Season at quarter mark, but a lot can change

With a quarter of the season in the books, the Orioles and Nationals are turning heads and bringing hope for a summer of excitement. But it’s too early to label the Orioles and Nationals serious contenders for at least another three months. The last two seasons provide proof that surprise teams can begin to slip as early as June and as late as September.

Nobody expected the Cleveland Indians to contend last season in the American League Central, but on May 23, they were in first place with a 30-15 record and a seven-game lead. Then the fall started. In the final four months, they didn’t come close to a .500 record. They had a strong bullpen, but injuries and a thin rotation did them in. Ubaldo Jimenez, who arrived in a trade from Colorado, didn’t work out, and the young guys, such as Carlos Carrasco, weren’t ready for prime time. The result: The Indians finished 80-82.

After 18 consecutive losing seasons, and 105 losses in 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates managed to hang around at the top of the National League Central until late July. Then an 8-22 August doomed them. The problems were injuries, lack of depth and a young pitching staff that couldn’t handle the grind and fatigue of August and September. They finished 3-12 versus the division champion Milwaukee Brewers and eventually their 19th consecutive losing season. “The biggest lesson we learned last season was what it takes to play an entire season at a championship level,” Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “If we learn that, we are going to be fine this season.”

In 2010, the San Diego Padres, picked by most to finish last in the NL West, were 6 1/2 games ahead of the San Francisco Giants on Aug. 25. But the Padres endured a 10-game losing streak - mostly, the young pitching was the issue - and wound up out of the playoffs, even though they had been in first place for 148 days.

Other thoughts:

* The Orioles swept the Red Sox earlier this month in Fenway Park, but the Red Sox appear to have put things together since then. They’ve won eight of 10. Josh Beckett is pitching like an ace and the Red Sox might consider using first baseman Adrian Gonzalez in right field to help the offense by allowing prospect Will Middlebrooks to get into more games. The Red Sox could use Middlebrooks at third and Kevin Youkilis at first. Youkilis is coming off the disabled list Tuesday.

* What does it say about the popularity of interleague play when Sunday night’s TV game was a NL matchup of the first-place Dodgers and Cardinals? TV executives chose that game over any of the other interleague games, including the Red Sox-Phillies and Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon going up against his former team from Boston.

* How about the Pirates’ hitting problems in the last couple of weeks? First, they have 13 strikeouts against the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg. Then, over the weekend, they are nearly no-hit by Detroit’s Justin Verlander before striking out 15 times against struggling Tigers starter Max Scherzer. The Pirates still can’t hit, even though they have essentially two batting coaches in the dugout, considering manager Clint Hurdle is a former batting coach.

* The Nationals will learn a lot about themselves on their current trip to Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta. The Phillies are used to dominating the Nationals, but the Nationals are 12-9 against the Phillies since going 21-51 versus the Phillies. The Marlins are starting to play like contenders now that shortstop Jose Reyes is hitting and pitcher Josh Johnson is returning to form, and the Braves are hitting better than expected. Watch out for the Braves when they get their pitching together.

* Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa said that too many people are focused on his strikeouts. He said strikeouts aren’t that big of deal unless he’s consistently striking out with runners in scoring position. He said that despite his low average, he’s feeling comfortable at the plate and he’s not going to get consumed with stats critics looking at his strikeout rate.

* Apparently, the Nationals traded pitcher Jason Marquis just in time last July. Marquis went to Arizona, where he was injured and didn’t make their playoff roster, and then signed with Minnesota. But in his last 45 innings going back to the trade, Marquis has allowed 49 runs.

* One of the biggest misconceptions in baseball is that umpires aren’t held accountable. Major League Baseball is constantly evaluating umpires. In fact, an umpire supervisor was in D.C. over the weekend scouting the four-man crew and meeting with them after each game. Usually, umpires on the field do fine, but the supervisor will correct them in basic fundamentals, such as getting in the right position to make a call. If the supervisor thinks the umpire is having trouble behind the plate, he’ll tell him and work on making his ball-and-strike calls better.

Thanks for reading.