American League playoff picture much clearer

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The 2018 regular season has come down to roughly the final 20 games to be played by each team with much still to be determined regarding the 10 teams that will make the Playoffs and continue the quest for a World Series title.

Atlanta is starting to pull away in the NL East, leading Philadelphia by five games entering Tuesday’s play. Tight races, however, remain in both the NL Central and West with three teams still in contention in each Division.

The Cubs saw their lead over Milwaukee drop to just a single game after the Brewers won at Chicago on Monday night. St. Louis is in third, just 3.5 games behind the Cubs and can make up ground by defeating Pittsburgh at home over their next two games while the Cubs and Brewers continue their series.

Colorado has a 1.5 game lead over the Dodgers in the West with Arizona 3.5 games behind the Rockies.

The only race realistically still with drama in the American League is in the West where Houston’s lead over second place Oakland is three games

Boston continues to lead the Yankees by eight games in the AL East although they still have six games to be played against one another. Boston is on pace to win 110 games. This suggests a 6-0 sweep by the Yankees is a high priced longshot.

Cleveland is about to wrap up the AL Central, leading second place Minnesota by a whopping 15 games. The Tribe could clinch the Division title by or over this weekend.

The Wild Card races still have some intrigue, mostly in the National League. In the AL the Yankees have a three game lead over Oakland for the first Wild Card and Oakland has a fairly safe 7.5 game lead over both Tampa Bay and Seattle for the second.

In the senior circuit five teams are still in realistic play for the two Wild Cards with Milwaukee starting play Tuesday with a 2.5 game lead over St. Louis for the first. The Cardinals are up by two games on the Dodgers, four games on Arizona and by five over Philadelphia.

Even with very little drama remaining in the American League baseball fans should be treated to plenty of meaningful and exciting baseball in the National League over the final few weeks of the regular season as no lead for either a Division Title or a Wild Card is secure, even with the burgeoning lead held by the Braves over the Phillies in the East.

Here are previews of three weekend series involving Playoff contenders.

Dodgers at St. Louis

These teams met in Los Angeles in mid-August and the Cardinals, red hot at the time, swept the three-game series in what was a very low scoring series; all three were UNDER the Total as the Cards outscored the Dodgers, 13-6.

The Cardinals are still playing well but not at that same pace. Both teams are 12-8 over their last 20 games. Clayton Kershaw remains the best starting pitcher in this series but the Cards have the second and third best starters in Jack Flaherty and Mile Mikolas, either of whom can be backed as underdogs of +125 or more against Kershaw.

St. Louis rookie Austin Gomber has also pitched well but would have to be getting +150 or more to back against Kershaw or plus any price as an underdog against all other Dodger starters. Flaherty and Mikolas can be played at -125 or less against other than Kershaw. The Dodgers’ Walker Buehler can be played at -130 or less against other than Flaherty, Gomber or Mikolas or as an underdog of +125 or more against any of that trio.

As to Totals, note the Dodgers’ Rich Hill has been involved in 15 OVERs and just 6 UNDERs, which suggests an OVER play in his start at a Total of 8.5 or less if not facing Flaherty, whose starts have resulted in 15 UNDERs, 8 OVERs and a PUSH.

Flaherty’s start may be played UNDER a Total of 7.5 or higher except against Hill. In a Hill vs. Flaherty matchup the wisest course of action would be to pass on the Total and look for the above noted parameters for a play on Flaherty.

Oakland at Tampa Bay

The Rays have been all but eliminated from Wild Card contention but have played some of the best baseball in the majors over the past two months. Oakland is contending both for the AL West title and a Wild Card. These teams met for a four game series in Oakland at the end of May and the Rays took three of those road games. All three wins stayed UNDER the Total whereas Oakland’s lone win, in the series finale, went OVER.

The teams averaged a combined 6.0 total runs per game. It was around that time Tampa manager Kevin Cash began to use a starting pitcher for an inning or two with only an occasional traditional starting pitcher going deeper into the game. His experiment has been considered a success and it will be interesting to see if his method is adopted by other managers in coming seasons.

Oakland’s strength has been its bullpen which may be the deepest in baseball. The offense has been underrated, or at least underappreciated, all season. The one Oakland started to consider backing is Mike Fiers who has been steady all season with both Detroit and Oakland. He can be backed at -140 or less against any Tampa starter other than Blake Snell.

Snell has been brilliant for the Rays and can be played at -150 or lower against any Oakland starter other than Fiers. All other matchups can be based on price with either team as an underdog of +125 or more being worth of play.

Arizona at Houston

These teams met in an interleague series in early May with Arizona taking two of three on the road. All three stayed UNDER the Total with Houston outscoring the Diamondbacks 12-7 as a result of their 8-0 win to open the series. Arizona won the next two games, 4-3 and 3-1. Both teams are contending for the Playoffs with Houston looking to fend off Oakland in the AL West and Arizona sitting third in the tight NL West, trailing first place Colorado by 3.5 games and second place Dodgers by 2.

This could be a potential World Series matchup as both teams have solid starting pitching. The Astros’ top four of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel would be challenged by Arizona’s Zach Grienke, Patrick Corbin, Clay Buchholz and either Zack Godley or Robbie Ray. Buchholz has been especially brilliant this season with a 2.01 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 16 starts that have averaged 6.2 innings pitched. This should be a well played series with the starting pitchers likely to have more success than the hitter.

Neither bullpen has been outstanding but given the quality of the starters may not be called upon extensively. Look to back the underdog throughout this series with that role being decided by the pitching matchups, although Houston is more likely to be favored playing at home, especially in starts by Verlander and Cole.

Arizona’s most favorable situation would be in a start by Buchholz who, hopefully, will be a slight underdog. Perhaps another way to approach this series would be by playing the First 5 Innings UNDER the Total provided two of the starters listed above are involved. Otherwise, look UNDER before OVER for the full game, especially at Totals of 8 or higher.

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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