and won 13 of its last 15 and 10 in a row to close out the regular-season slate and make it to the AL Wild Card game, which the Indians lost to the Rays.
Kazmir and Jimenez departed via free agency, but Cleveland regrouped and is hanging in there at 7-7 entering Thursday's games. The Indians are one game out of the AL Central lead even though their ace, Justin Masterson, hasn't hit his stride.
"The guys have been great putting runs up on the board," Masterson said. "Even our losses, they're putting up five or six runs, and I think that's a testament to where we're at. I mean, last year, we were a little streaky ... and there's going to be that time this year where us as starters are getting our feet a little wet, we're struggling a little bit, but I think we'll be OK."