Ross Atkin, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Early results can't be counted on to define a baseball season - but they can't be dismissed lightly, either. Every game counts.

The shape of things to date offers some surprises: Two of last year's playoff teams - Cincinnati and Boston - are stuck in or near last place in their respective divisions, while 1995 cellar-dwellers Montreal and San Diego are riding high in first.

The Atlanta Braves are winning more often than not, but not in a style or with the regularity one expects from a defending World Series champion. At the moment they're hovering behind Montreal in second place having just gone past Philadelphia.

For a team like Atlanta, whose players are used to having their pennant juices flow, it may be hard to reach peak performance during the early weeks. The year after a championship is often challenging (Toronto, in 1992 and 1993, is baseball's only repeat winner in 17 years). The Braves have their work cut out for them, especially in a city where the fans may be blas and where this summer's main attraction will be the Olympics, not baseball.

Fast-forward to fall

Commenting on the team's unspectacular attendance figures, third baseman Chipper Jones says, "Everybody expects us to be in the playoffs, and from a fan's standpoint, they are going to wait" until the playoffs begin in September.

The good news is that pitcher John Smoltz, in something of a personal revival, has more than compensated for the slow start of World Series hero Tom Glavine, and outfielder Ryan Klesko is bashing the ball. The Braves' outfielder is among the home run leaders in a season in which balls are popping out of parks with striking frequency.

Home runs are up 7 percent over last season, attributable partly to poor pitching and perhaps partly (some are convinced) to a livelier ball.

Baltimore's Brady Anderson is responsible for one of the most impressive slugging efforts. He has hit a major league-leading 15 home runs, compared with 16 all last season. Anderson helped the Orioles get off to a very fast start, but lately the surging New York Yankees, last year's American League wild-card team, have overtaken them.

Elsewhere in the A.L. East, Boston has belly-flopped badly, due to a glut of slapstick fielding errors and pitching so consistently disappointing that in desperation the club demoted pitching coach Al Nipper. Roger Clemens, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, went 0-4 before recording his first victory last week. Over the weekend, the Red Sox showed signs of life in a three-game series with Toronto, and they continue to get good leadership and production out of 1995 league MVP Mo Vaughn.

Cleveland, the defending American League champion, is playing as though determined to get back to the World Series. Not even the latest controversy surrounding slugging outfielder Albert Belle, who was fined $50,000 for an outburst during last October's Series and now is accused of throwing a baseball at a photographer, seems a distraction to this competitively hungry group.

Staying hot, even in heat

Texas, which has never made the playoffs, is ahead in the A.L. West now. They just became the first American League team in 79 years to post two consecutive one-hitters. The Rangers have had trouble sustaining their momentum in the past, sometimes wilting in the Texas heat.

In the National League, the Montreal Expos have absolutely amazed with their ability to win with less-seasoned players who make up one of the lowest-paid rosters in the majors. Manager Felipe Alou deserves a lot of the credit. Some observers are convinced he is one of the game's best handlers of young talent

The San Diego Padres have been no less impressive. As often happens, a Padre leads the majors in batting average, but in this case it is first-baseman Wally Joyner, not six-time N.L. batting champion Tony Gwynn. Pitcher Joey Hamilton is also out to a strong start.

New Cincinnati manager Ray Knight has experimented with a raft of different lineups. Nothing has clicked for the reigning division champs (N.L. Central) so far. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs cannot help being encouraged by the recent play of second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who struggled through the first month of his comeback season but now appears to be hitting his stride.

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