No shortage of surprises in fickle season

No shortage of surprises in fickle season

Up is down so far this year in MLB. And down is up. At the All-Star Game break, the standings show a bunch of teams have came out of nowhere to be surprise contenders. And more than a few ballclubs of whom much was expected have faltered.

First, the upstarts. Boston, who finished last in the American League East in 2012 has been the top surprise. The Red Sox currently have an MLB-best 58-39 record.

They got there mostly by improving team chemistry. The Red Sox traded away a number of high-priced stars uncomfortable with the intense scrutiny that comes with playing in Boston and replaced them with veteran grinders _ like Mike Napoli (58 RBI) and Shane Victorino _ who embrace the experience.

Bounceback years by starting pitchers John Lackey (2.78 ERA) and Jon Lester have helped greatly as well.

Then there are the Arizona Diamondbacks. Barely .500 a year ago and left with a no-name crew after trading away budding superstar Justin Upton, few figured the Diamondbacks would be contenders.

But they lead the National League West, thanks to a fast-developing young pitching staff and a scrappy band of position players, including Paul Goldschmidt (.313 batting average, 21 homers).

In the NL Central, Pittsburgh, who have not enjoyed a winning season since 1992 _ when Barry Bonds was still a Pirate, look like they may end that ignominious skein _ in a big way.

They are presently 19 games above .500 and in a virtual tie for their divisional top spot with St Louis, thanks primarily to an MLB-best team 3.08 ERA in pitching.

Cleveland's formerly woe-begone Indians have reversed their fortunes as well under new skipper Terry Francona and behind a gaggle of productive free agents, including Michael Bourn (.291) and slugger Mark Reynolds (15 HRs).

Cleveland lost 94 games in 2012. Now, they are are narrowly trailing defending American league champions Detroit in the AL Central.

A number of other 2012 bottom-feeders like Colorado, Kansas City and San Diego started out strong but have faded recently. However, all are but a winning streak away from uncommon play-off contention.

On the flip side, there are the first-half disappointments.

Toronto are the biggest flops. The Blue Jays, pre-season AL East favourites after acquiring a flock of stars and their whopping salaries via trades, are instead currently dead last in their loop.

Also, the Los Angeles Angels committed nearly US$225 million in long-term deals to ageing superstars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton the last two years but have had two straight disappointing seasons to show for their spending.

The Angels are only 44-49 this campaign and trail first-placed Oakland by a mile in the AL West.

Meanwhile, Washington were picked by many to win DC's first World Series since 1924. Instead, because of injuries to key players _ including sluggers Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman _ and sub-par performances by others, like pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals have struggled just to stay at .500.

Defending World Series champion San Francisco have suffered a colossal pitching collapse (injuries and inconsistencies) and are in last place in the NL West, eight games below level and 6.5 games behind division-leading Arizona.

Finally, the Los Angeles Dodgers have an MLB-high yearly team payroll of over $200 million but are not getting much bang for their megabucks.

The Dodgers, despite acquiring a bunch of high-profile stars like sluggers Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and hurler Josh Beckett are scuffling to stay afloat in the NL West and have just a .500 record.

Baseball pundits like to apply the saying 'water seeks its own level' to MLB teams and players. But that might not be the case in 2013, given this season's flood of topsy-turvy showings.

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