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Season is too young to draw conclusions

Dierker: Despite historic starts, season still young

Season is too young to draw conclusions
One of the remaining bright spots for Tampa Bay was dimmed last Sunday when Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained oblique.

Later that day, insult was added to injury as Longoria watched the Orioles -- a club that finished 30 games back of the first-place Rays in 2010 -- complete the sweep of his club. Despite many offseason departures, it was not the start the Tampa Bay brain trust envisioned.

A lousy series is to be expected over the course of a 162-game season, but the misery in St. Petersburg is approaching historic levels. With their 5-1 loss on Thursday, the Rays became only the second team in American League history to start 0-6 after winning their division the previous year, accompanying the 1905 Boston Americans.

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The Rays' current streak of 54 innings without holding a lead is fast approaching the 1992 Tigers, who played 60 frames before finally pulling ahead of the Tribe in their seventh game on April 13.

Speaking of Cleveland, the Indians ensured the Rays had company in the AL East basement, nipping the Red Sox, 1-0, on Thursday despite an impressive bounce-back outing by Boston ace Jon Lester. Some may have foreseen the Rays' rough start, but nobody expected the Red Sox -- a preseason favorite to win the AL pennant -- to be 0-6 as baseball's first week came to a close.

Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers, instigators of Boston's troubles, have run off six in a row, establishing themselves as baseball's only remaining unbeaten team. Along the way, their imposing lineup has disposed of Cy Young candidates like yesterday's junk mail.

After a week of games, the Rangers lead the Majors in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. And the heavy hitting has been complemented by a shutdown closer (Neftali Feliz) and some impressive outings by unheralded starters. All this has last year's AL representative in the Fall Classic looking like a serious contender again in 2011.

The Rangers' gallop from the gate is no more startling than the Rays' and Red Sox's skids. The respective optimism and outrage that permeate the airwaves in each city is premature.

The Rangers will remain near the top of the AL, but they are certain to level off. They can neither hit nor pitch like this for six months.

The Rays and Red Sox will likely bounce back into the race in baseball's toughest division. And despite their mismatched records, I suspect this weekend's series in Boston will provide a glimpse of what is sure to be a compelling divisional race come September.

The high-profile nature of April's darlings and bums got me paging through baseball's vast repository of statistical data, seeking perspective. The Major League record for consecutive wins to start a season is 13, a mark that the Braves established in 1982 and the Brewers tied on the same day five years later.

In the realm of futility, the 1988 Orioles hold the ominous distinction of losing 21 straight games to start a season. In fact, they nearly went oh-for-April, snapping their streak in Chicago on April 29 with a 9-0 win against the White Sox.

So how did each team fare the rest of the way?

The 1982 Braves narrowly escaped a monumental collapse. A 10 1/2-game lead at the beginning of August was nearly lost when owner Ted Turner violated the superstitious aura that surrounds a winning club.

In an effort to sell more seats, Turner removed the iconic tepee of Braves mascot Chief Nocahoma. The club promptly lost 19 of its next 21 games, putting the division title in serious jeopardy. The tepee was restored just in time, and the Braves were able to hold off the charging Dodgers, winning the West by a single game. Chief Nocahoma could only do so much however, as the Braves were swept in the playoffs by the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

The 1987 Brewers were even less fortunate. After parlaying their record-tying 13-0 start into a 20-3 mark by the beginning of May, they lost 12 straight, falling three games back in the AL East.

The Brewers even sunk below .500 in July, before getting hot again and finishing with a record of 91-71, good for third in the formidable AL East. Although it was a disappointing denouement to the record-setting start, the third-place finish exceeded the expert prognostications, many of which predicted a last-place finish for the '87 outfit.

The tale of the 1988 Orioles offers little solace to Red Sox Nation, and the loyal supporters in Tampa-St. Pete. Baltimore finished the '88 campaign with an abysmal record of 54-107.

There is, however, nothing analogous between those woeful O's and the current Sox and Rays.

So before we crown the Rangers, or write off Tampa Bay and Boston, let's remember one of the most endearing elements of this great game -- on any given day the playing field is leveled and any team is capable of winning, even if it doesn't feel that way in your heart.

I hated pitching on a muddy mound, but it was muddy for the other guy too. With every first pitch, the potential for the next great winning (or losing) streak is only 27 outs away.

Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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