All-Star Game set for Washington

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Billed as the Midsummer Classic, baseball’s All Star Game takes place next Tuesday in Washington, DC along with the Home Run Derby and other celebrations of the game that was America’s National Pastime for much of the 20th Century.

Once the festivities have taken place and play resumes next Thursday with the makeup of a game postponed earlier this season, anticipation will heighten as the end of month non-waiver trade deadline approaches. Attention will then fully focus on the Divisional and Wild Card races that are developing in both leagues.

This has already been a noteworthy season with one month in which the number of base hits was less than the number of strikeouts for the first time in history, something that could well be duplicated again before this season ends.

With teams having played 90 games, not only are four still on pace to more than 100 wins but they are in one league. Boston, the Yankees, Houston and Seattle are all playing at a pace that will make the American League Playoffs as contentious as ever, with two of those four teams (currently the Yankees and Seattle) putting those potential 100-plus seasons on the line in a one game Wild Card Playoff team.

The AL team most likely to earn a free trip to the League Divisional Series and not have to endure a one game playoff is Cleveland. The Indians are 49-39 and started this week with a 9.5 game lead in the AL Central. Not only is Cleveland the only team in the Division with a winning record but second place Minnesota started this week 9 games below .500.

Two teams in the National League – Milwaukee and the Cubs – are on pace to win 97 and 95 games respectively. The Brewers and Cubs both play in the NL Central, which could result in the team with the NL’s second best record also facing a one game elimination Wild Card game.

A pair of surprise teams are tied for the lead in the NL East as both Atlanta and Philadelphia are seeing their young talented rosters gel a season or two ahead of schedule. Meanwhile the preseason overwhelming favorite to win the NL East, the Washington Nationals, continues to plod along with a 45-44 record that has them 5 games out of first place and showing few signs of being able to turn things on.

Last Thursday, riding a 5 game losing streak, the Nats trailed last place Miami 9-0 as they batted in the bottom of the fourth inning. Entering the top of the eighth inning Washington had erased that deficit and led 14-9 before the Marlins scored 3 runs to trail 14-12. That was the final score but Miami made the top of the ninth interesting before making the game’s final out with two runners on base and the go ahead run at the plate.

Washington won the next two games, including an 18-4 rout of Miami on Saturday, but then lost the series finale on Sunday, 10-2. Often we see a team that stages the kind of incredible rally the Nats staged on Thursday propel them to a lengthy winning streak. Washington’s streak lasted just three games as the team headed to Pittsburgh for a three game series that started on Monday.

That’s not to say Sunday’s loss might not be the lone loss in a stretch of 10 or 12 games should the Nats start a lengthy winning streak against the Pirates. And a 5 game deficit is not too much to overcome – even against two Divisional opponents – with 70 plus games still to be played, especially with those foes having had little success over the past few seasons compared to that of the Nats.

But the Nats don’t have the look of a team playing with confidence. Rookie manager Dave Martinez has been repeatedly criticized for a number of decisions made or not made in his first three and a half months. With the impending free agency of star Bryce Harper following this season, time could be running out for one of baseball’s most disappointing Playoff teams over the past half-decade.

And speaking of the Las Vegas native, while Harper is enjoying a fine season in terms of power with 21 homers and 50 RBI his .218 batting average is a concern. He does lead the NL in walks (76), second overall to the AL’s Mike Trout, so he is getting on base. But that average would be a career low. Since hitting the majors in 2012 his .243 average in 2016 was his career low.

His talent is such that he, and the Nationals, can make a strong run over the remaining two and a half months of the season and end up hitting in the .260s. If so, the Nats would likely overtake the Braves and Phillies to win the NL East in what might be Harper’s last season in Washington before signing a huge contract during the offseason. Whether he will play for the Cubs or Yankees (or some as yet unknown suitor) will be the big story of the offseason. But for now his efforts are focused on getting the Nats to the Playoffs and having yet another chance to make it beyond the Divisional Series round.

Here are thoughts on three series that lead into next week’s All Star break.

Arizona at Atlanta

Both teams are contending for both Division titles and Wild Card berths as the All Star break approaches. These teams meet for the first time this season. Whereas Arizona was projected to be a Playoffs contender Atlanta’s ascension has been a bit of a surprise, perhaps a season ahead of schedule.

Mike Foltynewicz has been Atlanta’s best starter with Anibal Sanchez and Sean Newcomb the best of the rest. Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke have been Arizona’s best starters. But none of the five has been truly outstanding.

Atlanta has been the stronger offensive team, averaging nearly a half run more per game than the Diamondbacks. Overall, Arizona has the better pitching with a decided edge in the bullpen. Overall, these teams are evenly matched although the D-Backs should produce more offense than they have lately with A.J. Pollock back from the DL.

As underdogs, any of the above mentioned starters is worth backing whereas if one of those named starters faces a pitcher not mentioned the named starter may be played as a favorite of -130 or less. The OVER is the preferred Total throughout this series using 8.5 or lower as your guide.

NY Yankees at
Cleveland

The Indians seek revenge for a three-game sweep pulled by the Yankees in New York in early May. The Yanks outscored the Indians 19-12 as two games went OVER the Total and one stayed UNDER. Of course the Yankees eliminated the Indians in five games in the ALDS last season and they could well meet again this season.

Cleveland has one of the top starting rotations in baseball. In a rarity, all five current members of the starting staff are averaging at least six full Innings Per Start. For the Yanks, only ace Luis Severino can make such a claim (6.5 IPS). Veteran lefty CC Sabathia is next at 5.6 IPS. That could tilt things slightly toward the Cleveland bullpen despite some early season struggles.

The Yanks have perhaps the best, or certainly deepest, bullpen in MLB. Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer are having outstanding seasons for Cleveland with each posting an ERA below 2.50 with WHIPs of 0.88 and 1.09 respectively, with Mike Clevinger not far behind (3.11 and 1.21). Severino has been just as good for the Yankees (2.10 and 0.96) with Sabathia posting a solid 3.02 ERA and an above average 1.24 WHIP.

Although the Yankees are considered to have a clear edge on offense, their average runs per game is only slightly better than Cleveland’s (5.2 vs. 5.0). But the Yanks have the edge in power while the Tribe has been better at manufacturing runs.

Back Severino or Sabathia for the Yanks as underdogs against Kluber, Bauer or Clevinger and do the same for Cleveland with any of those three installed as underdogs against Severino or Sabathia. Otherwise, we can back Severino at -150 or less not facing that Cleveland trio and Sabathia up to -125 in similar conditions. Kluber, Bauer or Clevinger can be backed at -140 or less not opposing Severino or Sabathia.

Despite both teams’ runs productivity there may be value in looking to play UNDER 8 or higher in most situations. Note that Severino is 11-7-1 to the UNDER and Sabathia 11-5. For Cleveland, Bauer is 12-6 to the UNDER but ace Kluber is a surprising 12-6-1 to the OVER. A Kluber start not facing Severino or Sabathia can be considered for an OVER play at 7.5 or lower.

Oakland at
San Francisco

In a weird scheduling quirk these teams will play six straight games against one another. The first Battle by the Bay will close out the pre-All Star schedule and the scene shifts to Oakland when play resumes after the break.

Both current and medium term form favor the A’s by a decent margin at the dish. Madison Bumgarner is returning to form for the Giants following starting the season on the DL. He’s made seven starts with most of them solid.

Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have returned from the DL after extended time missed, which suggests the Giants are poised for a short term run. Oakland has had injury issues as well, as 12 different pitchers have made starts. Lefty Sean Manaea has been their best starter (3.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP. The well-traveled veteran Edwin Jackson has pitched well in his three starts while Dereck Rodriguez has been a very pleasant surprise in his seven starts for the Giants since joining the rotation (3.12 ERA and 1.24 WHIP).

Look to back Bumgarner as a favorite of -150 or less not facing Manaea and take Rodriguez as an underdog or favorite of -125 or less against any Oakland starter. Otherwise, getting Oakland as an underdog of +130 or more not opposing Bumgarner or Rodriguez is worthy of consideration. Manaea’s 18 starts have produced 11 UNDERs, 5 OVERs and 2 pushes. His start may be played UNDER 7.5 or higher. Aside from his start, look OVER 8 or lower.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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