Who would have predicted this week's series between Tampa Bay and Oakland would have been a showdown between American League titans? The Rays entered Friday with the best record in the AL, sitting in first place in the AL East. (The Yankees, by the way, had the worst record in the division, and the Tigers, another predicted heavyweight, were in last place in the Central.) Last week marked the first time that the Rays had ever held sole possession of first beyond the first week of the season. The A's, who traded pitcher
while embarking on a rebuilding mission, entered Friday a half-game out of first in the AL West. Why the rise? Pitching. Oakland had the second-best team ERA (3.32) in the AL and the No. 1 bullpen. Tampa Bay had the fourth-best ERA (3.64) and the third-best bullpen. ...
Ask scouts which player they'd choose to build a team around and several would tab Florida's Hanley Ramirez. The 24-year-old shortstop, NL rookie of the year in 2006 and a top 10 finisher in MVP voting last season, could end up in the outfield someday, but should remain a tremendous run-producing player for many years. That's why the low-budget Marlins, finally with a new ballpark on the horizon, are locking him up with a six-year, $70 million deal. ... Extensions for Ramirez and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun have folks wondering where the extensions are for Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. The Phils were willing to give Howard a Chase Utley-like deal ($85 million) over the winter, but Howard's camp is looking for much more. As for Hamels, the wisdom of a long-term deal could be questioned until he stays healthy for a full season. ... The Tigers had the worst ERA in the majors (5.05) entering Friday. Bishop Eustace product Blaine Neal, closing for the Tigers' triple-A Toledo club, could be pitching his way into Detroit's bullpen picture. He had 13 saves and a 1.84 ERA in his first 16 games. ...
One season after going to the World Series, the Rockies are fighting to stay out of last in the NL West. They are 1-8 against division-leader Arizona and ace lefty Jeff Francis is 0-4 with opponents batting an average of .301. ... The Yankees promoted relievers J.B. Cox to triple A and Mark Melancon to double A. Speculation is the Yanks are getting their ducks in a row for possibly moving Joba Chamberlain to the starting rotation in the coming weeks. ... And finally, Atlanta's John Smoltz played Oakmont and Pine Valley last week. He shot 75 at Oakmont and "in the 80s" at windy Pine Valley.