MLB baseball World Series playoff contenders

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The 2011 season is but 11 days old and, as is the case virtually every April, there are some quick and slow starters. Some will continue their momentum deep into summer. Others will drop back and have the kind of season expected by many.

That Philadelphia is off to a 7-2 start should surprise nobody. The Phillies were solid preseason favorites to win the National League pennant for the third time in four seasons. After sweeping their opening three-game series against Houston, the Phils took two out of three from a pair of division rivals, Atlanta and the New York Mets.

The Phillies, however, have only the second best record in all of baseball. The best mark belongs to the defending American League champion Texas Rangers. At 8-1 the Rangers have gotten a fine balance of solid pitching and timely hitting and appear to be capable of repeating their feats of last season.

Two teams who were not expected to be contenders but are off to fast starts are Baltimore and Cleveland. Manager Buck Showalter pumped life into the Orioles when he took over last summer and that late season momentum has carried over into the new season.

After failing to win more than 70 games in any of the last five seasons, a realistic goal would be for Baltimore to finish with a .500 record. It’s still early but fans of the O’s have to be encouraged.

So, too, are fans of the Cleveland Indians. After dropping two of three to the Chicago White Sox to open the season, the Tribe followed with three game sweeps of Boston and Seattle, the latter coming on the road. It’s hard to pin an identity on this mixture of youth and veterans and the Indians likely won’t come close to sustaining their early season success.

Cleveland has been a franchise that’s had it’s share of highs and lows in recent seasons. It was just back in 2007 when the Indians won 96 games. They dropped all the way down to 65 wins in 2009 and 69 last season.

Two of the biggest early season disappointments are in the AL East where Boston has started 2-7 and Tampa Bay 1-8. While Tampa is expected to be down this season after losing so much talent over the winter the early season struggles of Boston are somewhat surprising.

The Red Sox pitching has been shaky and the offense anemic, especially with runners on base. Newly acquired Carl Crawford, expected to be a catalyst at the top of the order, was batting just .132 through Sunday.

Most likely it’s a case of trying to hard to justify the huge contract he signed over the winter – a phenomenon that has occurred many times in recent seasons. It’s too early for Red Sox Nation to panic, though panic seems to be in their DNA.

Still, after starting 0-6, taking two of three from their biggest rivals, the Yankees, may be the early turning point they need.

Other slow starts from teams expected to be playoff contenders include those of Atlanta, Minnesota and defending World Series champion San Francisco.

Again, just three series have been played – barely five percent of the season – and it’s way too early to draw conclusions about the prospects of most teams. Yet at the same time, these early starts should not be ignored.

Scoring was down over the past week and for the season. Through Sunday the average total runs per game is 8.8. There have been several instances of totals lines being set at 6½ and after the dominance of pitching in 2010 this is not much of a surprise.

Yet even with the early season decrease in scoring, OVERs have outnumbered UNDERs 70-60, with 4 pushes and 1 no decision in last Friday’s suspended game between the Dodgers and Padres.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Cubs at Rockies: Colorado is off to a 6-2 start, going 3-1 both at home and on the road. The Cubs are 4-5 after dropping two of three in Milwaukee over the weekend. With Ubaldo Jimenez on the DL, neither team has an outstanding starter although the Rockies’ Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin have each looked good in their first two starts.

Cubs starters have struggled for the most part with their four current starters each having early season ERAs above five. The Cubs have a fairly decent lineup that could fare well in the high altitude of Denver against lesser Rockies pitchers. Colorado has a somewhat better lineup with more power throughout the order.

Preferred plays:

• Colorado as -150 or less favorites in starts by de la Rosa and Chacin.

• Cubs as +120 or more underdogs against other Colorado starters.

• OVER 8 or lower in any matchup.

• OVER 9 or lower in games not involving de la Rosa or Chacin.

 

Cards at Dodgers: St Louis has started 3-6 largely due to an inefficient offense and a struggling bullpen. The Cardinals have scored three runs or less in seven of their nine games through Sunday. Part of the problem has been due to the slow start of star Albert Pujols. His struggles are likely due more to the absence of Matt Holliday following an opening weekend appendectomy than the pressure of this being a contract year.

The Dodgers have been only slightly more productive at the plate, averaging barely three runs per game and having already been shut out twice. The Dodgers have the better overall pitching staff on paper although the St Louis rotation has performed better — it’s been the Cardinal bullpen that’s been the main problem. Four of the five St. Louis starters have an early season ERA of three or less with only Jake Westbrook (9.90 ERA) pitching poorly.

The Dodgers have gotten strong efforts from Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda while the rest of the rotation has struggled. Both Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley have had two poor outings to start the season. Holliday is back for the Cardinals and we should see Pujols benefit from his return.

Preferred plays:

• Cardinals as -130 or less favorites.

• Cards as underdogs if not facing Kershaw or Kuroda;

• Dodgers as favorites of minus 150 or less against Westbrook.

• UNDER 6½ or less in matchups of Jamie Garcia or Chris Carpenter against Kershaw or Kuroda.

• OVER 8 or lower if Westbrook or Kyle Lohse don’t face Kershaw or Kuroda.

Rangers at Yankees: A rematch of last season’s ALCS, won by Texas in six. Including the playoffs the home team was 10-4 in 2010 with a majority of the games going OVER the total, including four of the six ALCS games in addition to a postseason push. The Yankees’ pitching is down this season with the retirement of Andy Pettitte and the severe early season struggles of Philip Hughes.

Texas’ pitching appears every bit as strong as last season, even with the departure of Cliff Lee. Of the five Texas starters only Colby Lewis has not pitched well. Through Sunday, the other four starters have ERA’s below three and WHIPs below 1.30.

New York has only used four starters thus far and only ace workhorse CC Sabathia has pitched well, although A J Burnett was good against Minnesota following a pretty average effort against Detroit. Texas’ bats have been strong since Opening Day, averaging over six runs per game. New York is averaging over five.

Preferred plays:

• Texas as +130 or more underdogs in any matchup;

• New York as -125 or less favorites in any matchup;

• OVER 8 or lower in any matchup.

• OVER 9 or lower in starts by Texas’ Lewis or CJ Wilson against the Yanks’ Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon.

Orioles at Indians: Two of the hottest teams in baseball meet with each starting the week atop its division, albeit after only nine games. Cleveland has gotten both solid offense and strong pitching in starting 7-2 while the Orioles have relied much more on their pitching than their offense. The Indians start this week having won seven in a row. Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin have each been impressive in their first couple of starts this season.

Baltimore has gotten a pair of brilliant starts each from Jeremy Guthrie and rookie lefty Zach Britton. Each has pitched at least six innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs in both starts. Baltimore’s offense is capable of being more productive than it’s been thus far while Cleveland’s is unlikely to keep up its current pace of nearly six runs per game.

Preferred plays:

• Baltimore as -150 or less favorites in starts by Guthrie or Britton.

• Cleveland as underdogs of any price in starts by Masterson or Tomlin not facing Guthrie or Britton.

• OVER 9 or lower in starts not involving any of those four starters.

• UNDER 8 or higher if two of those four starters face one another.

 

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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