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The Monday Takeaway
Take a good look at the American League East standings this morning—you may not see this particular arrangement again for a long time. The Orioles are still on top. The Rays are two games back and the Jays three.  The Yankees and Red Sox? They’re tied for last, sharing the cellar at 21-21 and searching for answers.

On Monday night, Felipe Paulino had all the answers to the Yankees’ lineup, as the Royals pitched their first shutout in the Bronx since Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran graced their outfield with then-rookie Dan Reichert on the mound on August 18, 1999. I turned nine that day, and I graduated from college two days ago, so let’s just say it has been a while.

It has also been a while since the Royals had a true frontline starter, but if his first four starts of the 2012 season are any indication, the late-blooming, 28-year-old Paulino might be rounding into one. Those four starts include two victories over the Yankees, a loss to the White Sox, and a strong effort in a no-decision against the Orioles, during which he has compiled a 1.42 ERA.

Paulino has been the hardest-throwing starter in baseball to date, firing his fastball at an average of 96 mph, a tick better than those of Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Unlike most starters, he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher, mixing that fastball with a sharp, 87-mph slider. Together, the fastball-slider tandem accounts for about 85 percent of Paulino’s offerings, enabling him to get by with only a show-me changeup and curveball.

In the past, Paulino’s struggles have mostly been the result of poor command and a lack of consistency. So it is fair to wonder if this early-season breakout, which comes after he began the year on the disabled list with a forearm strain suffered during spring training, is a fluke. It is also fair to be impressed, though. Through 25 1/3 innings, Paulino has allowed just one home run, walked only seven batters, and struck out 29—good for a 2.25 FIP.

You know who has a 2.24 FIP so far this season? This guy.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • From bumping Mike Aviles into the leadoff spot to playing Kelly Shoppach because it was his birthday, Bobby Valentine has kept us guessing with his lineup choices throughout the first month and a half of the season. With Kevin Youkilis set to return from the disabled list for tonight’s game (7:05 p.m. ET) in Baltimore, and Cody Ross taking his place with a broken foot, both positions and batting order slots are up in the air. Will Youkilis return to the four-hole? Should Will Middlebrooks or Adrian Gonzalez invest in an outfielder’s glove? Is that piece of gum Gary Darling lost still stuck to Bobby V’s jacket? Stay tuned.
     
  • The Nationals are in second place, tied in the loss column with the first-place Braves. The Phillies are dead last, and they are the only team in either East division with a sub-.500 record. Jordan Zimmermann is 2-4—with a 2.58 ERA. Roy Halladay is 4-3 after losing just six games all of last season. It’s safe to say that things are a little topsy-turvy by the Atlantic these days. Those two righties will duel tonight (7:05 p.m. ET) in what, at least on paper, is the best pitching matchup on the slate.
  • Last year, Brandon Beachy was an extreme fly-ball pitcher with an astronomical strikeout rate and a 3.68 ERA that did not quite do justice to his 3.19 FIP. This year, Brandon Beachy is a balanced pitcher with a pedestrian strikeout rate and an outstanding 1.66 ERA that should soon rise toward his 2.54 FIP. His newfound secret is keeping the ball in the yard—Beachy has allowed only one home run in 54 innings—and only Matt Kemp has cracked it to date. Tonight (7:10 p.m. ET), it will be put to the test at Great American Ballpark, where Beachy’s teammate, Mike Minor, was taken deep four times in Monday’s loss.  
  • It’s hard enough to go 13-for-29 over an eight-game span, let alone to do so without striking out a single time. But Carlos Lee has done just that, picking up a double, two homers, and two walks along the way. He is 2-for-10 in his prior meetings with Tuesday’s (8:05 p.m. ET) Cubs starter Travis Wood, who is fresh up from Triple-A for his second outing of the season since coming over in the Sean Marshall deal with the Reds this past winter. Wood said he hopes to “stick around for a while,” and he’ll need to slow down El Caballo to earn a long-term rotation spot in Chicago.