CHICAGO – Distinguishing April jewels from April fool's gold should be easy. Average ballplayers don't become All-Stars overnight, at least not since drug testing took hold. Yet it's tempting to wish that certain hot starts could be sustained over the long march of summer, especially when the players are so likable.
Who doesn't want to believe that Nate McLouth and Reed Johnson are the leadoff hitters and center fielders the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs have long sought, using their speed out of the blocks as a springboard to productive careers?
They hustle like Pete Rose (on the field; careful now) and talk like Opie Taylor. McLouth actually said, "There are only so many jobs in the major leagues and it's a privilege to have one of them," which would make him a jewel even if he wasn't the only major leaguer who has a hit in every game this season.
McLouth singled to lead off the first inning Sunday and drew a bases-loaded walk in the fifth, not nearly enough to prevent the Pirates from losing to the Cubs, 13-6, for the sixth consecutive time this season. Imagine how bad the Pirates would be without McLouth, who is fourth in the National League in batting (.382), leads the league in doubles (10) and is among the leaders in hits, runs, RBIs and on-base percentage. He's set the table and he's cleaned it off – most notably with a three-run home run in the ninth off closer Takashi Saito to beat the Dodgers last week.
"Nate's been our catalyst," manager John Russell said. "He's just done a great job from day one. He was presented with an opportunity and taken every advantage of it."
Johnson, who is playing center field regularly for the first time in his six-year career, beat steeper odds. The Toronto Blue Jays signed veteran Shannon Stewart late in the offseason to join Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in their outfield and released Johnson a week before opening day, not convinced he had recovered from back surgery a year ago. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had long been an admirer of Johnson's aggressive approach – this is a player who idolizes Ty Cobb – and took a low-risk gamble because the Blue Jays must pay the bulk of Johnson's $3.275 million salary.
On Sunday, Johnson led off the bottom of the first with a double and scored the first run, then added a single and two more runs to raise his batting average to .354. It appears he has regained the form he displayed in 2006, when he batted .319 for the Blue Jays and ended a three-year platoon with Frank Catalanotto by winning the job in left field outright. But Johnson needed surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back early last season and didn't hit well upon his return.
Now he's filling a dream role. Manager Lou Piniella would rather slugger Alfonso Soriano bat in the middle of the lineup, so Johnson could remain in the leadoff spot even when Soriano returns from the disabled list in 10 days or so. He might even take the local media focus away from long-percolating trade talks with the Boston Red Sox for center fielder Coco Crisp.
Unless, of course, Johnson goes from jewel to fool's gold. Look around baseball. This time of year there are numerous McLouths and Johnsons, players whose early performance far exceeds their track records.
Is Cliff Lee going to remain all but unhittable? No way.
Hey, Mark Reynolds has already cooled off.
The reverse is also true. Are Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard going to stay in hitting funks? Don't count on it. Is Russell Martin going to remain a good-field, no-hit catcher? Get serious. Will C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander become 20-game losers? Please.
The same concept applies to teams. Sure, the Cubs are 12-6, but they've fattened up against the pathetic Pirates, scoring 13 runs each of the past two games by jumping on left-handed starters Tom Gorzelanny and Zach Duke early and pounding reliever after reliever.
There are signs the Cubs might sustain their heat. They've done well without any notable contribution from Soriano or No. 2 starter Ted Lilly, and Derrek Lee's seven-homer April might be an authentic foreshadowing of his season to come. His numbers are nearly identical to his start in 2005, when he won the batting title and hit 46 home runs.
At the very least, the fast start is a refreshing change for the Cubs, who won 10 games the entire month of April a year ago and had to make a furious charge in August and September to win the Central Division. This season they are atop the division even though the St. Louis Cardinals and Brewers also have started well.
In the visitor's clubhouse, the Pirates just packed quickly to get out of Chicago. They want to play anybody but the Cubs. The Pirates, too, were horrendous last April, and though they won four in a row last week, they've followed that with five losses. And the constant beatings by the Cubs are mind-bending.
At least they can count on McLouth to maintain an optimistic outlook.
"I've taken the mentality that the job is mine and I'm going to keep it," he said. "A good start is a good start, it's great, but that's all it is."
Even the players know. The long summer will be as revealing as an eye loupe, separating April jewels from April fool's gold.