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AL East dominant once again

 
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Remember when it was fashionable to say the American League West had overtaken the American League East as baseball’s best division?

That was so last year.

Order has been restored, if it actually went away in the first place. AL East teams are a combined 35-22 outside the division, the best record in baseball this year. The AL West is the worst at 15-28 — in part because the dilapidated Astros moved into the neighborhood and depressed the housing values for everyone else.

I didn’t buy into the West-is-the-best hype last year, even though the division produced three teams with at least 89 wins. (The AL East, in fact, had three clubs with 90 or more.) I gave David Price my first-place Cy Young Award vote partially because the AL East is uniquely difficult for starting pitchers to navigate.

While the Red Sox and Yankees probably won’t dominate the sport in 2013 as they did during the last decade, there’s little doubt that they are part of baseball’s preeminent quintet. Although the last three world champions came from the National League West and Central, those divisions can’t match the AL East’s top-to-bottom strength.

I mean, could anyone dispute that the Toronto Blue Jays are the most talented last-place team in baseball?

I don’t want to pick on the Jays too much now — we’ll have time later — but four AL East teams entered Monday with identical 7-3 records in their last 10 games, and all of them are based in the United States.

The Red Sox unexpectedly hold the majors’ best record at 18-7, mostly because their rotation is vastly improved over last year’s slapdash crew. Boston’s starters have the majors’ third best ERA at 3.07. Last year, they were fourth from the bottom (4.70).

The Red Sox are on a five-game winning streak, during which their rotation has accounted for every victory while compiling a 3.09 ERA. Full disclosure: The last four of those games were against the aforementioned Astros.

(Brief aside: The Lone Star on the Astros’ logo might as well be an asterisk. It’s as if games against Houston should be placed in a separate statistical category. Announcers would say, ‘The left-handed hitter comes into the game batting .286, or .235 WTA — Without the Astros.’)

MLB

COVERING THE BASES

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Clay Buchholz ranks third in the majors with a 1.19 ERA, with Jon Lester at 2.27. They’re a combined 9-0, and it won’t be a surprise if both make the All-Star team. Manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves deserve some of the credit for the duo’s rejuvenated confidence and stuff.

Wins and losses don’t belong in the same sentence as life and death, but the Red Sox have represented New England with dignity and distinction since the Marathon tragedy shook the nation on April 15. The Red Sox are 10-3 since, a subtle sign that they have accepted the civic obligation thrust upon them.

Meanwhile, the Yankees might be the majors’ most impressive team this year — in an odd, endearing, miscast underdog sort of way. I picked them to finish last in the AL East, figuring the drumbeat of injury news would have them at or near the bottom by now. Instead, they own the best record of any second-place team in baseball and certainly have picked up a few sympathetic fans across the country.

Yes, Francisco Cervelli and Ivan Nova were the latest to join the disabled list. The Yankees remain undermanned yet resilient, as they proved again Sunday with Lyle Overbay’s game-winning homer in the seventh. At the very least, the Yankees avoided the slow start that would have spoiled their season. As long as CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte stay healthy, the Yankees should be in contention when Derek Jeter & Friends return.

The Orioles aren’t using the formula that worked so effectively for them last year, but they’re still on solid footing. Baltimore’s bullpen has four defeats already this year, after losing only 11 games in all of 2012 — which fits with the popular sabermetric projection that the same relievers were unlikely to be that good (or at least that lucky) in consecutive years. But the Orioles are 15-10, only a half-game behind the Yankees, because their lineup is much more consistent than it was last year. Chris Davis has 28 RBI, and April isn’t over yet. Adam Jones and Manny Machado are playing like All-Stars, too.

IN FULL SWING

The games count again! Watch the best clips at MLB video central.

Tampa Bay’s rotation has been pedestrian by the Rays’ lofty standards, with Price winning his first game of the season Sunday — and even then amid controversy, as he traded barbs with home plate umpire Tom Hallion. Roberto Hernandez — formerly known as Fausto Carmona — holds the No. 5 spot but has effectively taken the rotation job of James Shields. That’s a significant drop in reliability. Still, there are enough power arms and Joe Maddon magic to keep the Rays around .500 and a threat in the second half.

Again, the question: Is there a better fourth-place team in baseball than the Tampa Bay Rays, with many of the same players who won 90 games last year? I don’t think so.

So, that leaves the confounding Jays.

Jose Reyes is hurt. Emilio Bonifacio is batting .188. R.A. Dickey has been OK. Mark Buehrle is struggling to adapt back to the American League. Josh Johnson has a tight right triceps muscle. Those five players were the main reason many prognosticators (like me) thought Toronto would reach the World Series. Through that lens, the Jays’ current state isn’t much of a surprise.

Toronto ranks in the bottom third of major league teams in runs scored, ERA, defensive efficiency, batting average and OPS — among other categories. The Jays have permitted the second-most runs of any team in the majors, behind — you guessed it — Houston. Toronto has allowed 15 unearned runs, also among the worst marks in the big leagues.

MLB STANDINGS

It's never too early in the season to sneak a peek at divisional races.

The highly regarded Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.com pointed out that the Jays have hit into bad luck, when examining their batting average on balls in play. But if I’m the Jays’ owner, president, general manager or manager, I’m troubled by two thoughts: What if the loss of Reyes — who isn’t coming back soon — altered the character of the offense and resulted in far fewer hittable pitches to the rest of the lineup? And what if bringing in three starters from the NL in one season was really not a wise idea?

The answers to those questions will tell us whether the Blue Jays can recover from this regrettable April and make the playoffs. They’d be advised to act quickly. The AL East is starting to look the way it used to.

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