As we enter the final three weeks of the regular season the phrase “magic number” enters the daily lexicon as teams get closer to clinching berths in the upcoming playoffs.
Heading into Tuesday’s play, there were six American League teams that were mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs and one in the National League. Obviously, those numbers will grow every few days for the balance of the season.
Baseball would love to have several Division titles or Wild Card races settled over the final weekend of the season but things do not always work out that way.
Once a team is eliminated managers begin giving added playing time to their less experienced players on the now-expanded 40-man rosters.
One strategy often employed involves teams that clinch either a division title or a Wild Card, especially when their seeding for the playoffs is likely to be set in place upon the clinching. There is often value in playing against such a team in its next game following the clinching as managers often give many, if not most starters the following game off.
This factor will be accounted for in the line. But if the opponent is competent and showing signs of still playing hard, it makes for a solid play.
Here are previews and recommendations for three weekend series.
Braves at Nationals: Atlanta won three of four at home last weekend against the Nationals and led the Nats by 9.5 games entering Tuesday. The Braves could theoretically be in position to clinch the division title with a sweep of this three-game series.
Washington still controls the top NL Wild Card with a three-game lead over the Cubs for the right to host that game. There is an odd scheduling dynamic involved as this series is preceded by a seven-game road trip and followed by a six-game roady. The Nats would be content to take two of three games.
If things go as planned, the Nats will start Joe Ross, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez against Mike Soroka, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried. This suggests the Friday and Sunday games should be competitively priced and the Nats will be modest favorites on Saturday.
If indeed the Nats are priced at -120 or less — or, possibly, underdogs, they can be backed in starts by both Ross and Sanchez. If Washington wins the opener I will look to back the Braves if getting +140 or more against Scherzer. An Atlanta win on Friday would have me on the Nats with Scherzer -150 or less.
Brewers at Cardinals: This could be Milwaukee’s best chance to make up ground on the NL Central-leading Cardinals. Following this series, Milwaukee’s final 13 games are against teams almost certain to end the season with losing records.
St. Louis’ final 13 games are against teams likely to finish with winning records, including seven games against the Cubs who sit between the Brewers and Cards in the standings.
The most favorable spot for St. Louis in the series will be in a start by Jack Flaherty, who may be backed at -150 or less against any Milwaukee starter. Both teams have been solid Under teams this season so look to play Under totals of 9 or higher, although a start by Flaherty may be played Under 8.5.
Twins at Indians: Cleveland somewhat accomplished its goal by taking two of three last weekend in Minnesota. But if the Indians are to win the AL Central, they almost need to sweep this three-game home series. Entering Tuesday, the Tribe trailed the Twins by five games.
The series sets up nicely for Cleveland. If things go as expected the Indians will start their three hottest pitchers — Aaron Civale, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber. The Twins have the more potent offense but Cleveland does rate the edge in the bullpen.
The Twins can afford to lose this series with the much easier schedule down the stretch (all 13 games are against teams that will finish with losing records) while Cleveland still has six games against Philadelphia and at Washington.
I’ll look to back Cleveland to win at least two of the three games and will be willing to lay -150 or less in starts by the aforementioned trio. As you might guess, Cleveland has played more Unders than Overs this season with Minnesota having done the reverse. The combination of Cleveland’s Bieber and Civale are a combined 24-9-3 to the Under.