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Two seasons ago, in 2015, it was widely acknowledged the two teams on the rise with very bright futures were the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros.

Many longtime observers of the grand game of baseball thought both teams were on similar paths to serious and legitimate World Series contention but that each was a couple of seasons or so away from being at the top of the standings. 2018 was a fair estimate although there was great support that 2017 would be the season the Cubs and Astros would be meeting in the World Series.

The Cubs were clearly ahead of schedule when they won 103 regular season games en route to winning the 2016 World Series. Houston was thought to be “right there” and it was only a matter of time until the ‘Stros would be in position to match the Cubs’ feat.

Perhaps that time is now.

Through Sunday the Houston Astros were 41-16, the best record in baseball. That’s 25 games above .500, 12.5 games better than the second best team in the American League, the New York Yankees, and five up on the Washington Nationals who had the best record of the 15 teams in the senior circuit.

Houston had opened a 13.5 game lead in the AL West over the second place Los Angeles Angels starting the week. Of the other five Division leaders only Washington had a lead of more than two games over the second place team. Washington was up by 10.5 games over Atlanta in the NL East with the second place Braves six games below .500. The Angels were just two games below .500 yet still faced that 13.5 game deficit to Houston.

Through 57 games last season the Cubs were 40-17, one game worse than the Astros this season through the same number of games. The Cubs had scored 305 runs to that point, averaging 5.4 runs per game while allowing just 163 runs (2.9 rpg) for a net runs differential of plus 142 (2.5 rpg), a pace they would be unable to sustain.

Joe Maddon took over in 2015 as Cubs manager and led the team to 97 wins, their most since winning 97 in 2008. Of course last season the Cubs won those 103 games last season, which ended in their first World Series title in 108 years.

Opening as the third choice to win the AL Pennant at odds of 11-2 (behind Boston and Cleveland) Houston is now the solid 9-5 favorite to make it to the World Series with Cleveland currently held at 3-1 odds and Boston at 4-1.

Here are previews of three weekend series.

Colorado at Chicago Cubs: In their only prior series in early May, the Rockies took two of three home games versus the Cubs. Two of the three stayed UNDER the Total as the teams combined to average just 8.7 runs per game. Lefty Jon Lester leads the staff with an average of 6.0 innings pitched per game and a 3.91 ERA, while Kyle Hendricks is the only starter with a WHIP below 1.33 (1.20). Colorado would merit a play in a start by Tyler Chatwood against any Cubs starter with the Rockies likely to be a sizeable underdog in such a spot.

Last season he pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits in a 2-0 win at Wrigley Field in mid-April. The Rockies can also be backed in a start by German Marquez if getting +140 or more against either Lester or Kyle Hendricks or at least +125 or more against any other Cubs starter. Not facing Chatwood or Marquez, the Cubs can be played at -150 or less with any starter. The OVER is preferred but only at 9 or lower, although a 7.5 or less might indicate significant enough blowing winds to suggest a pass.

Baltimore at NY Yankees: The Orioles took two of three in each of the two series played in Baltimore with the Yankees winning two of three in the lone series played in New York. That makes the home team 6-3 this season. Eight of the nine games have gone OVER. Masahiro Tanaka has pitched to a 6.34 ERA and 1.52 WHIP through his first 11 starts. None of the other four Yanks starters has an ERA above CC Sabathia’s 4.12 or a WHIP above 1.34 (also Sabathia).

Rookie Jordan Montgomery has been a pleasant surprise. Luis Severino appears to be developing into the top talent he was considered to be as a prospect while Michael Pineda has been brilliant at home and horrible on the road this season, pitching to a 2.31 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in six home starts versus a 5.95 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in five road starts.

Dylan Bundy has been by far Baltimore’s most effective starter (2.94 ERA and 1.14 WHIP through 12 starts). Kevin Gausman has struggled all season and veteran Chris Tillman has done the same in his six starts, starting the season on the DL.

Play Baltimore in a start by Bundy against any Yankees starter other than Pineda. If Bundy and Pineda are matched against one another the UNDER would be the preferred play, especially at 8 or higher. Baltimore would also be playable against Tanaka if getting +150 or more. A start by Tanaka would also be a potential OVER at 9 or lower. Otherwise we prefer the Yankees in starts by Sabathia, Severino or Montgomery.

Texas at Washington: Washington has one of the better rotations in baseball, led by the duo of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. The Nats have won 16 of their combined 22 starts with each having an ERA under 3.00, a WHIP of 1.05 or lower and averaging better than six and two-thirds inning per start. The third and fourth starters, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, are also off to fine starts and the Nats have a winning record when each starts, going a combined 14-9. Clearly the Nats have the starting pitching edge but the Washington bullpen has been an issue all season.

This series sets up nicely for a first five innings play on Washington when one of the four starters just noted gets the start. For the full game, Washington would be worth a look in a start by Yu Darvish if getting at least +125 against either Strasburg or Scherzer or as an underdog of any price against other Washington starters. UNDER 7.5 or higher would be playable in a start by Darvish against any of those top four Washington starters. Otherwise, look to OVER 8 or lower in a matchup not involving Darvish, Scherzer or Strasburg.

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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