AL East unmatched in majors

The Baltimore Sun

Observations, opinions and musings from this week in Major League Baseball. The American League East gets plenty of respect. It has for years.

Throughout the majors, the AL East is considered the toughest division to win because that's where baseball's big boys, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, reside.

The criticism is that it's top-heavy, with the Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays dragging it down for the past decade. And so the AL Central or National League West would, on occasion, be deemed the best in baseball.

But with the Rays in first, the Orioles hanging around .500 and the Toronto Blue Jays doing their steady, third-place thing, the first two months of the season have served warning that the AL East is peerless right now.

"To me, yeah, it is [the best] because of the pitching all these teams are throwing out there," Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. "Toronto has the toughest from top to bottom; Tampa has improved dramatically; Baltimore, we've been seeing some good pitching from there; and we know what Boston is capable of. It is a tough division."

It's possible this is the best it has ever been -- or at the least the most balanced.

"The East has been pretty good for the last 10 years, but I think there is more parity than there ever has been," said Orioles outfielder Jay Payton, 35, who has played in four of baseball's six divisions in his career.

Early on, the teams have been knocking each other around. Only the Rays have a record above .500 against divisional clubs -- a stunning 21-12 mark.

"You'd better bring your 'A' game. You'd better be ready," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "Right now, because there's a lot of young players, there's a lot of unheralded clubs. There's a lot of guys getting opportunities that they never got before, and they're making the most of it."

Previously, the Orioles and Rays might have been overlooked. But Yankees starter Mike Mussina, who has spent his entire career in the East, said that's not the case in 2008.

"In past years, it has probably been the mind-set from time to time. You come in here or they come to you and they are not playing very well," Mussina said. "You play them a couple days and they still don't play well, so you can keep the momentum going and win a series or sweep a series.

"But it is different right now."

A painful victory

Washington Nationals pitcher Odalis Perez gets the Tough Guy of the Week Award for gutting out 6 1/3 innings to pick up the win Wednesday against the San Diego Padres. He allowed three runs just hours after a four-hour emergency root canal. "I think we're scheduling [another] one in five days for him," Nationals manager Manny Acta said jokingly.

Perez had an unbearable toothache Tuesday, barely slept overnight and then scheduled the emergency procedure Wednesday morning. Weakened by painkillers and a lack of food, Perez had hoped to survive two or three innings.

Instead, he turned in a quality start that raised the question: Which is more painful, a root canal or watching the Padres' offense?

The Joba problem

It's understandable the Yankees want reliever Joba Chamberlain in the rotation. The mystery is why they didn't make the transition in the spring. Doing it in May helped cost them a win Tuesday at Camden Yards.

With a one-run lead in the 11th, and closer Mariano Rivera already having thrown two innings, the Yankees could have used Chamberlain to finish it off. But because Chamberlain needs to be stretched out to prepare for his new assignment, he wasn't available. So the Yankees went with a struggling LaTroy Hawkins, and the Orioles scored two for an impressive comeback win.

Chamberlain, 22, likely will be a fine starter eventually. But he's already in a fishbowl in New York, and this in-season move adds even more pressure. Because he hasn't pitched more than two innings this year, he'll likely turn in some short starts initially, which will further tax a bullpen that won't have Chamberlain to turn to.

Mt. Guillen erupts

It was just a matter of time before Kansas City Royals outfielder Jose Guillen's frustration boiled over. Whoever had May 28 in the pool, congratulations.

Mired in a 10-game losing streak, Guillen, a first-year Royal, unloaded about his teammates' lack of baseball intelligence, while defending manager Trey Hillman.

"It's not the manager," Guillen said. "We have too many babies here who don't know how to play the game. Well, we're going to teach them the hard way or we're going to teach them the easy way. But things are going to change here."

Yes, he is a loose cannon. But the great thing about Guillen is he speaks his mind and doesn't care who he offends, and that is rare in this business these days.

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