The Pittsburgh Pirates remain one of the best in baseball

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This week marks the literal halfway point of the 2013 season as most teams just played or are about to play game 81 of the long 162-game schedule.

Historically, July 4 has been the second major milepost of the season at which teams take stock of their position in the standings and prospects for the rest of the season with an eye towards the trading deadline at the end of this month.

The structure of baseball’s postseason has changed over the years and with the introduction last season of two more Wild Card teams one third of MLB’s 30 teams will not make the playoffs. Of course, four of those 10 teams will play only one post season game as the four Wild Cards, two in each league, will face one another with the winner of that single elimination game advancing to the League Division Series.

The Pittsburgh Pirates remain one of the best stories of the season. Finally, a phrase that has not been uttered in July for more than 20 seasons can be stated: The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place and have the best record (51-30) in all of baseball.

Timely hitting and a solid pitching staff that has the best ERA in MLB (3.11) have been responsible for the Pirates’ ascension to the top of the standings. Manager Clint Hurdle, who had success as the skipper of Colorado, is doing a masterful job in handling his personnel, which arguably are not as talented as the rosters of the Pirates; two main challengers in the NL Central, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Also, Chris Davis is continuing his career-best homer push from the start of the season and currently leads the majors with 31. The Baltimore first baseman hit his latest during a sweep of the Yankees this past weekend.

A pair of teams mentioned in recent weeks that appeared out of contention but could return to contender status if they achieved certain objectives by the All Star break could be doing just that.

Both the LA Dodgers and LA Angels were double digit games below .500 just a couple of weeks ago. But both have raised their level of play and can be at, or pretty close, to .500 by the time of the All Star break arrives, two weeks from this past Sunday.

The Dodgers are in a better position than the Angels because no team has been able to assert itself in the NL West. Although the Dodgers are in last place at 38-43, they are just four games behind Division leading Arizona in baseball’s most tightly bunched division. The Diamondbacks’ 42-39 record is the weakest of any division leader.

The Dodgers start the week having won 8 of its last 9 games to get back into contention in a very winnable division. The elevation of Yasiel Puig from the minors early in June has given the Dodgers a much needed spark plus the return from injury of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez have also been contributing factors.

The current surge of momentum has, at least temporarily, lessened the pressure on manager Don Mattingly, but that momentum needs to continue. The Dodgers may be the most talented team on paper in the division.

The Angels passed a big test this past weekend by sweeping the lowly Houston Astros, a team that had won 7 of 10 meetings entering last week’s series in Houston. The Angels had just swept a three game series in Detroit and had a chance to continue that momentum and make amends for having been swept at home by the Astros just a couple of weeks earlier.

The Angels took all 3 games in Houston and start this week at 39-43. They are in third place in the AL West, a full 9 games behind first place Texas which has a half game lead over Oakland.

There’s much ground to be made up but a half season remaining in which to do so. Josh Hamilton has shown signs of emerging from a disastrous first half and if he can get untracked the Angels’ offense will be among the best in the game.

After winning 11 straight games Toronto slumped over the past week, losing 5 of 7 games. They remain in last place in the AL East, 8.5 games behind first place Boston but just 2.5 games behind third place Tampa Bay. The good news for the Blue Jays is that Jose Reyes, the catalyst of the offense, has returned after missing more than two months due to injury.

The Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays are worth watching in coming weeks as each should make for attractive plays, especially as underdogs.

The New York Yankees are learning why the players they relied upon for the first two months of the season are considered, at best, part time players. Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner were keys to the early season success enjoyed by the Yanks but the inevitable reversal is taking place.

The “Bronx Bummers” have lost 13 of their last 18 games to slip behind Tampa Bay into fourth place in the AL East. The starting pitching – which was a strength during April and May – has also faltered. Closer Mariano Rivera remains at the top of his game in the final season of his career but given the weakened state of the offense, and the recent struggles of the starting pitchers, may limit his chances to extend his MLB record number of saves over the second half of the season.

Cleveland has been perhaps the hottest and coldest team all season, looking like division champs over certain stretches and chumps over others. After sweeping a four game series from the White Sox – in which they outscored the Pale Hose 36 to 21 – has the Tribe at 44-38 and tied with Detroit for the AL Central lead.

Although they trail Pittsburgh by two games in the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals have baseball’s second best record (49-32). But the Cards have baseball’s best runs differential, plus 112. What is impressive about that stat is that the second best runs differential is a full 32 runs differential less. Boston is second best at plus 80.

As we celebrate our nation’s Independence on Thursday we lament the passage of a long standing tradition that passed away from the scene more than a decade ago.

For many years teams would stage double headers on July 4 and not the split day/night plan that have been used increasingly over the years to make up games postponed earlier in the season. Those were single admission “two for the price of one” experiences that were the highlights of kids’ summers throughout the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s.

But the business of baseball has made Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day doubleheaders a fading memory for those who were fortunate enough to have been able to enjoy them. As baseball seeks to retain a shrinking fan base and to attract new fans to the game, how about a radical idea?

Between 1959 and 1962 baseball actually held two All Star games each season, several days or several weeks apart in July. What if baseball were to resurrect that idea but instead of a pair of games pitting American League vs. National League stars and a second matchup being between American born All Stars and a team of foreign born All Stars?

With the great influx of foreign players, including those from the Pacific Rim and, most recently, star defectors from Cuba, this might be a great way for baseball to expand its appeal, especially with the economic/merchandising benefits that come from worldwide exposure and interest.

Just a thought as Bud Selig winds down his tenure as Commissioner.

Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.

Rockies at D’backs: These teams have split 10 previous games this season with all 10 staying UNDER the total.

Arizona only has one pitcher currently worth backing and it’s not because they are 14-1 in Patrick Corbin’s 15 starts. Corbin has an excellent ERA of 2.22 and WHIP of 1.00. Aside from Randall Delgado who’s made just 3 starts, the other starters’ ERA are north of 4.50. This makes the string of UNDERS with the Rockies all the more remarkable. Colorado’s best starters have been Jorge de la Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and even Tyler Chatwood.

Recommended plays: Colorado as +150 underdogs or more against Corbin or +120 or more against other Arizona starters if Chacin, de la Rosa or Chatwood start for the Rockies; Arizona -130 or less in starts by other than Corbin not facing Chacin, de la Rosa or Chatwood; UNDER 9.5 or higher in any matchup

Dodgers at Giants: San Francisco has won 5 of 9 meetings this season although the home team is on a current 6 game winning streak. The arrival of Yasiel Puig has jumpstarted the Dodgers’ offense and the pitching has been solid behind starters Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and several fine recent efforts from Stephen Fife.

The Giants continue to rely on starters Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, each of whom seem to be regaining past form. But both Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum are struggling.

Recommended plays: Dodgers as +125 underdogs or more against Cain or Bumgarner or as dogs of any price (or favorites of -120 or less) against other Giants starters; UNDER 7 or higher if Kershaw, Ryu or Fife against Bumgarner or Cain; Giants -125 or less against Chris Capuano.

Tigers at Indians: This four game series concludes next Monday. The Tigers and Indians start this week tied for the AL Central lead. Detroit has won 6 of 8 meetings thus far with 5 games going OVER and 3 staying UNDER. Detroit has gotten solid starting pitching although ace Justin Verlander has been rather ordinary over the past month or so and has a season to date ERA of 3.77 and WHIP of 1.39.

Max Scherzer has been the de facto ace this season with a scintillating 0.90 WHIP through 16 starts (3.18 ERA). Only slowly developing Rick Porcello has been a drain despite having some solid outings. Cleveland’s rotation is led by Justin Masterson, after whom there is a sharp dropoff.

Recommended plays: OVER 9 or lower in any matchup not involving Masterson; Cleveland +150 or more against Verlander or Scherzer; Cleveland -125 or less against Porcello or in a start by Masterson not facing Verlander or Scherzer; Detroit -125 or less not facing Masterson.

Red Sox at Angels: In their only prior series this season Boston took 2 of 3 at home in a high scoring series that saw 38 total runs scored with each game going OVER the total.

Boston’s best starter has been Clay Buchholz but shoulder issues have the ace righty on the DL. Veteran and ex-Angel John Lackey has been almost as solid as Buchholz with 2.99 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over his 13 starts. Jon Lester has fallen off after a solid start and the rest of the rotation has been barely average.

This does shape up as a high scoring series especially with the Angels’ Josh Hamilton appearing to emerge from his season long slump and the Red Sox’ David Ortiz continuing to swing a hot stick.

Recommended plays: OVER 9 or lower in almost any matchup. UNDER 8 or higher if Lackey faces the Angels‘ C J Wilson; Boston +125 or more in any matchup; Angels -120 or less in any matchup.

Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]

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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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