White Sox still baseball’s best

May 31, 2005 6:45 AM

The Chicago White Sox still have baseball’s best record, but the St. Louis Cardinals are closing fast.

The White Sox have played, and won, one more game than the Cards. The 33-17 record gives Chicago the largest lead of the three American League division leaders. The Pale Hose are 3½ games up on Minnesota.

Overall, baseball’s two Eastern Divisions are playing the strongest ball. Only Tampa Bay in the AL East appears hopelessly out of playoff contention. The other four in the AL East and five in the NL East are a collective 36 games above .500.

Baltimore has a three game lead over Boston in the AL East, with Toronto and the Yankees each just a half game back. This is the only division with four teams playing winning baseball this deep into the season. Washington in the NL East begins the week at .500. That leaves just Florida, Atlanta and the New York Mets with winning records.

The Marlins and Braves begin the week tied for the division lead. Florida, having both won and lost one less game than Atlanta, is percentage points ahead. Last place Philadelphia has played well over the past two weeks. Despite being three games below .500, the Phillies are just five out of first place. Each of the other five division cellar dwellers trail the leaders by at least a dozen games.

Contrast the situations in the East with those in the AL and NL Central. St. Louis has already opened up a 7½ game margin and is the only team in the division with winning record. The Cubs have managed to reach .500, but their prospects of being much of a threat were greatly dimmed late last week when staff ace Mark Prior was hit in the elbow by a batted ball.

Prior is out for the next several months, perhaps the balance of the season. He joins Kerry Wood on the sidelines and the combination of their weak offense and poor bullpen suggest that Cubs fans may have to wait ”˜till next year.

Minnesota continues to play well. The Twins record would actually give them a half game lead in the AL West. Both Cleveland and Detroit are flirting with .500 following fine play over the past 10 days. Lowly Kansas City, at 13-37, is on pace to lose nearly120 games.

Colorado, at 14-34, has the senior circuit’s worst record. The Rockies already trail first place San Diego by 16 games in the NL West. The Padres, having one of the best months in franchise history, have opened a 2½ game lead over second place Arizona. The Dodgers also have a winning record, but after starting 12-2 are seven games below .500 since.

Anaheim and Texas have separated themselves from Seattle and Oakland in the AL West. The Angels start the week with a half game lead over the Rangers. There is a nine game gap back to the third place Mariners.

Home teams are winning at nearly a 55 percent rate, slightly above the pace of the past few seasons. This is most pronounced in the NL, where the home edge is 214-159 (57.4 percent). AL home teams are 169-156 (52 percent). The home team in interleague matchups is 23-19 (54.8 percent). The "under" continues to widen the gap (372-319-49) across the board against the "over."

Ignoring pushes and no decisions, in National League games there have been 171 "overs" and 178 "unders." In the AL, the "unders" are ahead 171-132. In the 42 interleague games, the "overs" are up 23-16 (59 percent).

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

Braves at Pirates: Despite their losing record Pittsburgh has gotten some surprisingly strong starting pitching from its rotation. It’s the offense that’s been weak. Atlanta is again a contender and should be favored throughout the series. Pittsburgh is attractive as an underdog, especially when lefties Mark Redman or Dave Williams start.

Preferred plays: PIRATES with Redman or Williams against any Atlanta starter. UNDER 8 or higher when Tim Hudson and John Smoltz start for Atlanta. OVER 9 if Horacio Ramirez faces Kip Wells, Oliver Perez or Josh Fogg.

Reds at Rockies: Two struggling teams with weak starting and relief pitching meet for three games at hitter friendly Coors Field. Although the outrageously high number of runs in seasons past are not crossing the plate at Coors this season, the average total runs scored is a healthy 12.6 per game. Neither team has a true quality starter although Cincinnati’s Aaron Harang comes closest.

Preferred plays: REDS -130 if Harang starts. UNDERDOG with Reds at any price and Rockies at +125. OVER 13 or less.

Angels at Red Sox: Each team brings more to the plate than they do to the mound. When you think of the Angels and Red Sox, it’s offense. The Angels are without slugger Vladimir Guerrero, but there is still plenty of production in the lineup. Boston has Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz and a host of others. Sox just finished pounding out 41 hits and scoring 24 runs in winning a pair of games over the Yankees.

Preferred plays: UNDER 9 or higher if Angels start Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Washburn or John Lackey and the Red Sox counter with Matt Clement or Bronson Arroyo. UNDERDOG in games involving two of those five pitchers. OVER 10 if other pitchers are involved. FAVORITE at -140 if Clement opposes anyone other than the Angels top trio.

Yanks at Twins: Minnesota’s Johan Santana is perhaps the best pitcher in the AL. What is less realized is Minnesota’s overall pitching is excellent. The Twins have sent six different starters to the mound this season and none have a WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning pitched) higher than 1.30. Contrast that to Yanks starters, with only Randy Johnson and rookie C.M. Wang (now in the bullpen) at that level. Next best is Mike Mussina’s 1.42.

Preferred plays: TWINS as underdogs at any price. UNDER 8 if Santana pitches, 9 or higher if others pitch.