It was an amazing first month for the upstart Kansas City Royals, who opened the 2003 season with seemingly little hope of contending in the American League Central.
It will be even more amazing if they can maintain anything close to the heady pace they set on the way to the 17-8 that has put them on top of the American League Central standings and turned them into another shining example of good small-market management.
The Royals, who open a three-game series against the Orioles tonight at Camden Yards, still must prove that they are more than just the happy beneficiaries of a soft April schedule, but they already have gained credibility with their strong young pitching staff and exciting offense.
"The Royals have played inspired baseball," said Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who has seen them up close in two early-season series. "They had a great spring training, and they built from that."
Of course, no one placed a lot of stock in the Royals' 19-10 exhibition record, even if it was the best in either league. It was too soon to forget that the Royals also had the best exhibition record in baseball in 1999 (22-9) and all it translated into was 97 losses in the regular season.
The difference this year is the way the club carried that momentum right into the regular season and rushed out to a big lead over the two teams - the White Sox and defending division champion Minnesota Twins - that were expected to be the only contenders in the American League's least imposing division.
Though an early 17-4 burst has been tempered by a wakeup call this week in Boston, manager Tony Pena has the Royals playing with great confidence as they pass through Baltimore on the way to face some stiff competition in May and June.
They'll find out soon enough whether they are just a one-month wonder, following up this weekend series with 37 of their next 50 games against teams that won at least 92 games last year.
It will be a grind, but no one who has faced the Royals during the early weeks of the season is ready to dismiss their performance as some kind of anomalous spring fling. Even from the other dugout, opponents apparently can see the positive impact that Pena has had on this interesting mix of no-name pitchers and star-quality run-producers.
"Tony Pena has been a good manager for that team because he has energy and he's got an infectious attitude," Thomas said. "That goes a long way toward winning."
It is an approach that Pena perfected during an 18-year major league catching career spent keeping his teammates on their toes.
"That's the way he was in Boston," said Orioles director of baseball administration Ed Kenney, who was a Red Sox executive when Pena played four seasons behind the plate for the Sox from 1990 to 1993. "He was a leader, and he kept the team loose. He was the typical field general as a catcher ... and he could handle a pitching staff."
So far, Pena has done an impressive job of steering an inexperienced rotation to a successful April, though most of the national attention has focused on right-hander Runelvys Hernandez.
Hernandez, 25, who is scheduled to start tomorrow against Orioles right-hander Sidney Ponson, is 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA in six starts after making 12 major league starts in his rookie season last year. Though the other starters - Miguel Asencio, Chris George, Jeremy Affeldt and Darrell May - have not been nearly as flashy, they have combined to win six out of nine decisions. May, at 30, is the only member of the rotation who is older than 25.
The Royals also have built a surprisingly effective bullpen around rookie closer Mike MacDougal, who leads the AL with 10 saves and has benefited from the experience of veteran middlemen Jason Grimsley and Albie Lopez.
Royals general manager Allard Baird gives Pena high marks for the way he has prepared the team to compete, but he said the club's veteran stars also deserve some of the credit for helping to develop and maintain a positive environment.
First baseman Mike Sweeney, third baseman Joe Randa and outfielders Raul Ibanez and Michael Tucker have had an obvious impact on the team's solid offensive production, but it doesn't stop there.
"Our veterans deserve a huge amount of credit for creating an atmosphere that has allowed our young players to develop, right from the first day of spring training," Baird told reporters at Fenway Park this week.
If the Royals appear to have come out of nowhere, it is only because that's where they were a year ago. They lost 100 games and did not make any significant attempt to add outside help over the winter. But they entered 2003 suffering more from a lack of expectations than a lack of talent.
There is no shortage of run-production potential at the heart of the lineup, with Sweeney averaging 108 RBIs the past four seasons and outfielder Carlos Beltran coming off back-to-back 100-RBI seasons. The Royals also got 24 home runs and 103 RBIs from Ibanez in 2002 and solid production from Randa.