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Aging Atlanta, Bobby Cox, seeking title

As June turns into July and Independence Day celebrations take place all across this great country, the 2010 baseball season approaches the mathematical midpoint of the season with most teams playing game 81 of the 162 game schedule within the next week. As such Division and Wild Card standings begin to become relevant as the season rolls on.

And as we approach this next major milepost four of baseball’s six Divisions are led by teams who’ve been absent from the post season for at least several seasons.

Perennial post season participant the New York Yankees have baseball’s best record (47-28) as they lead the AL East but the team with baseball’s second best record may come as a surprise. Just a game weaker than the Yankees at 46-29 are the AL West leading Texas Rangers. Despite ownership issues that may necessitate the rest of major league baseball to approve any transactions made at the trade deadline, Texas has a four and a half game lead over the Los Angeles Angels, the Division’s best team for much of the past decade.

The Rangers’ lead is tied for the biggest in baseball with the surprise lead of the NL West, the San Diego Padres. At 45-30 the Pads have the best record in the National League and lead the only Division in which the top four teams are within six games of first place.

The second best record in the senior circuit belongs to Atlanta, the team that was a dominant team in the 1990’s and into the new century. They are seeking a return to the Playoffs in manager Bobby Cox’ final season on the bench and start the week just a half game ahead of another surprise team, the New York Mets, in the NL East.

Yet another surprise team leads the NL Central as the long downtrodden Cincinnati Reds start the week a half game ahead of St. Louis. This looks to be the only two team race in a Division as third place Milwaukee is a full seven games behind the Cardinals.

Finally, Minnesota has a slim half game lead over Detroit in the AL Central with the Chicago White Sox just a game behind the Tigers. This Divisional race should be every bit as contentious as that in the AL East as all three teams have recent Playoff experience and each is both flawed but with areas of strength.

The pitching dominance that has marked the first half of play suggests that for the first time since 1992 the National League leader in home runs may fail to top the 40 homer mark. Not since Fred McGriff hit 40 taters for the ’92 Padres has a National League homer leader hit as few home runs. In fact, excluding the two strike shortened seasons of 1994 and 1995 the NL home run leader has hit between 46 and 73 home runs. Currently, Milwaukee’s Corey Hart leads the NL with just 18 home runs through 75 games.

The power decline in the AL showed itself the past two season as 37 homers led the AL in 2008 and 39 were the most hit last season. Prior to 2008 it took between 47 and 57 homers to lead the AL from 1995 through 2007 save for Manny Ramirez’s 43 homers that led the junior circuit in 2004. That streak includes Albert Belle’s 50 homers in strike shortened 1995.

Three players – Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera and Paul Konerko – are tied with 20 homers to lead the AL. Their current pace would have slightly more than 40 homers as the top number in baseball at season’s end, but not much more.

The managerial merry go round took what might be considered an odd twist with the firing last week of Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez. The firing came as a surprise to many given Gonzalez’ record in his three plus years as skipper that included winning records in each of the past two seasons despite a payroll that ranked 26 out of 30 as of Opening Day. The plan was to bring in former big league manager Bobby Valentine to replace Gonzalez after Edwin Rodriguez was named interim manager. The timing of this is curious but not without a possible ulterior motive. Rodriguez is the first Puerto Rican born manager of a major league team. It so happens that Marlins are “hosting” the New York Mets this week for a three game series that will be played in Puerto Rico. Has anyone thought that this might just be a ruse to sell additional tickets for a franchise that draws very poorly in Miami? Given the consistently tight purse strings shown by current Marlin ownership this string of events might be more plan than coincidence.

And now it’s been reported that over the weekend the deal to sign Valentine fell through and that the Marlins will indeed keep the untested Rodriguez for at least the balance of this season. As to Fredi Gonzalez? He might well resurface in 2011 as the new manager of the Atlanta Braves, replacing the retiring Bobby Cox.

And in what is seemingly becoming a weekly occurrence, another no hitter was tossed over the weekend when Arizona’s Edwin Jackson used 149 pitches to no hit Tampa Bay. The high pitch count resulted from Jackson’s issuing 8 walks in his “gem” which, by the way, marked the third time in a calendar year in which the Rays were victimized by a no hitter. Jackson’s was the fourth no hitter of the season, or arguably the fifth depending on your feeling about Armando Galarraga’s near perfecto a few weeks ago.

Regular season Interleague play has ended for 2010 and the final results show the American League once again holding an edge of 16 games with their record of 134-118 (53 percent) with most of their edge coming from winning 60 percent of their home games (76-50). AL teams had a losing road record (58-68).

Totals ended up nearly even with 124 games going OVER, 119 staying UNDER and 7 games PUSHing. There were 2 games that did not produce Totals action.

In the first seven seasons of Interleague play the National League had the better record four times and the AL three times.

But the American League has now had the better record in 7 straight seasons from 2004 through this season with their net margins ranging from a low of plus 1 game in 2004 to plus 56 games in 2006. Other than that narrow edge in 2004 the next lowest AL margin was this season’s plus 16 games.

Here’s a look at a couple of series in each league to be played over the July 4 holiday weekend.

Florida at Atlanta: Atlanta took two of three from the Marlins when the teams met in Florida at the end of May. All three games went OVER the Total as the teams averaged just over 10 total runs per game. Florida’s ace Josh Johnson did not pitch in that series. For the Braves, Tim Hudson has been the staff ace with his 2.54 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Rookie Kris Medlen has also fared well (3.40 and 1.17) but Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Tommy Hanson have struggled. Beyond Johnson, none of Florida’s other starters is enjoying much success with perhaps Anibal Sanchez being the best of the rest. Both offenses rate as relatively neutral both over the short and long term. Atlanta is in much better current form and the managerial uncertainty surrounding the Marlins seems to have affected their play since Fredi Gonzalez was fired as manager last week, dropping four in a row after winning in interim manager Edwin Rodriguez’ debut.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Atlanta as favorites of minus 150 or less in any matchup except against Johnson; Marlins as favorites of up to minus 125 in a start by Johnson against any Atlanta starter; UNDER Totals of 8 or higher in starts by Johnson or Atlanta’s Hudson, OVER Totals of 8 or lower in any game not involving Johnson or Hudson.

San Francisco at Colorado: This is a four game series that begins Thursday. The teams have met twice previously this season with all 6 games in San Francisco. Each team won three games but all 6 games stayed well UNDER the Total as the teams averaged barely 5 total runs per game. The Giants are known for their outstanding starting rotation but the Rockies have more than held their own in that regard. Of the four starters with double digit starts plus lefty Jeff Francis who started the season injured only Aaron Cook (4.69) and Jason Hammel (4.31) have ERAs above 3.60. And staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez is having a Cy Young type season with an ERA (1.60) nearly half that of the Giants’ two time Award winner Tim Lincecum’s 3.12. Matt Cain has been the statistical ace of the Giants’ staff while both Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez are having above average seasons. Despite their wealth of pitching the Giants actually have played more OVERs (36) than UNDERs (35) even with an offense that rates slightly below average. This is due greatly to the low Totals that have been posted on Giants games. Colorado has been a strong UNDER team both at home (14-21) and on the road (14-22-2). Their offense has also been below average and will be even weaker with star Troy Tulowitzki sidelined for an extended period.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: UNDER Totals of 9 or higher in any matchup or UNDER 8 if Cain or Lincecum opposes Jimenez; Giants as underdogs of plus 120 or more in any matchup except against Jimenez; Colorado as favorites of minus 160 or less in a start by Jimenez except minus 140 or less if facing Cain or Lincecum; Rockies as underdogs of any price against other than Cain or Lincecum.

Chicago White Sox at Texas: These are two of the hottest teams in all of baseball as each had 11 game winning streaks snapped this past weekend. The Rangers have won 20 of their last 25 games, the Sox 18 of 25. Texas took two of three from Chicago in each of their two previous series this season, once at home and once on the road. Four of the games went OVER the Total as the teams have averaged almost 11 total runs per game. The Sox have benefited from good health thus far as they used only 5 starters all season and their stats are fairly close to one another with John Danks having the best ERA (3.62) and Gavin Floyd the worst (4.81). All 5 have WHIPs below 1.45 and strikeout to walk ratios of better than two to one. Since returning from injury Tommy Hunter has been stellar for the Rangers who have won all five of his starts. Both Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson have also been effective. Texas has a decided edge on offense, rating well above average in the short, medium and full season time frames.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Texas as favorites of minus 125 or less in any matchup or if favored by minus 130 or less in starts by Hunter, Lewis or Wilson; White Sox as underdogs of plus 125 or more against other than Hunter, Lewis or Wilson; OVER Totals of 8 or lower in any matchup; UNDER Totals of 9 or higher in starts by Hunter, Lewis or Wilson against Danks.

Tampa Bay at Minnesota: This four game series begins Thursday and are meeting for the first time this season. After having baseball’s best record for much of the season Tampa Bay has slumped over the last month, losing 15 of their last 25 games and are now in third place in the AL East. Minnesota has played almost as poorly, losing 14 of their last 25 games, but remain atop the AL Central but by just half a game over Detroit. The frustration and tension in Tampa may have reached its apex this past Sunday in the much publicized in game confrontation between Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton over Upton’s apparent lack of hustle in chasing down a long base hit in the gap that ultimately set up the winning margin in a 2-1 loss. The starting pitching has slumped of late and only David Price and Jeff Niemann have solid stats for the season. For the Twins Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano have been the steadiest starters. Both teams have above average bullpens and fairly average offenses although in a bit of an oddity Tampa Bay averages considerably more runs on the road (5.6) than they do at home (4.4). The Rays are one of only 5 teams to score more away than at home and their 1.2 run per game margin is tops. And despite their recent woes the Rays still have baseball’s best road record, 24-12.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Tampa Bay as underdogs of any price in starts by Niemann or Price or if favored by no more than minus 120 in a start by Price; Tampa as favorites of any price against Nick Blackburn unless Wade Davis starts; Twins as favorites of minus 140 or less in starts by Liriano or Pavano against other than Niemann or Price; UNDER Totals of 8 or higher in matchups of Liriano or Pavano against Niemann or Price; UNDER Totals of 9 or higher in any matchup not involving Davis or Blackburn; OVER 10 or less if Davis opposes Blackburn.


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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