Three weeks and 20 or fewer games remain in the regular season and the 10 teams to make the Playoffs are all determined. And over the past week or so things have gotten very interesting in both leagues. What we thought just a month ago were virtual certainties have become questionable.
The Dodgers became the first team to both win 14 of 15 games and lose 14 of 15 games in the same season. Through Sunday they had lost a surprising 10 games in a row, and although they still lead Arizona by a shrinking 9 games in the NL West their once certain hold on the top spot in the National League is now not quite so certain. At 92-15 the Dodgers’ lead over the Washington Nationals (88-55) is just 4 games through Sunday.
The Nationals became the first team to clinch a Playoff spot, winning the NL East in which they held a mammoth 20-game lead over second place Miami.
Arizona (83-60) has a 5 game lead over Colorado for the first NL Wild Card. Milwaukee and St. Louis are tied at 75-68, just 3 games behind the Rockies for that second Wild Card.
But the Brewers and Cardinals are closer to first place in the NL Central than they are to the second Wild Card. Starting this week the Chicago Cubs held just a 2-game lead over their rivals. At 77-66 the Cubs cannot win more than 96 games and will finish with a significant decline from the 103 wins they had last season.
In the American League, Houston’s seemingly comfortable grip on the top seed has been totally loosened. The hottest team in baseball, the Cleveland Indians, had won 19 in a row through Sunday and their 87-56 record is percentage points better than Houston’s 86-57.
The Astros still have a commanding 13-game lead over the Angels in the AL West while Cleveland has an identical lead over Minnesota in the Central.
The lone race of interest in the junior circuit is in the AL East where Boston starts the week 3.5 games ahead of the Yankees.
New York has a 3.5 game lead over Minnesota for the first AL Wild Card with six teams still within 3.5 games of the Twins for the second Wild Card. In order those teams are the Angels (1 game behind the Twins), Kansas City and Texas (2.5 back), Baltimore and Seattle (3 back) and Tampa Bay (3.5 back).
It promises to be a wild and hopefully entertaining final three weeks with so much still to be decided, including at the top where a month ago there seemed to be no questions whatsoever.
Let’s enjoy this prelude to the Playoffs.
Here’s a preview of three weekend series.
St. Louis at Chi. Cubs
The Cubs started this week with a two-game lead over both St. Louis and Milwaukee in the NL Central with the Brewers and Cardinals starting the week three games behind Colorado for the second NL Wild Card.
The Cubs have played lackluster baseball virtually all season with only sporadic flashes of last season. After splitting their first six games this season, all in St. Louis, the Cubs have won five of their next six meetings, all at Wrigley Field.
The teams last met in mid-July and have played six UNDERs, four OVERs and two PUSHes while combining to average 7.7 total runs per game.
St. Louis’ best two starters have been Lance Lynn and Carlos Martinez. The Cubs’ rotation, so instrumental in leading to last season’s World Series title, has been, at best, rather ordinary. Jake Arrieta has pitched very well since early July but Jon Lester, John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks have displayed last season’s form only rarely. This is one of baseball’s longest and most heated rivalries and six of their dozen meetings this season have been decided by a single run, four more by two runs.
Although this might make a case for taking the +1.5 runs, the better play would be to back either team as an underdog throughout the series, especially when getting +120 or more. With the teams combining to average 1.5 total runs per game, less than the MLB average, the UNDER would be the preferred way to look. But remember, wind conditions play a huge factor in setting Totals at Wrigley Field. At Totals between 7.5 and 9.5 the conditions are generally neutral and as such the UNDER can be considered within this range.
Texas at LA Angels
Both teams are in contention for a Wild Card with the Angels starting this week one game out of the second AL Wild Card and the Rangers just 1.5 games further back. The Angels bolstered their lineup with some trades at the end of August to provide additional support for one of the top three players, Mike Trout. Adrian Beltre, perhaps Texas’ most important bat, remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.
With the exception of Texas’ Cole Hamels, starting pitching is not a strength of either team. Texas has won 10 of their previous 16 games. The teams have played 8 OVERs and 7 UNDERs and 1 PUSH, averaging a combined 9.7 runs per game.
The preference throughout this series will be to look for OVER Totals of 9 or less. One of the oddities hard to explain is why teams perform well when a non-star-quality pitcher starts. Parker Bridwell is such a pitcher this season.
Despite rather ordinary stats (4.11 ERA and 1.25 WHIP) the Angels have won 14 of his 16 starts and his backers are up 15.7 units. Texas’ Andrew Cashner has pitched well but is not overpowering. Texas’ starters are average at best in terms of strikeout to walk ratio, which should work to the Angels’ benefit. Look to back the Angels when priced at -130 or less. In starts by Hamels or Cashner Texas may be backed if priced at +125 or more.
Oakland at Philly
The weekend’s lone interleague series has no Playoff implications for either team. Both are just playing out the string while giving playing time to several of their up-and-coming players, as their sights are being focused on 2018. Oakland’s bats have been hot entering this week, scoring at least 7 runs in six of their last seven games, averaging 8.6 runs per game.
All of those games were at home in what has been historically a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Philadelphia has also had its share of offensive success with its youngsters being given more playing time. With Oakland’s Sonny Gray having been dealt to the Yankees, the only starting pitcher on either team worth backing is the Phillies’ Aaron Nola. He can be backed if laying -150 or less.
Otherwise look first to playing the OVER at Totals of 9 or less. And look toward backing either team as an underdog of +125 or more with the exception of when Nola starts for the Phillies.