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Some 50 years ago Joe Garagiola penned a book entitled “Baseball Is A Funny Game” in which he related anecdotes from the golden days of baseball, prior to the days of expansion beyond the Mississippi River.

Although times have changed and baseball has gone from 16 teams to 30 in the subsequent half century the game still provides many twists and turns such that just when you think you’ve got things figured out some sort of head scratcher unfolds.

And this season has been no different.

It’s been a wacky season for several teams. Following a 5-2 win at Arizona on May 31 the Florida Marlins were 31-22 and very much in contention in the NL East. Then came June.

A 5-4 win at Oakland on the final day of the month raised the Marlins’ record to 36-45. Yep. Florida went a miserable 5-23 in June to turn from contender into an also ran. And although the Marlins have played better baseball since then, going 19-14, their fate was sealed by that dramatic turnaround following Memorial Day.

Back on July 5 the Seattle Mariners defeated Oakland for their third straight win that brought them to a .500 record, 43-43, and had them just 2½ games behind AL West co-leaders Texas and Los Angeles. But any chances of making a run at the division title vanished as Seattle shockingly lost their next 17 games in a row.

It’s hard to recall any previous situation of team playing .500 baseball that deep into the season enduring such a lengthy losing streak.

The latest tale of a reversal of fortune involves one of the most futile franchises in all of professional sports over the past two decades. The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992.

Yet at this season’s All Star break not only was Pittsburgh four games above .500 (47-43) but they were just one game out of first place in the NL Central behind co-leaders Milwaukee and St Louis. After a 6-4 start following the mid summer recess the Pirates were 53-47 and in first place, a half game ahead of the Brewers and Cardinals.

But then things started to unwind, beginning with a controversial 19 inning loss in Atlanta followed by another extra inning loss the next night. In fact, Pittsburgh has lost 12 of their last 13 games through this past Sunday. Not only do they find themselves starting the week a full 10 games out of first, their chances of ending that 18 season streak of futility have taken a huge drop.

At 54-59 the Bucs must go 27-22 just to finish 81-81.

These examples show not that baseball is necessarily a funny game but one that is very humbling indeed.

Less than 50 games per team remain in the regular season and as such the field of teams remaining in legitimate contention for the playoffs continues to shrink.

In the AL, for example, it’s all but certain that both Boston and the New York Yankees will make the playoffs, joined by the winners of the West and Central. In the West only Texas and the LA Angels are in the battle for the division title. In the Central it appears that Detroit, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland are in position to win the division.

In the NL six teams have realistic shots at making the postseason with Philadelphia all but assured of being one. At 74-40 the Phillies have the best record in all of MLB and have opened an 8½ lead over Atlanta, current leaders in the wild card race.

Milwaukee and St Louis are vying for the Central title while San Francisco and Arizona are doing battle in the West.

With the NFL preseason getting underway this week baseball viewership may suffer this weekend, especially since only two series involve winning teams (as of Monday) facing one another — Tampa Bay at the Yankees and the Angels at Toronto. But that does not mean there are not wagering opportunities or that the other series lack intrigue.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Giants at Marlins: In their only prior meeting this season, when the Fish were playing well, Florida swept a three game series in San Francisco in late May without injured ace Josh Johnson making any starts.The Giants have outstanding starting pitching, second only to Philadelphia.

The offense is a concern as newly acquired Carlos Beltran has yet to display his full talents. Florida is essentially looking towards the future and it’s been reflected in their play. The Marlins were just swept last weekend at home by St. Louis, another team in the midst of a contentious Division race.

Preferred plays:

• Giants -125 or less (or as underdogs) in any matchup.

• Giants -150 or less in starts by Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

• Marlins +125 or more not facing Lincecum or Cain in starts by Ricky Nolasco or Anibal Sanchez;

• UNDER 8 or higher in any matchup.

• UNDER 7 or higher if Lincecum, Cain or Ryan Vogelsong face Nolasco or Sanchez.

Pirates at Brewers: The Brewers have baseball’s best home record (41-15). These teams have met just five times with Milwaukee winning all 5, outscoring the Pirates 32-11. Surprisingly the Pirates have swooned even though they added players at the trade deadline, specifically Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, adding power to their pedestrian offense.

Much of Pittsburgh’s current woes can be attributed to a sudden and sharp decline in their starting pitching. In losing 10 straight games through Sunday, the Pirates have allowed a total of 82 runs, holding only one foe to fewer than five runs! Milwaukee has adequate starting pitching but a powerful lineup.

Preferred plays:

• Brewers -140 or less in any matchup.

• Pirates +150 or more in any matchup.

• OVER 8 or lower in most any matchup.

• UNDER 9 or higher involving Pittsburgh’s Jeff Karstens or Paul Maholm if opposing Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf or Shaun Marcum.

Twins at Indians: The Twins have won 6 of 9 meetings with the Indians this season with five going UNDER. Teams averaging just below 7.5 total runs per game. Both teams have struggled over the past few weeks, especially on offense. Aside from Scott Baker, Minnesota’s starting pitching has been extremely weak.

Cleveland’s ace has been Justin Masterson although Josh Tomlin has been reasonably steady. Newly acquired Ubaldo Jimenez was roughed up in his first start in Texas and there are some questions as to whether his outstanding first half of 2010 was an aberration or signs of things to come in future seasons.

Preferred plays:

• Twins +125 against any Cleveland pitcher other than Masterson.

• Twins -125 or less if Baker doesn’t face Masterson.

• Indians -150 or less if Masterson doesn’t face Baker.

• OVER 9 of lower in matchups not involving Baker or Masterson.

• UNDER 8 or higher if Masterson or Baker is involved

Rays at Yankees: The Yanks have won 5 of 9 meetings this season that has seen six of the games stay UNDER as the teams have averaged just 6.2 runs per contest. The Yankees continue to rely on their outstanding lineup for their success although their pitching has been better than expected beyond starter C C Sabathia.

Tampa Bay has been plagued by a limited offense all season but has gotten strong pitching both from their starters and their bullpen. Both James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson are having better seasons statistically than the more heralded David Price while Jeff Niemann has been one of the top pitchers in the AL since returning from the DL in mid June.

Preferred plays:

• Rays +150 or more not facing Sabathia;

• Yankees -140 or less in any matchup;

• UNDER 9 or higher in most matchups.

• OVER 9 or lower if Wade Davis starts for Tampa and faces the Yanks’ Phil Hughes or AJ Burnett.

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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