July surprises

Jack McDowell

There's plenty of baseball to be played. But enough water is under the bridge – half a season's worth – to name the true surprises of 2004.

The Texas Rangers are the biggest surprise for me. Quietly the Rangers have worked their way atop the AL West. Yes, that AL West, with the three stacked teams who were supposed to battle it out all year and leave the Rangers in the dust.

Texas doesn't have the name pitchers of the Anaheim Angels or the Oakland A's, nor the experience and supposed balance of the Seattle Mariners. But I'll bet there are three general managers in that division who wish they had signed Kenny Rogers this winter. He became the first 11-game winner in the majors this week and boasts a 3.42 ERA. All this for a mere $3 million per year.

After Rogers and pleasant surprise Ryan Drese, the Rangers don't have the starting pitchers to lead a division. But so far Texas ranks in the top half of AL staffs in team pitching. That stat usually is swayed heavily by the starters because they rack up all the innings. Considering the struggles of half the rotation, the Rangers' bullpen seems to be more than carrying this pitching staff.

Much of the preseason fodder involved the Florida Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies. Philadelphia supposedly made the right moves during the offseason to outrun the defending world champs over the course of the season.

It's the first of July and the Phillies and Marlins are locked in a battle for first, but the level of play has been suspect. It has been so shaky that the New York Mets are only three games back while playing sub-.500 ball. This wasn't expected to be a .500 division, but if things hold, the eventual champion may need only 85 wins to take the crown.

As we come to the halfway point, no "expert mind" could have guessed the Milwaukee Brewers would be ahead of the Houston Astros in the standings. Granted, the NL Central is an incredibly tight division, and we didn't expect the Brewers to be better than .500 at this point. But we also didn't expect Houston to be without Andy Pettitte for much of the first half.

Houston's bullpen should be closely watched to gauge the impact of losing Billy Wagner in the offseason and now Octavio Dotel. If Pettitte stays healthy and the Astros come back to win the division, once again the value of a top-notch starting pitcher will be highlighted over any other aspect of the game.

And finally, I know they are still only a .500 team and have no chance of catching the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees for a playoff berth, but how about those Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

Their amazing winning streak that began in late May has opened some eyes and shined the spotlight on a young and talented Tampa Bay team. The tough news is that the Devil Rays are in the AL East and no team can keep this pace much longer, which doesn't bode well for their fans. But it certainly has been fun to watch.

No individual stories here, just a team that is winning games together. That's the best kind of ball to watch.