Take a look at the standings in the vaunted Eastern Divisions in Major League Baseball and try not to spit out your coffee. Those aren’t misprints.
Two months into the 2012 season, the AL and NL East have been flipped on their respective heads. On the AL side, the Baltimore Orioles are no longer at the bottom looking up at the big, bad Yankees and Red Sox. Instead, it is Baltimore sitting atop the division with Tampa Bay, while the Sox and Yanks attempt to play catch-up.
Meanwhile, on the senior circuit, the young Washington Nationals have grown up quite fast, no longer playing little brother to the likes of Philadelphia and Atlanta or taking the back page to the Marlins and Mets. Washington is pacing the division many perceive as the best in the National League.
That’s right; with nearly a third of the season already played, the beltway cities sit atop the standings.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. Sure, there were plenty of people believing the Nationals, behind a young infuse of talent to go along with some nice offseason acquisitions, would make ground. Some even picked them to get to the postseason. But the NL East has belonged to the Phillies the past few years, Atlanta before that, and the Miami Marlins were supposed to be the true next threat with Ozzie and Reyes and Buehrle on board.
On the other side, no one in his or her right mind thought the Orioles would be playing as well as they have. The AL East has been a three-team division for years now, and pretty much everyone expected more of the same. The Red Sox would bounce back after their epic collapse with new manager Bobby Valentine to duke it out with the Rays and Yanks. Except here were are, with the Sox (just like the Phillies) sitting in last place, while the Orioles are right there keeping pace with Tampa Bay.
So how, exactly, did we get here?
Of course, we all know the Nationals are building around Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper joining forces with young superstar Ryan Zimmerman. The two rookies have certainly impressed. Strasburg is among the NL leaders in strikeouts and ERA to go along with his 5-1 record. Harper has been so poised and so impressive both offensively and defensively that his every movement is being documented.
But as impressive as Harper and Strasburg have been, it hasn’t been that young dynamic duo leading the charge. It hasn’t been Zimmerman either. The Nationals’ de facto best player heading into the season has gotten off to a slow start exacerbated by a stint on the DL.
It’s actually been a newcomer and a relative unknown who have kickstarted the franchise formerly known as the Expos.