Pennant Races

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Teams will show sense of urgency

The figurative mid point of the season has arrived with baseball’s annual All Star break and although all teams have played more than half of their 162 game schedule with roughly 75 games remaining, winning games and winning series take on added importance.

The stage has been set for several compelling races over the next two and a half months. For the first time since baseball began play with three Divisions in each league in 1994, no Division leader is up by as many as 5 games at the break.

Four of the six Divisions have leaders up by two games or less while leads of four games and four and a half games define the other two.

The New York Yankees enter the break with baseball’s best record (56-32) but that is good enough for just a two game lead over Tampa Bay. The Yanks and Rays are the only teams winning more than 60 percent of their games.

Atlanta has the best record in the National League (52-36) to lead the East, a game better than San Diego who leads the NL West.

Aside from this quartet Boston and Texas have also won at least 50 games heading into the break although, as detailed shortly, the Rangers enter the break in a slump. Fortunately for the Rangers, their closest competition, the Angels, have also been slumping as baseball begins its annual recess.

While many of baseball’s best players gather in Anaheim for the annual All Star festivities, many otherwise deserving players opt out for rest or, in many cases, to allow injuries to heal during the extra days off.

The first major trade took place last Friday as the much rumored trade of Seattle lefty ace Cliff Lee finally occurred. However, in somewhat of a surprise, the Mariners traded Lee to Division rival Texas. Thought to be contenders when the season started, Seattle has tossed in the towel on the 2010 season as their lack of offense failed to complement the pitching of Lee and fellow ace Felix Hernandez. It was thought that Lee would be traded to the Yankees but the Mariners opted at the last minute to accept Texas’ offering of prospects over those offered by New York. Lee has stated his intentions to test the free agent market after the season and he may well wind up in Yankee Stadium in 2011, a venue at which Lee has pitched very well in the uniform of the opposition.

Although Lee’s arrival was welcomed by the Rangers he was less than ordinary in his Texas debut, losing to lowly Baltimore last Saturday. The Rangers lost again on Sunday to complete Baltimore’s first four game road win sweep since 1995. But don’t fret, Rangers fans. Texas will rebound and Lee will be the addition they need although Texas does begin the season’s second half with a four game series in Boston.

More trades will be made over the next three weeks as contenders position themselves for making a run to the Playoffs and other teams begin to focus on rebuilding towards next season.

At the betting windows the biggest winners this season have been backers of San Diego, the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta. All three teams have returned net profits of more than 10 units this season, led by the Padres’ nearly 17 net units.

But those positive returns pale in comparison to the losses suffered by backers of the Chicago Cubs (down 22.6 units), Seattle (down 20 units), Arizona (-18 units) and Baltimore (-16.5 units).

The All Star break gives managers an opportunity to rearrange their starting rotations when play resumes on Thursday and Friday. Thus we may see some strong pitching matchups heading into the weekend.

With the World Cup having ended and the start of the NFL preseason still several weeks away baseball has the stage all to itself for the next few weeks.

Things have just started to get interesting.

Here’s a look at four series that start post All Star break baseball.

L. A. Dodgers at St. Louis: In their previous meeting this season the Dodgers swept a three game home series in early June with 2 of the 3 games going OVER the Total. St. Louis has gotten solid pitching but their offense has been less productive than expected. Hence, the Cardinals have been the biggest UNDER team in baseball, with just 34 OVERs, 51 UNDERs and 3 PUSHes. Adam Wainwright has been the staff ace but both Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia are fashioning solid seasons as well. The Dodgers have had a better offense than in recent seasons while their pitching has been rather ordinary. Clayton Kershaw has been the Dodgers’ best starter by a fairly wide margin. Both teams are contending for Division titles and the Dodgers enter the break tied with Colorado for the Wild Card lead with St. Louis two games back.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Dodgers as Underdogs of any price in a start by Kershaw or as favorites of -125 or less against other than Wainwright, Carpenter or Garcia; St. Louis as favorites of -140 or less against other than Kershaw; UNDER Totals of 7 or higher if Kershaw opposes Carpenter, Garcia or Wainwright; OVER Totals of 8 or lower if none of these pitchers start; OVER Totals of 9 or lower if Jeff Suppan starts for St. Louis

N Y Mets at San Francisco: The Mets swept a three game home series in early May in the teams’ only prior series this season. All three games went OVER the Total even though the teams combined for just 30 runs. That’s because both teams have solid starting pitching and the Totals were 7½ or 8. Both teams are also getting offense from a pair of rookies, the Mets’ Ike Davis and the Giants’ Buster Posey. Both teams also have some young developing pitchers with the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner pitching very in his first 4 starts and the Mets getting consistent efforts from young lefty Jonathan Niese. The Mets have the better overall offense but the Giants have the better bullpen. Each team has a starting pitcher who has struggled after strong starts with both the Giants’ Barry Zito and the Mets’ Mike Pelfrey slumping heading into the break. Mets’ ace Johan Santana is at the top of his game while Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum also appears to have overcome a recent slump.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Either team as Underdogs of +125 in any matchup except Giants as favorites of -140 or less in starts by Lincecum or Bumgarner against any Mets starter; Mets as favorites of -125 or less in starts by Santana or knuckleball R.A. Dickey against other than Lincecum, Bumgarner or Matt Cain; UNDER Totals of 8 or higher in any matchup; OVER Totals of 7 or lower in matchups not involving Santana, Dickey or Niese against Lincecum, Matt Cain or Bumgarner

Tampa Bay at N.Y. Yankees: These teams meet for their third series this season. The road team has won 4 of 5 games thus far. All 5 games have gone OVER the Total with each game producing at least 10 runs. Tampa has used the same 5 man rotation all season and other than a pair of starts from Sergio Mitre, the same is true of New York. Thus both staffs have benefited from remaining healthy and pitching effectively. Following a slow start the Yanks’ Javier Vazquez has pitched every bit as effectively as ace CC Sabathia while Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes have been steady all season. Only A.J. Burnett has been frustratingly inconsistent. For Tampa lefty David Price is living up to expectations with Jeff Niemann also putting up solid stats. The remainder of the Tampa rotation has been just ordinary. Both offenses have rather sharp contrasts as the Yankees average 1.2 more runs per game at home than on the road while Tampa is exactly the opposite, averaging 1.2 more runs per game on the road than at home.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: Yankees as Underdogs of any price in any matchup except against Price or as favorites of -130 or less against any Tampa starter other than Price; Tampa with Price as a favorite of -120 or less against any Yankees starter; UNDER Totals of 9 or less in any matchup or UNDER Totals of 8 or less in starts by Price or Niemann against any Yankees starter; OVER Totals of 9 or lower in a start by Tampa’s Wade Davis.

Chicago White Sox at Minnesota: In two prior series this season the road team has won 3 of 5 games with 4 of the games staying UNDER the Total. Minnesota had led the AL Central for much of the season before being overtaken by both the White Sox and Detroit in the last week. Chicago leads the Tigers by a half game and ended the first half as the hottest team in baseball, winners of 8 in a row and 25 of their last 30 games. Minny’s slide has been from a combination of factors including an injured Justin Morneau and a Joe Mauer that has not been able to find his rhythm this season. Minnesota’s pitching has also been a concern while that aspect has been a strength for Chicago. No Twins starter has an ERA below 3.50 although Carl Pavano has been very steady all season and has posted the best stats. Ace Francisco Liriano has not been able to recapture his dominance of several seasons ago before his arm injury. Righty Scott Baker appears on the verge of breaking out with his strong 5 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. The Sox have been getting solid pitching from their rotation, especially John Danks, but have lost Jake Peavy for the season. Neither offense is especially potent although the Twins have averaged 5.0 runs per game at home in their new stadium.

RECOMMENDED PLAYS: White Sox as Underdogs in starts by Danks or Gavin Floyd against any Minnesota starter; Minnesota as favorites of -140 or less in starts by Liriano, Pavano or Baker except against Danks or Floyd; UNDER Totals of 9 or higher in any matchup except UNDER Totals of 8 or higher if Chicago’s Danks, Floyd or Mark Buehrle faces Pavano, Liriano or Baker.

 

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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