Even with 40 games remaining NL West battle could come down to final day

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The final quarter of the regular season is underway and most teams have roughly 40 games to play to determine their fates.

In looking at the standings there can be said to realistically be just two Division races to be decided over the next six weeks.

Washington has all but wrapped up the NL with its 8.5 game lead over Miami through Sunday. The Cubs are in even better position in the NL Central with a 12 game lead over St. Louis.

The only NL race that looks as though it will go down to the final week, or perhaps weekend, is in the NL West where the LA Dodgers started this week with a half-game lead over San Francisco, having played and lost one less game.

In the American League the two Divisions with clear leaders are less lopsided than the two in the National League. Cleveland leads Detroit by 7 games in the AL Central with fast-charging, two-time defending AL Champion Kansas City one game further back.

The Royals are worth noting, not just because of their back-to-back AL pennants, but after three quarters of a season of general mediocrity they start this week riding an 8 game winning streak. In the AL West Texas starts the week with a 6 game lead over Seattle.

The tight race in the AL is the three team race in the East where Toronto started the week with a slim half game lead over Boston with Baltimore just two games further back.

The Wild Card races are much more contentious. In the American League five teams started the week within 5 games of the second Wild Card, currently controlled by Baltimore. Boston leads the Orioles by 2 games for the top Wild Card, which carries the home field advantage for that one game Playoff.

San Francisco holds the top Wild Card in the National League, a game and a half ahead of St. Louis. Only three teams are less than 5 games behind the Cardinals with the New York Mets furthest back at 4.5 games out. The Mets recently got a boost with the return of Yoenis Cespedes to the lineup. He homered twice in last Sunday’s win over the Giants. Behind New York is Colorado, 6.5 games out of the second Wild Card.

Handicapping can present a challenge over the final month and a half of the season, especially beginning Sept. 1 when rosters are expanded from 25 to 40 players.

Teams out of Playoff contention give more playing time to their up-and-coming prospects – prospects who will play with intensity in an effort to show they can play at the major league level.

At the same time teams in contention will usually be higher priced than they would normally be earlier in the season, especially when playing teams no longer in contention.

In September there may be excellent value on underdogs in certain situations. Some will involve playing teams out of contention when throwing their best starter against a contender. Others will involve attractive dogs in games between contending teams.

Let the fun begin. The best part of the baseball season is at hand. Here’s a look at three series this weekend.

Cubs at Dodgers

This could be a preview of a Playoffs series as the teams meet for their second series this season. In a series that ended May and began June the Cubs took 3 of 4 at home from the Dodgers. The series at Wrigley Field was extremely low scoring as the Cubs outscored the Dodgers 11 to 8 with three games staying UNDER and one going OVER the Total. Interestingly, despite the low scores, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw did not pitch in that series. He remains on the DL with an uncertain return date.

The Cubs have the overall talent advantage in this game, both at the plate and on the mound. Those edges are partially offset by playing on the road where the Cubs are a solid 33-26, slightly worse than the Dodgers’ 38-24 record at home. That should keep the price at which the Cubs are favored somewhat depressed and the Cubs are playable throughout the series with any starter provided they are laying -150 or less.

Perhaps they will even be underdogs if their fifth starter, perhaps Trevor Cahill or Mike Montgomery, starts. Without Kershaw no Dodgers pitcher merits being favored in this series against the four regular Cubs starters (John Lackey is on the DL). Both teams have productive offenses but even with the Dodgers’ pitching not at the level of the past few seasons, especially without Kershaw, playing OVERs at Dodger Stadium is still risky.

The Dodgers have played 38 UNDERS, just 23 OVERS with one push at home this season. Use 7 as your guide, looking to play UNDER 7.5 or higher and OVER 6.5 or less and staying away from the neutral total of 7.

Royals at Red Sox

Just when all but the most diehard fans had written them off, defending AL Champion Kansas City has been playing its best baseball of the season, starting this week 64-60 and riding an 8 game winning streak. The Royals were still 3.5 games out of the second AL Wild Card while Boston started the week controlling the first AL Wild Card by two games over Baltimore. Three teams were between the Royals and the Orioles.

In their lone prior series this season KC took 2 of 3 from the Red Sox at home in mid-May, outscoring Boston by just 13 to 11 with one game going OVER, one UNDER and one push. Even with their recent success the Royals are just 24-39 on the road and averaging just 3.3 runs per game away from home where they average 4.7 rpg. Boston is averaging 6.0 rpg at home, second only to Colorado’s 6.3 rpg at Coors Field.

The Royals have decent starting pitching although lefty Danny Duffy is emerging as an ace. The Royals are 16-3 in his starts with Duffy posting a 2.61 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in those 19 starts, averaging 6.4 innings per start with a stellar 5.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only Ian Kennedy has been above average starting for the Royals and both Duffy and Kennedy can be backed in this series with Duffy getting at least +120 and Kennedy requiring at least +140.

Boston’s best starter has been Rick Porcello, who can be backed at up to -160 not facing Duffy or Kennedy. The Sox are 19-6 in his 25 starts. In starts not involving Duffy, Kennedy or Porcello OVER 8.5 or lower can be considered. If Porcello matches up against Duffy or Kennedy UNDER 7.5 or higher can be considered.

Athletics at Cardinals

The lone interleague weekend series pits a team long out of contention, Oakland, facing a Cardinals team very much in the race for an NL Wild Card with the Central Division all but conceded to the Cubs. St. Louis has languished around .500 since a strong April start but has begun a typical late season run.

The Cards have been hit by injuries to their lineup and their bullpen but their starting five-man rotation has accounted for 120 of their 123 starts through Sunday. But Carlos Martinez is the only starter with an ERA below 4.10 (3.24) and only he and Mike Leake have WHIPs below 1.32 (1.19 and 1.26). St. Louis just finds ways to win and their runs differential of plus 81 is sixth best in baseball despite their still modest 66-57 record.

Oakland played seller at the trade deadline and is just 6-13 in August. They have no starting pitcher who warrants backing and thus this is more of a “play against” series. St. Louis still has more than 70 percent of its wins by more than one run (48-18) and thus can be considered for play, laying the run and a half if the straight money line price is above -160. Oakland is 25-36 on the road but the ugly number is that they are being outscored on average by 1.1 runs per game.

The Cards have been a money losing proposition at home this season, down 17.6 net units with a 28-33 record. The Cards’ success in winning games by multiple runs supports the run line play with their poor home record acting to possibly reducing the money line price and increase the plus price on laying the run and a half. Normally St. Louis’ profile would call for making a play on the road underdog but this is late August, a time when the Cardinals start to play their best baseball with the Playoffs in sight and with them in control of their own destiny. They are in such control by virtue of their game and a half lead over Miami for the second NL Wild Card.

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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