Unlike football (Arizona Cardinals) and basketball (Orlando Magic), Major League Baseball is stingy with its surprises. Sure, the perennial-doormat Tampa Bay Rays made it to the promised land last year, but that was the rare exception to a longstanding MLB rule that separates contenders from also-rans.
Though that unwritten baseball law will likely hold true this season, as well, it's been a heady year so far for historical have-nots. Two -- the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers -- currently lead their divisions, and several other teams not named Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox have made some welcome noise. Think Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres -- early. And how 'bout those San Francisco Giants? Surprising.
But our favorite 2009 underdogs to date are the Kansas City Royals, one of the worst and most cash-strapped teams in any major sport over the last couple of decades.
Though they've started their inevitable free-fall in the last couple of weeks, the pride of BBQ Town was shockingly competitive for the season's first six weeks or so, and the Royals were actually tied for first place in the AL Central as late as May 15. This may not seem like so much for fans of real teams, but it's something Royals backers haven't been since the days of George Brett and Bret Saberhagen.
The 28-34 Royals -- who host the league's most surprising team in a not-so-nice way, our own Arizona Diamondbacks (27-37), in a three-game interleague series beginning tonight at KC's Kauffman Stadium -- are riding the arm of bright young ace Zack Greinke (8-2), whose 1.72 ERA is tops in the American League and third in the bigs. The team also boasts an overall pitching staff that's ranked eighth in the majors with a 4.12 team ERA and a solid young offensive core that includes former D-Back 2B Alberto Callaspo (.318), third-baseman Mark Teahen (.286), first-baseman Billy Butler (.283), designated hitter Mike Jacobs (10 homers), and catcher Miguel Olivo (nine homers). Their most promising hitter, outfielder David DeJesus, is having an off year after a 2008 campaign in which he hit .307 with 12 homers and 73 RBI. KC's other outfield "star," grizzled vet Jose Guillen, has also been struggling with a .253 average.
Probable pitching matchups are:
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Arizona's Doug Davis (3-7, 3.65) vs. Gil Meche (3-5, 3.70), tonight at 5:10.
Max Scherzer (3-4, 3.63) vs. KC ace Greinke, Wednesday at 5:10 p.m.
D-Backs ace Dan Haren (5-4, 2.20) vs. Luke Hochevar (2-2, 5.60), Thursday at 5:10 p.m.
All three games will be televised on Fox Sports Arizona and broadcast on KTAR-AM 620. More info: www.dbacks.com.