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First Month Full of Surprises

April 30, 2006|From the Associated Press

Albert Pujols is off to one of the best starts in baseball history. Greg Maddux is turning back the clock after turning 40. Barry Bonds is beginning to close in on Babe Ruth.

The first month of the season has provided some extraordinary performances and plenty to talk about, not to mention a few surprises.

Jonny Gomes, Chris Shelton and Nick Swisher are among the AL home run leaders. Colorado entered Friday in first place -- without Todd Helton. Mariano Rivera was 0-2 with a 4.32 ERA, and Atlanta's starting pitchers had combined for only three wins.

Scoring and homers are up again, the Pirates and Royals are down again. Meanwhile, everyone is still waiting for Roger Clemens to announce whether he'll return to the mound or retire for good.

Has anybody learned anything in April?

"I don't know if there's any pattern, other than the fact that it looks like the number of teams that are going to contend has expanded because a lot of teams have stepped it up a level," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said.

Count last year's pennant winners in. The World Series champion Chicago White Sox and NL champion Houston Astros are off to outstanding starts.

So are the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds, another surprise. Newcomer Bronson Arroyo, acquired from Boston during spring training, is 4-0 with a 2.34 ERA for Cincinnati, which played without injured center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. for much of the month again.

The Detroit Tigers opened 13-9 under new Manager Jim Leyland, who chastised his club following a lackluster loss. Shelton has carried the offense, hitting .350 with nine homers through Thursday. This from a guy picked up from Pittsburgh in the 2003 winter-meeting draft.

"I'm not going to lie, April was a special month," Shelton said. "I can't explain it. I don't know why, all of a sudden, balls were flying out of the ballpark."

Texas outfielder Kevin Mench has a simple explanation for his success: bigger shoes.

He had zero RBIs and pain in his foot before switching from a size 12 to 12 1/2 last week. Since then, he drove in 20 runs in seven games and homered in six straight heading into Friday night's contest in Cleveland.

Astro third baseman Morgan Ensberg also connected in six consecutive games this month. The major league record is eight games.

Pujols was chasing a home run mark too. The St. Louis slugger and 2005 NL MVP entered Friday with 12 homers, one shy of the record for April shared by Griffey (1997) and Luis Gonzalez (2001).

"It's a long season and hopefully I can keep doing it. I always say it's not how you start, it's how you finish," said Pujols, leading the majors with 29 RBIs.

In fact, hitters were putting up big numbers all over the big leagues. Home runs were up 21% through Thursday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, with 750 hit in 322 games, a 2.33 average. Last year, there were 610 homers in the first 320 games, a 1.91 average.

"I still think there is a scarcity of pitching," New York Yankee Manager Joe Torre said. "Pitchers are supposed to be ahead of the hitters. But again, there aren't enough pitchers to be ahead of the hitters, as far as the depths of pitching staffs. Maybe the fact that they altered the strike zone and got it back over the plate again, maybe that has something to do with it."

One slugger who did not start fast was Bonds. But he hit his first three homers of the season from April 22-26, leaving him with 711 -- three behind Ruth for second place on the career list. Bonds and his San Francisco Giants play host to Arizona this weekend.

Another aging star, Maddux, is pitching the way he did in his prime. The Chicago Cub right-hander, who turned 40 on April 14, went into Friday's start against Milwaukee 4-0 with a major league-best 0.99 ERA.

His early dominance brought back memories of the 1990s, when Maddux won four straight NL Cy Young Awards (1992-95) with pinpoint control and microscopic ERAs.

The Cubs desperately need him to deliver, too, because Derrek Lee, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are injured -- making it tough for Manager Dusty Baker to win in the final year of his contract.

"Other teams aren't going to stop trying to beat us because these guys aren't playing," said new outfielder Jacque Jones, already the target of boo birds at Wrigley Field. "We got to try to soften some of the blow we have been dealt right now."

Several other stars are also injured, including Bartolo Colon (0-2, 7.07 ERA), Eric Gagne, A.J. Burnett, C.C. Sabathia, David Wells and Carl Pavano. Helton was hospitalized and diagnosed with inflammation in his small intestine.

One of baseball's top prospects, Tampa Bay outfielder Delmon Young, was suspended indefinitely by the triple-A International League for throwing his bat and hitting an umpire after he was ejected from a game Wednesday night.

Some other notable moments in April:

* At 47, Julio Franco of the New York Mets became the oldest player in big league history to hit a home run and the second-oldest to steal a base.

* Pedro Martinez earned his 200th win.

* Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins carried a 36-game hitting streak into the season from last year and ran it to 38 before going hitless against St. Louis on April 6.

* The Phillies became the first visiting team to win 1-0 at Coors Field.

* Colorado's Cory Sullivan became the first player in 55 years to hit two triples in one inning.

* Milwaukee became the first team since the 1966 Minnesota Twins to hit five home runs in one inning.

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