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Surprise performances aplenty in season's first half

Surprise performances aplenty in season's first half

Surprise performances aplenty in season's first half

Every baseball season is full of surprises. In fact, a lot of the hubbub circulating in 2013 revolves around a huge, chiseled surprise in Los Angeles by the name of Yasiel Puig.

Maybe those who paid close attention to his ridiculous Spring Training aren't surprised by what the 22-year-old Cuban phenom has done since being called up from Double-A, but even sample-size-obsessed realists have been typing "SMH" into their Twitter feeds while watching No. 66 rake and run and ram into outfield walls.

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And Puig is hardly the only out-of-nowhere success story this year. There's Chris Davis of the Orioles, who hit 33 homers last year and already has 32 this year.

Take a look around. Surprises are popping up all over the big league map. Like all the way in the top left-hand corner of that map, for example. Everybody knew Mariners outfielder Raul Ibanez was a good power hitter ... a few years ago. He even hit 19 long balls for the Yankees last year, and who could forget the drama he supplied in the American League Division Series against Baltimore?

But Seattle's offseason signing of Ibanez, who is now 41, for a third tour of duty in the Pacific Northwest seemed more like a move for a bench bat, a clubhouse presence to mentor a young roster, and quite possibly a final go-around in a city he loves.

Uh ... not so much.

Through Thursday, Ibanez had hit seven home runs in his last 10 games and had 21 overall. We are more than a week out from the All-Star break. His on-base percentage remains low and his batting average isn't great, but the power numbers are off the charts, and the Mariners are loving it.

Ibanez has become the oldest player in history to hit 20 or more homers before the break. His 21 homers ties Dave Winfield for fifth place for most long balls in a season by a Major Leaguer age 41 or older. The all-time record is 29 by Ted Williams in 1960.

"Amazing," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "But if you just follow him around, watch what he does all day, he's always doing something, always working. He works so hard in the winter time to put himself in the best position mentally as well as physically. He knows himself, fundamentally. You watch him in batting practice, it's so calculating. It all leads to success in games."

And a huge surprise, not unlike what's going on in Baltimore right now with Nate McLouth.

McLouth, who resuscitated a flagging career by becoming a huge part of Baltimore's late-season and postseason run last year, has upped it a notch this year in the wheels department. Through Thursday, McLouth had stolen a career-high 24 bases in 28 attempts, all in 281 at-bats, to rank fourth in that category in the Majors.

The last time McLouth almost had that many bags, when he ripped off 23 for the Pirates in 2008, it was in 597 at-bats. McLouth had been leading off quite a bit for Baltimore this year until Nick Markakis assumed the role, and McLouth has accepted his role of batting lower in the order.

"That's fine with me," McLouth said. "I like Nick leading off against lefties, because he hits. Nick's the kind of guy who, if you look at his numbers, they're probably the same against whatever pitcher, whatever inning, home, road, he's just so consistent."

On the pitching side of things, there have been many surprises. Max Scherzer starting off 13-0 is pretty incredible, but Scherzer has always had lights-out stuff. Patrick Corbin's efforts for Arizona have not gone unnoticed in the eye-opening department. Jason Grilli going from perennial non-roster invitee to top closer in the National League has been quite a head-shaker.

And then there's Bartolo Colon.

Yeah, he's a former AL Cy Young Award winner, but that was eight years ago. Since then, he had a balky back and arm and spotty performance that didn't make him a kind-of-full-time big-league starter again until hooking on with the Yankees after signing a Minor League deal in 2011.

Last season, in the midst of a promising comeback with Oakland, Colon was popped for performance-enhancing drug use in August and suspended for 50 games. This year, he re-upped with the A's, was reinstated in early April, turned 40 in May, and, as no one on Earth could have predicted, is 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA, just had an eight-game winning streak to seal Pitcher of the Month honors for his 5-0, 1.75 June, and is on pace for the lowest WHIP of his career.

"Like anybody, once you get on a little bit of a roll, you start to feel that much more confident," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "The team feels confident about you, and maybe sometimes the results reflect that. But it doesn't really look like he's pitching any different than last year, maybe other than him mixing up his pitches a bit more."

The same could be said for the Mets' Matt Harvey, who flashed brilliance in his short stint with the big club in 2012. It's not surprising at all that Harvey could be dominant at times; he has an upper-90s fastball with late movement and plus secondary pitches. But command and pitch counts were a concern exiting Spring Training, so the fact that he's become a front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award in his first full Major League season has been very surprising.

Through Thursday, Harvey was 7-2 with a 2.27 ERA, 141 strikeouts in 123 innings, and a WHIP of 0.91. He's looking good to start the upcoming All-Star Game for the NL in front of his home crowd at Citi Field.

"He's always got no-hit stuff," Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said recently of Harvey. "He throws 97 miles per hour with a breaking ball, cutter, slider, changeup, everything else. He has it."

Baseball fans have it, too. The surprises of the season keep on coming, with more on the way in what figures to be one dramatic second half.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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