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Just over one month remains in the regular season and as the calendar flips from August to September, it’s time to get serious for teams in contention to make the playoffs.

The tightest division race remains in the AL East where Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees begin the week tied with the best record in baseball, 80-50.

Both teams are in excellent shape to make the playoffs after Tampa just took two of three games from third place Boston. The Red Sox have the fourth best record in the American League and are second in the Wild Card standings, a rather hefty six and a half games back.

Minnesota’s record is one game better than Boston’s but because they are in the AL Central, the Twins are in better position to make the playoffs, leading Chicago by four and a half games. The big news from Chicago as we go to press on Monday is that the White Sox will have Manny Ramirez on the ball club for the stretch run. When focused and interested, Man Ram can be enough for the Sox to make a run at the Twins for the division title. Making up a game a week is not asking too much for a team that has the overall pitching edge.

Texas continues to lead the AL West even after dropping two of three at home to second place Oakland over the weekend. The Rangers have a comfortable seven and a half game lead and are within a game of Minnesota for the second seed in the AL playoffs.

The closest race in the National League is in the East where Atlanta holds a two game lead over the enigmatic Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils were swept at home last week in a four game series by Houston, a team that was 15 games below .500 before the first game of that series. After that embarrassment the Phils swept three games in San Diego over the team that had – and still has – the best record in the league.

The other two division leaders sport five game leads as the week begins as Cincinnati has that lead over St. Louis in the Central and San Diego leads San Francisco in the West.

It’s the NL Wild Card race that may provide the greatest drama over the final five weeks of the season. Unlike the American League, where only Boston is less than 10 games behind the Wild Card leader, there are 7 teams within just 8 games of the lead. Philadelphia begins the week a game and a half ahead of San Francisco with St. Louis, Colorado, the L.A. Dodgers, Florida and the New York Mets all bunched behind. Because so many teams are in contention for division title and the Wild Card, even an 8 game deficit is not insurmountable as these contending teams have a great number of games with one another. A total of 10 teams still have a shot at making the NL playoff field.

Here’s a look at four key series to be played over Labor Day weekend.

Cincinnati at St. Louis: This has become a most intriguing race. Cincinnati has beaten up on non-contenders while losing to the better teams they face whereas the Cardinals have generally done the opposite, beating winning teams but being upset in series they have been heavily favored to win. In their most recent encounter in early August, St Louis swept the Reds in Cincinnati, outscoring them 21-8 in three games. St Louis leads the season series 10 to 5. Totals have fallen perfectly even with 7 OVERs, 7 UNDERs and a PUSH. This rivalry gained intensity with Cincy’s Brandon Phillips’ comments professing hatred for the Cardinals. St Louis has been struggling at the plate of late and likely is regretting having traded away Ryan Ludwick to San Diego at the trade deadline. The St Louis offense has struggled against some ordinary pitchers since. Bronson Arroyo has been the steadiest of a fairly average Cincy pitching staff although lefty Travis Wood has shown promise.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Cincinnati as Underdogs of +150 or more in any matchup; St. Louis if favored by -150 or less in starts by Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter or Jaime Garcia; OVER Totals of 7½ or lower in any matchup; OVER Totals of 9 or lower in a start by St. Louis’ Kyle Lohse.

Colorado at San Diego: Colorado has been a great September ball club in recent seasons and here they have a chance to make up ground on the team that’s led the NL West for much of the season. San Diego starts the week on its first four-game losing streak of the season. Colorado is in third place in the NL West, 8 games behind the Padres and four and a half games from the Wild Card lead. The Rockies have won 8 of 12 from San Diego this season as the teams meet for the first time since just before the All Star break; 7 of the dozen have gone OVER the Total with 5 staying UNDER. For the Rockies Ubaldo Jimenez remains their best starter by far even though he’s cooled somewhat after a torrid first half of the season. The rest of the staff has been just ordinary although Jason Hammel is the best of the rest. San Diego’s ace has been Mat Latos. Aside from Kevin Correia the other starters have had decent seasons with Clayton Richard and Jon Garland pitching very effectively for a team that bolstered its offense at the trade deadline.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Colorado as underdogs of at least +125 in any matchup except plus at least +150 against Latos or up to a -125 favorite in a start by Jimenez against other than Latos; San Diego in starts by Garland or Richard if favored by -120 or less or by -140 or less in a start by Latos; UNDER Totals of 7 or higher if Jimenez or Hammel faces Latos, Garland or Richard

Texas at Minnesota: This could be a Playoffs preview. The home team won the first 6 of the 7 teams between the teams this season with 3 going OVER and 4 staying UNDER. Still, the games have generally been low scoring with just 51 total runs between the teams. Both teams have aces although Cliff Lee has struggled for Texas since coming over from Seattle in early July. The Twins’ Francisco Liriano has been pretty steady and has a pair of solid starters backing him in the rotation in Carl Pavano and Scott Baker. Minnesota’s offense is still without Justin Morneau but that has not kept them from maintaining their lead in the AL Central. Aside from Lee, Texas continues to get strong pitching from the trio of C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter. Texas’ potent offense has been inconsistent, with prolonged stretches in which they have barely average run production. Only once in more than two months have they been able to score at least 5 runs in three straight games.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Texas as Underdogs of +130 or more against Liriano, Pavano or Baker; Twins as underdogs of +140 or more against Lee; UNDER Totals of 8 or higher if Lee, Lewis or Wilson oppose Liriano, Pavano or Baker.

Chicago White Sox at Boston: Surprisingly, this is the first series between the Sox and Sox this season. Chicago’s White Sox should have Manny Ramirez in the lineup and it will be interesting, if not entertaining, to see how Man Ram fares in his return to Fenway. Ignoring the theatrics, his presence will bolster the offense which has been considered a weakness this season. Both teams have much to play for as each is on the verge of falling out of playoff contention with less than 30 games to be played. Both teams have capable starters at the top of the rotation with Chicago’s Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd and John Danks each having solid seasons. Edwin Jackson, acquired from Arizona, has had four starts with Chicago and each has been a quality start. Boston’s staff has been led by Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz but both John Lackey and Josh Beckett are proven quality pitchers. Boston continues to be hampered by injuries to key hitters which suggests that runs may be at a premium.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Chicago as Underdogs in any matchup except at least +125 against Lester or Buchholz; UNDER Totals of 9 or higher in any matchup; UNDER Totals of 8 or higher in starts by Buchholz or Lester.


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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