Memorial Day sees St. Lou holding cards

May 24, 2005 7:12 AM

The Memorial Day weekend, historically considered a key time to take measure of how the season has unfolded, finds only the National League Central as one-sided.

St. Louis holds a seven game lead over three teams, each three games below .500. The Cardinals appear to be the class of the NL and favored to successfully defend their pennant of a season ago. They are second only to AL Central leader Chicago for baseball’s best record.

The White Sox have the second largest division lead, five games over Minnesota. Unlike the Cardinals, the Sox should face a challenge from the Twins all season. Minnesota has won the division each of the past three seasons and own the third best record in the AL.

Baseball’s other four divisions have gaps of two games or less between the first and second place teams. Baltimore leads the AL East by just two games over Boston. A recent 10 game win streak pulled New York within 4½ of the Orioles and tied with Toronto. Questions about the Yankees starting pitching remain, although recent efforts have been encouraging. Offensively, the Yanks have scored five runs or more in 12 of their last 14 games.

Florida holds a 1½-game lead over Atlanta in the NL East, but that’s due to having played three fewer games. Each team has 24 wins but the Marlins have lost just 16 times while Atlanta has 19 defeats. Washington and the New York Mets are two and three games back respectively. The Phillies are only 5½ back with a 21-24 record, by far the best of any last place team.

Separation is starting to occur in the AL West where the Angels hold a 1½-game edge over Texas. Third place Seattle is 5½ further back and a game in front of Oakland. It would appear that the Angels and Rangers will each contend for the division title. Neither is likely good enough to contend for the wild card.

Arizona holds a slim half game edge over San Diego in the NL West with the Dodgers just three games back. San Francisco has been surprisingly competitive considering all the front line players out with injury, including Barry Bonds. The Giants begin the week just one game below .500. Only Colorado has been left in the dust, trailing first place Arizona by 12 games.

But that is not the largest deficit faced by baseball’s bad teams. Cincinnati and Houston trail by 12 in the NL Central. Tampa Bay is 13 behind Baltimore in the AL East and Kansas City a whopping 18 in back of Chicago in the AL Central. At the current pace, the Royals would finish more than 70 games out of first place. Wow! Two years ago Detroit was 43-119, finishing 47 games behind division winner Minnesota.

Pitching has been the story thus far. This past Sunday saw five complete games. There have been 41 more UNDERs than OVERs already this season. Of 1292 pitching starts, 448 have lasted at least seven innings (35 percent). That’s significantly higher than in past seasons.

Here are four series to be played this weekend.

Mets at Marlins: The Mets won three of the first five meetings this season back in mid April. The two games in Florida were blowout wins, one for each club. Pitching should be prominent throughout this series with Florida’s weakest link being ex-Met Al Leiter. Even the fifth Marlins starter, Brian Moehler, is having a solid season. Preferred plays: MARLINS as underdog with Brian Moehler against any Mets starter. MARLINS if Mets ace Pedro Martinez is favored over Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis. UNDER 7 or higher in any of those matchups. UNDER 8 if any other Mets starter or Leiter. METS at +140 or higher in starts by Kris Benson and Aaron Heilman.

Dodgers at D’backs: Arizona has won four straight from the Dodgers this season after dropping the first two games. The last four games have averaged just 7.3 runs per contest. The key pitchers to bet on are Arizona’s Javier Vazquez, Brandon Webb and Dodgers righty Derek Lowe. Preferred plays: Any matchup involving these three pitchers UNDER 8 or higher. OVER 9 or lower with Los Angeles starter Scott Erickson a "go against" with his 7.08 ERA in 39 innings over eight starts. ARIZONA —140 against Erickson. DODGERS as underdogs in matchups not involving Webb and Vazquez.

Red Sox at Yanks: Bitter rivals have split their first six meetings with the home team taking two of three in each series. Boston has been beset by starting pitcher injuries with Curt Schilling remaining sidelined and ex-Yankee David Wells most ineffective in his first start since coming of the DL. Bronson Arroyo, Matt Clement and Wade Miller have been effective. The Yanks have no starting pitcher with an ERA lower than Carl Pavano’s 3.69. Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina are in the high 3’s after nine starts. Preferred plays: BOSTON +120 with Arroyo, Clement and Miller. UNDER 9 or higher in matchups involving any of these six pitchers. OVER 10 in matchups involving none of the six listed starters.

White Sox at Rangers: Chicago won two of the three meetings earlier this month behind solid starting efforts of Mark Buehrle and the surprising Jon Garland. In fact, the potent Texas offense managed just two runs in the two combined starts after winning the opener 7-6 against the now-disabled Orlando Hernandez. Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras have also been effective in their first nine starts. Texas has gotten solid starting efforts from veteran lefty Kenny Rogers and Chris Young. Preferred plays: UNDER 8 involving those starters. OVER 9 in starts by Ryan Drese (Texas) or Pedro Astacio (Chicago). TEXAS at +125 against any Chicago starter.