ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Time for Major League Baseball. Now that the bats are really cracking, we're going to check in on how the teams and some key players are shaping up. We're joined now, as we are most Fridays, by sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.
STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: Let's start with some breaking news. It was reported today that Kerry Wood, the hard-throwing Chicago Cubs pitcher, has decided to retire after 14 seasons.
FATSIS: Yeah. I still think of Wood as that 20-year-old rookie who struck out 20 Houston Astros in 1998 in just the fifth start of his career. But then you also think about the arm trouble that derailed his promise time and time again. He missed the 1999 season after he had Tommy John elbow surgery. He had repeated shoulder and other problems. He did remake himself as a reliever and after a couple of seasons elsewhere returned to Chicago where he is beloved.
He struggled this year. He was so frustrated that he tossed his glove and cap into the stands last week at Wrigley Field after a bad performance. Kerry Wood will go down as one of those athletes you wonder just how good he could have been.
SIEGEL: Kerry Wood's career reminds us of how hard it is to predict who will do very well in Major League Baseball. One player whom you could always count on to do incredibly well was Albert Pujols, but he is off to a terrible start with his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, this season.
FATSIS: Yeah. Pujols left the St. Louis Cardinals after 11 seasons. He signed a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels. He's in the worst slump of his career. Thirty-eight games so far, just three home runs and 18 runs batted in. His batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage - they're all anemic. He has averaged 44 home runs per season over his career.
He's on pace this season, Robert, for 13. Look, this is probably just a slow start. He has hit two home runs this week, so maybe it's ending, but this has definitely hurt his team. The Angels are already seven games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers.
SIEGEL: Speaking of the Rangers, their slugger is having no problems whatever, to put it mildly. Josh Hamilton is on a pace that could be described as the very opposite of Pujols.
FATSIS: Yeah. With Pujols, we're getting these articles quoting other sluggers saying, hang in there. We've all been through slumps. With Josh Hamilton, we're getting stories about whether he's going to win the Triple Crown. He leads the American League in all three categories, the batting categories: average .399, home runs 18, runs batted in 45.
We mentioned pace. Hamilton is on pace to break Barry Bonds' record of 73 homers in a season. Last week, he became just the 16th player in Major League history to hit four home runs in one game.
You know how, in Little League, there's always one big kid who looks like he doesn't belong? Josh Hamilton's treating the major leagues that way. The big question with him, though, has always been injuries. He's had a full season just once in his six years in the big leagues.
SIEGEL: And the Rangers are more than just Josh Hamilton, too.
FATSIS: Yeah. They've scored the most runs in baseball. They've also given up the fewest runs in the American League, so their pitching has been phenomenal.
Yu Darvish of Japan, whom we talked about before the season started - the Rangers committed more than $100 million to bring him over from Japan during the off season. He has been better than advertised. He's won six of his first eight starts, struck out 58 batters in 52 innings.
SIEGEL: Darvish is not the only new - or at least newish - player making an impact this season. In Washington, D.C., right here, we have a couple.
FATSIS: Yeah. Who knew? Baseball in Washington. Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Harper is the Washington Nationals' 19-year-old outfielder who made his major league debut three weeks ago. He's been busy. Homered in back-to-back games, was intentionally hit by a pitch thrown by Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies, who was then suspended. Harper stole home in the same game. He took 10 stitches above an eye after slamming a bat against the dugout wall and then he became a YouTube sensation when he showed up on the National Mall during an office softball game and took a couple of swings.
SIEGEL: Reminiscent of Willie Mays playing stickball in the streets of Harlem when he first came to New York.
FATSIS: Exactly. And then you've got Strasburg, who's been sensational on the pitching mound after coming back from elbow surgery. The two of them - one of the main reasons there's hope in Washington for baseball. The city has not watched a post-season game since 1933.
SIEGEL: Well, Stefan, enjoy a weekend of interleague play, hockey playoffs, NBA playoffs and the Preakness. Enjoy yourself.
FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Stefan Fatsis, who joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.