Memorial Day marks first major MLB checkpoint

Memorial Day marks first major MLB checkpoint

Memorial Day marks first major MLB checkpoint
Memorial Day is in the rearview mirror. June is a few odometer clicks away. Some might say the 2012 Major League Baseball season is only now really starting to rev its engine.

With that in mind, it's time to take this baby in for a checkup, to see what's under the hood, to reprogram that GPS and set it for October. Where might this joyride end?

Baseball is famous for featuring the unexpected, so let's concentrate on that. Here are six pre-Memorial Day developments -- one per division -- we've seen in 2012 that we might not have thought we'd see. They could be mirages that appear in the windshield or they could be permanent scenery. We won't know until the 162-game slate plays out.

Orioles rise: It seemed a bit fluky when Baltimore started off 19-9 and in the hunt in the ultra-tough American League East, but look at those Birds now. They lost Monday, but they're still 29-20 and tied with the Tampa Bay Rays atop the division. The keys have been a career year from newly extended outfielder Adam Jones and what appears to be a bevy of young pitchers bearing fruit at the same time.

The O's have gotten confidence under the leadership of Buck Showalter and are a big-time player in a wide-open East. After Monday, no team was under .500 in the division and five games separated first from last.

Tiger trap? Yeah, it's still early. Sort of. In other words, Detroit has time to get Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera clicking better in that batting order, to get more out of Alex Avila and Jose Valverde and to get Doug Fister back to where he was after the club acquired him last year. And it helps to remember that the Tigers didn't put it all together until the second half of 2011, when they steamrolled everyone in the AL Central.

But so far in 2012, they've been a big disappointment, and while Justin Verlander has been every bit of the ace they need, they need more.

"It almost seems like we're battling to get out of this funk that we're in and we still can't get a break," Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said.

Halo hardships: It was not at all eye-opening when prognosticators took a look at the career performance of Albert Pujols and projected that the Angels would be a much better team because they signed the man to a 10-year, $240 million contract. That's why it was stunning when Pujols spent the entire month of April looking for a home run as his team spiraled into a similar identity crisis.

Things seem to have smoothed out for Pujols and the Angels. He's hitting again, 20-year-old leadoff man Mike Trout seems as good as advertised, and they're winning. But after spotting the Rangers a healthy lead in the AL West, can they make up the ground?

America's team: Fine. You picked the Nationals to run away with the National League East over the winter once you digested the moves that added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a pitching staff already led by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. But can you honestly say you penciled in 19-year-old Bryce Harper as the No. 2 hitter in this offense, hard at work changing games and dotting highlight reels within weeks of his callup?

"I feel pretty good up there right now," Harper said. "I think it's just a matter of time before I get going. I struggle at the beginning, usually, and once I see guys and what not, that's when things really get going. Having guys around me that can really swing it helps, also. [Ryan] Zimmerman hitting behind me scares some people."

Central up for grabs: There's not too much to bat eyelashes about when it comes to the always-confusing NL Central, and a few usual players of recent years (Cincinnati, St. Louis) are in the mix, but who could have imagined that Houston Astros' young talent would blossom so soon? The Astros did go 53-109 last year, after all, but here they are after Monday's loss at 22-27. It's not anything to get giddy over, but it's a huge improvement. And the Pirates, who were contenders last year until July, are at 24-24, only three games out of first place.

Defiant Dodgers: You have to wonder how Don Mattingly's team is doing it. Sure, there's Clayton Kershaw, who's usually lights-out, and there's Chris Capuano, who's been a revelation this year, and the bullpen reformation has worked with Kenley Jansen taking to the closer role, and Andre Ethier is an RBI machine.

But then there's Matt Kemp, who almost won the NL MVP Award last year and was the early leader in that running in April, when he hit .417 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs. Then he hurt his hamstring, slowed down in early May and hasn't played since May 13.

As we turn the calendar from Memorial Day to the first day of the rest of the big league season, Kemp will be back on the field. And the Dodgers still have the best record in baseball.

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.