Richard Justice

Amazing encore season just warming up

Justice: Amazing encore just warming up

Amazing encore season just warming up
And you thought baseball couldn't top last season. Here's your spectacular sequel: historically tight division races, dazzling individual accomplishments and fresh young faces dotting the landscape.

At this point, there's not a single team you can look at with any certainty and know it will be in the postseason, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be. In the National League East, five teams are separated by 2 1/2 games. In the American League East, it's three games from top to bottom.

All 10 teams in the East divisions have winning records, and if you're handicapping those races, you probably change your mind every 72 hours. One day, the Yankees seem to be a bit deeper and better than the rest of the AL East. Then you start thinking the Orioles might just be for real.

You continue to be amazed by the Rays, and just when you're ready to count the Red Sox out, they start looking like a team capable of winning a World Series championship.

It's pretty much the same story in the NL East. This might end up being Charlie Manuel's finest managing job. To stay above .500 with a roster decimated by injuries and disappointing performances speaks volumes, not only about Manuel, but about the leadership and resolve of Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino and others.

The Nationals have spent virtually the entire season in first place, but their margin has never been more than 2 1/2 games, and it is now down to one game over the Mets and Marlins, who shook off the turmoil of April to go 20-8 in May and emerge as the latest fashionable pick.

How about those Mets? Some rebuilding year, huh? General manager Sandy Alderson is doing for New York pretty much what he did for the A's at an earlier time in his career.

Alderson is fast-tracking kids onto the Major League roster and giving them the opportunity to succeed and fail and succeed again. Some nights, manager Terry Collins is running nine homegrown players out there, and we appear to be seeing the nucleus forming of a group that could keep the Mets in contention for years to come.

And oh yes, that David Wright guy is having one of the great offensive years in Mets history.

The Angels and Nationals also know something about the power of youth. Mike Trout, 20, has helped energize the Angels, and Bryce Harper, 19, has looked completely at home with the Nationals.

By comparison, Will Middlebrooks, 23, is a seasoned veteran. The Red Sox summoned him from the Minors on May 2 and now have won 13 of their last 17 with him in the starting lineup. Their deficit in the AL East has dropped from 7 1/2 games to three.

The Mets are a great example of what can happen to a franchise when it leans on its youth. There are great risks in doing this since young players come without guarantees. But those kids can energize a franchise and build something that lasts.

This Spring Training was so different for the Mets. There was Johan Santana taking one day at a time, a long-toss session there, a bullpen workout there. Considering how uncertain his future looked, it had the feel of preparing for the end of a career that was going to end too soon.

Santana's no-hitter on Friday was the third of this season, and like Phillip Humber of the White Sox, who overcame all sorts of obstacles to have that magical moment, there was a back story even better than the performance itself.

Jared Weaver, a true ace, threw one, too, for the Angels, and Justin Verlander, the ace of all aces, took one into the ninth inning.

The White Sox, Indians and Pirates are all in contention, all making this season special. All are a blend of youth and experience, and all have scuffled enough in recent years that every victory is special.

The Dodgers and Rangers appeared on their way to dominating this season, and they may still end up doing just that. But both have stumbled. The Dodgers have lost their best player, Matt Kemp, for a second time, and with the Giants finally emerging as the team some of us expected them to be, the NL West looks far different than it did a few days ago.

So does the AL West. About the time Albert Pujols started to hit, the Angels began to roll up quality starts, and a 20-11 stretch has cut the Rangers' lead from nine games to 4 1/2.

If the season ended today, Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto might very well be the AL and NL Most Valuable Player Award winners. Gio Gonzalez and David Price likely would be the Cy Young Award winners.

But the great thing is that this season is just getting warmed up. At least 20 teams are still in serious contention, but last season taught us all about not jumping to conclusions.

In other words, don't touch that dial.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.