Lance Berkman is playing like a man possessed

St. Louis Cardinals Lance Berkman connects for a single in the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on March 31, 2011. San Diego won the game in 11 innings, 5-3. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

To suggest that Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman is rejuvenated since arriving in St. Louis this year would be the understatement of Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 2:30PM ET.

Fresh off winning his second NL player of the week award this season, “Big Puma” went 2-for-3 with a home run and four RBI in the Cardinals’ loss to the Marlins on Monday. That effort raised his batting average to .406 to go along with nine home runs and 27 RBI through his first 96 at bats this season.

Only teammate Matt Holliday (.410) has a better average right now than Berkman, who trails MLB leader Alfonso Soriano (11) by only two home runs. Berkman is also just one RBI away from tying the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, who has driven in 28 runs so far this season.

Berkman isn’t just playing beyond what St. Louis expected – he’s playing like one of the best in the game. It’s rather remarkable when you consider the Yankees declined to exercise their option for him in the offseason after trading two minor leagues (Jimmy Paredes and Mark Melancon) to Houston in order to acquire him from the Astros in July last year. Plus, he’s holding his own in the outfield, a position he hasn’t played since his early days in Houston.

After news broke this spring that Adam Wainwright had to have Tommy John surgery and Holliday suffered an early-season appendectomy, many pundits thought the Cardinals would slowly fade out of contention at some point this year. And while that still might happen, the Cardinals are currently atop the standings in the NL Central thanks to guys like Berkman and Holliday.

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Red Sox in last place, Indians in first – welcome to bizarro world

Cleveland Indians players watch a video tribute to the late Bob Feller prior to the season opening MLB American League baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Cleveland, Ohio April 1, 2011. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk(UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Remember that Seinfeld episode when Elaine meets a new group of friends that are exactly like Jerry, George and Kramer, although they’re normal and not deranged?

Yeah, well I feel like Elaine in that “bizarro world” episode when I look at the current standings in Major League Baseball.

You feel like a woman, Anthony?

Well not…uh…ah, shut up.

A quick look at the standings reveals that the Orioles and Indians are in first place, the Red Sox, Tigers and defending World Series champion Giants are in last place, and the Pirates and Royals are in second place. What in the name of Rick Vaughn is going on here?

Well, it’s not “bizarro world” as much as it’s the second week in April. The most overused phrase at this point of the year is “It’s early,” and it is. But that’s not to suggest that a team like Boston doesn’t have some serious issues to work through and Cleveland’s current six-game winning streak is a fluke.

The Red Sox’s current run differential is –31, which is the worst in the league. In their first 10 games, they’ve already given up 69 runs, or 21 fewer then they did through 10 games last year when they started 4-6 and missed the playoffs. For a team that many believed would win the World Series, the BoSox are off to a horrendous start.

On the flip side, the Tribe is 8-2 after dropping its first two games and is getting tremendous efforts from Asdrubal Cabrera, Orlando Cabrera, Travis Hafner and a young pitching staff. It remains to be seen whether or not their starters can continue to eat up innings and pitch well throughout the year, but it’s not a stretch to think that this is the start of a career year for Asdrubal Cabrera or that guys like Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco are coming into their own. Who’s to say at this point?

Granted, at this point last year the Blue Jays, A’s and Cardinals were all in first place, and none of them made the playoffs. But every year a team that wasn’t expected to contend does just that and shocks the masses. Nobody thought the Padres would compete in 2010 and if it weren’t for a late-season collapse, they would have made the playoffs.

Yes, it’s early – really early, in fact. But confidence is a scary thing and teams like the Indians are bringing truck loads of it to the park right now. Chances are things will go “back to normal” eventually (Elaine did find herself back with Jerry, George and Kramer), but then again maybe we’ll be trapped in bizarro world for a while longer. (I’m sure Tribe fans wouldn’t mind.)

Red Sox, Rays each drop to 0-6 – time to panic?

Raise your hand if you had the Red Sox and Rays going 0-12 to start the year…

…oh, stop it. You don’t count, Yankee Fans.

The Red Sox, a preseason favorite of many pundits, have started off the year losers of six in a row. Their team ERA is 7.13, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Marco Scutaro, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and big money free agent Carl Crawford are all hitting below .200, and Indians starter Mitch Talbot just struck out 13 Boston batters on Wednesday night. (That’s 13, and that’s Mitch Talbot.)

The Rays have also started off 0-6, but they haven’t even held a lead this year. They’ve scored one run in five of their first six games and fans are already booing Manny Ramirez. Ironically, White Sox starter Edwin Jackson also struck out 13 Tampa Bay batters in a 5-1 win on Thursday.

What does this all mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. Pundits figured that the Rays could struggle with the amount of talent they lost in the offseason, but nobody saw an 0-6 start for Boston. Not after they shelled out big money for Crawford and traded for slugger Adrian Gonzalez. But the reality is that they’ve done nothing right so far.

Of course, we haven’t even reached the middle of April yet. If Boston sweeps two three-game series, they’ll be back to .500 (I took math in college) and this 0-6 start will fade a bit from memory. Besides, you can’t look too deep into what a team does in April – nevertheless the first week in April. Does anyone think the Pirates will continue to play well? No, they’ll eventually fall off. They’re playing well now because everyone expects them to finish dead last in the NL Central and therefore, the pressure is off.

That said, teams like the Red Sox that are expected to make a World Series run have a tendency to press when things aren’t going their way. Boston shouldn’t worry too much about being 0-6 but they obviously can’t wait too long to start winning either.

Wrigley Field empty to start the season – are the fans boycotting?

T-shirt’s are sold outside of Wrigley Field before the Chicago Cubs Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day game in Chicago on April 1, 2011. The Pirates won 6-3. UPI/Brian Kersey

It was rather surprising to see a half-empty stadium when I turned on the Cubs-Diamondbacks game today (a 6-4 Arizona victory).

If these two teams were playing in Arizona and the D’Backs were 20 games out of first place, then this obviously wouldn’t have caught my eye. But Wrigley Field? That place has been jam-packed for decades, regardless of how miserable the Cubs have been. Going to a Cubs game might as well be like going to the movies for many Chicagoans – it’s viewed as pure entertainment.

As it turns out, the announced attendance for Monday’s Cubs-D’Backs game was 26,292, the lowest attendance the ballpark has experienced since 2002. Granted, the weather has been cool in Chicago and with other sporting events to watch (the NCAA finals, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, the White Sox, etc.), it’s not a stretch to think that fans are waiting until May or June to show up to watch their “Cubbies.” (That nickname, by the way, makes me want to punch myself in the kidney.)

But Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times hopes that the empty seats are a sign that Cub fans have finally had enough.

Not showing up to the ballpark is the only power fans have. I’m not sure if they fully understand how much influence they have. When they come to the ballpark in droves year after year, they have no say in whether ticket prices increase or whether the player payroll declines. Their collective voice is heard only as a whisper when the conversation turns to publicly funded stadium renovations.

When fans don’t show up, owners get very, very nervous. Cubs fans rarely flex that muscle. But now? Is that a bulging biceps I see?

Imagine if this were a win-or-else ultimatum from the fan base. Think the Cubs might feel some urgency?

Eh, maybe. The only question I have is: Why now? Why after decades of losing would Cub fans pick this year to finally put their foot down? The Reds have started off strong, but the injuries in St. Louis and the slow start in Milwaukee gives Chicago fans a sliver of hope that their Cubs might be able to do something in the NL Central. I think most true fans are realistic about the Cubs’ chances but even the biggest doubters will still attend the games.

It’s early. Once the weather warms up, Wrigley will be jam-packed again. Besides, even if the fans were boycotting the organization, what is the front office going to do? Thanks to all the bad contracts that they’ve acquired over the years (Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, Carlos Silva, etc.), they couldn’t change the situation even if they wanted to. This team is stuck right now whether the fans like it or not.

Is John Smoltz done?

John Smoltz has been one of the finest pitchers in his era, but has he reached the end of his career?

Thursday night, Smoltz was rocked for nine hits and eight earned runs in just 3.1 innings of work as the Yankees crushed the Sox 13-6 in New York. Smoltz got through the first three innings without giving up a run, but once the Yankees started turning over their lineup, they began to tee off on him.

This was his fourth start in a row where he’s given up at least five earned runs. Over that span, he’s not only been incredibly hittable, but he also has been missing with his fastball and last night he struggled with his control. When he’s missing with his pitches, he’s leaving the ball in the zone and he’s getting crushed. One of the main reasons he’s still pitching at 42 is because he’s always had impeccable control. But if he doesn’t have that part of his game, he might as well be throwing beach balls at hitters.

Smoltz was a nice signing for the Sox in the offseason and maybe he still needs time to work himself back into game shape after having shoulder surgery earlier this year. But Boston can’t continue to lose every fifth day waiting for him to work out the kinks.

Maybe it’s time for Terry Francona to move Smoltz to the bullpen.

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