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It took a little over a month but the first no hitter of 2011 took place last Tuesday when Minnesota lefty Francisco Liriano did it to the Chicago White Sox. It took just four days for the feat to be repeated.

Last Saturday, Detroit’s Justin Verlander tossed the second no hitter of his career, blanking Toronto. Both no hitters occurred on the road. There have also been several near misses with a number of starting pitchers holding foes hitless through six or more innings before allowing that initial hit.

Last season saw six no hit games, including two perfect games – one by Dallas Braden last Mother’s Day and the second just three weeks later by Roy Halladay, who followed his perfecto with a no hit game in the playoffs against Cincinnati.

In 2010 there were 120 games with an over/under line of less than 7. Thus far in 2011 there have been 38. Yet even though the line for totals has been lowered, the early season results are nearly even (239 over, 241 under). There have been 29 games resulting either in pushes or no action.

Baseball’s pace setters continue to be Cleveland in the AL, Philadelphia in the NL. Each starts the week 22-11. Yet one of the more remarkable early season stories involves an early season turnaround.

The Tampa Bay Rays started the season by losing their first five games and seven of their first eight. Following that 1-7 start the Rays have gone 19-7 and their overall record of 20-14 has them tied with the New York Yankees atop the AL East.

Tampa is 11-4 on the road, a pace that certainly is unsustainable. It’s still early but the early season turnaround shows just how good a manager Joe Maddon has become.

The Rays lost several key components from last season’s roster and have played much of this season’s first six weeks with star Evan Longoria sidelined on the DL. As they’ve done since shedding their role as league doormats that characterized the first decade of their existence, Tampa has relied on solid pitching – both starting and relief – for much of their success.

Projected to win just 84 to 85 games this season, after winning the AL East with 96 wins last season, Tampa has exceeded expectations and should be considered for play, especially on the road. In 2010 the Rays had baseball’s best road mark, 47-34.

And in a certain sense the Pittsburgh Pirates have to also be considered to be an early season pleasant surprise. Given that they’ve endured 18 straight losing seasons their 17-17 has to be considered encouraging more than a fifth of the way into the season.

Exercise caution when wagering on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the short term. With reports last week that the Dodgers were in danger of not being able to meet their end of May payroll pending commissioner intervention it can’t help but to be a distraction for the players.

Sure enough the Dodgers proceeded to lose four in a row following those reports before winning their series finale in New York on Sunday. There may or may not be a connection but it’s a natural human reaction to be distracted and concerned when the possibility of missing a paycheck is more than just a rumor.

In next week’s column a look at playing the run line will be presented, which often offers the opportunity to play decently-sized favorites at underdog prices.

With a catch, of course.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Cardinals at Reds: St. Louis took two of three at home in late April and won all seven of young Kyle McClellan’s starts but have lost all but one of Chris Carpenter’s seven starts even though both hurler’s stats are not radically different. The offense has been led by Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman while star Albert Pujols has gotten off to a slow start.

Cincinnati’s potent offense has struggled over the past couple of weeks but is still one of the league’s best. Starting pitching has been a concern although the Reds should be encouraged by the return of both Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto from the DL.

Preferred plays:

• Cardinals +125 or more in any matchup.

• Cardinals -120 or less in a start by McClellan.

• Reds +120 or more against Carpenter, Kyle Lohse or lefty Jaime Garcia.

• OVER 8 or lower in any matchup.

• OVER 9 or lower if St. Louis’ Jake Westbrook opposes Travis Wood, Edinson Volquez or Mike Leake.

Braves at Phillies: Atlanta took two of three in Philadelphia last weekend in a series that produced just 15 total runs. Of the 69 combined games started by both staffs, 45 of them have been starts of at least six innings in which the starter allowed two or fewer earned runs

Both offenses have been pretty much average with the Phillies having slight edges in most categories. There’s little reason to expect that this series will feature much more in the way of offense than did last weekend’s encounters.

Preferred plays:

• UNDER 7 or higher in matchups not involving the Phils’ Joe Blanton.

• Braves +140 or more against Roy Halladay.

• Braves +125 or more against Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels.

• Braves -130 or less against Blanton.

• Phillies -125 or less in starts by Halladay, Lee or Hamels.

• Phillies as underdogs.

Red Sox at Yankees: Boston took two of three from its bitter rivals when the teams met at Fenway Park in early April. The Red Sox have gotten strong pitching from both Jon Lester and Josh Beckett but both John Lackey and Clay Buchholz have been disappointing. Young Ivan Nova has been especially sharp for the Yanks over his last three starts after struggling in his first three.

Boston continues to struggle at the plate though much more productive at home (4.8 runs per game) than on the road (3.5) with several key players yet to break out of season starting slumps. The Yankees lead the majors in home runs by a substantial margin, slugging 54 dingers in 32 games, 14 ahead of second ranked Texas.

Preferred plays:

• Red Sox +150 or more in any matchup.

• Red Sox as underdogs in starts by Beckett or Lester.

• Yankees -140 or less if facing Clay Buchholz, John Lackey or Dice K.

• Yankees as underdogs against Beckett or Lester.

• OVER 8 or less in any matchup.

• OVER 9 or lower if Lackey or Matsuzaka oppose the Yankees’ Bartolo Colon or AJ Burnett.

Angels at Rangers: The Angels took two of three when these teams met here in mid-April. Texas has slumped lately, losing seven of their last 10. The Rangers have gotten decent starting pitching from CJ Wilson and rookie Alexi Ogando but the other three in the rotation have struggled.

The Angels’ staff is anchored by the tandem of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, each of whom has ERAs below 2.00 and WHIPs under 1.00 in more than 50 innings.

The Angels are scoring at least five runs in eight of their last 13 games. Texas is scoring nearly twice as many runs per game on the road (5.4) than at home (2.9).

Preferred plays:

• Angels as underdogs.

• Angels as -130 favorites or less in starts by Haren or Weaver.

• Rangers as underdogs.

• Rangers as -140 favorites or less if Wilson or Ogando don’t face Haren or Weaver.

• OVER 9 or lower in starts not involving Haren, Weaver, Ogando or Wilson.

• UNDER 8 or higher if Haren or Wilson oppose Ogando or Wilson.


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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