Interleague play continues with less zest

Jun 7, 2005 5:24 AM

Phase two of Interleague play for 2005 began Monday with what would generally be considered less attractive matchups than those that kicked off play between the leagues a couple of weeks ago.

The first segment of play involved many of what are being considered to be ”˜traditional’ rivalries. More aptly, many of these are merely games between geographical neighbors often in the same city or state. It’s really too early for them to be considered ”˜traditional’ quite yet.

Nevertheless the next two weeks will feature American League versus National League. With 16 NL teams and just 14 AL teams, there will be one regular NL series that is played while the other 28 teams are involved in Interleague play.

Baseball’s best division and certainly its most competitive nearly a third of the way through the season is the NL East. Only 1½ games separate first place Washington from last place Florida in the five team division. All five have winning records. The last place Marlins are two games above break even.

To put the NL East in perspective the smallest gap between a first place and last place team in the other five divisions is in the AL West where last place Oakland trails first place Texas by 9½ games.

At just five games above .500, Washington does have the lowest win percentage amongst the six division leaders. However, that should not take away from the competitiveness or the balance of the division where a case can be made for each of the five teams.

The AL East is almost as well-balanced, with just last place Tampa Bay playing non-winning baseball. After a strong surge that saw the New York Yankees escape the cellar and make it into second place behind Baltimore, their current form of seven losses in their last eight games has George Steinbrenner’s soldiers in fourth place at 28-28. Manager Joe Torre has made several questionable decisions of late, especially in his handling of the pitching staff.

Were the playoffs to begin now, both Chicago and Minnesota from the AL Central would be in the postseason. The White Sox continue to have baseball’s best record, while the second place Twins would lead three of the other five divisions. Keep your eye on the three time AL Central champion Twins. They seem poised to not just make the playoffs once again, but to also advance at least beyond the first round.

St. Louis has the best record in the NL heading into the start of its World Series rematch with Boston on Monday through Wednesday. The Cardinals remain the team to beat in the NL, although recent fine play by both San Diego and the Chicago Cubs could suggest St. Louis might at least have some challengers over the balance of the regular season. Remember, more than 100 games are still to be played by all teams.

The AL won the opening round of Interleague play going 23-19 against the NL. There were 16 "overs," 23 "unders" and three pushes in the 42 games that saw an overall average of just 8.26 total runs scored. That’s nearly a run below the major-league baseball average in non-interleague games.

Breaking these results down by game location we find that the leagues split the 18 games played at NL venues with the "under" holding a 9-6-3 margin, producing an average of 7.83 total runs per contest. The AL’s advantage came from its 14-10 home record that saw a similar 14-10 "over" edge produce an average of 8.58 combined runs.

Here’s a look at four attractive Interleague series this weekend.

Red Sox at Cubs: With the Red Sox finally stopped their 86-year drought between World Series titles, the end to the Curse of the Cubs comes next on many baseball fans’ wish list. After a sluggish start the Cubbies have played their best baseball of the season over the past 10 days while Boston has been steady all season. Ex-Cub Matt Clement has been Boston’s most reliable starter to date with Boston winning nine of his 12 starts.

Preferred plays: Clement and BOSTON at —140 if NOT facing Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano and Glendon Rusch. UNDER 9 and UNDERDOG if Clement opposes the Cubs trio. CUBS as underdogs if facing Boston’s Tim Wakefield and David Wells. OVER 10 when Wakefield and Wells pitch.

Angels at Mets: West travels east in this matchup of teams forecasted to contend for the post season. The Mets have been hovering around .500 for much of the season following an 0-6 start and the Angels have contended for the lead in the AL West all season. Los Angeles starts the week trailing Texas by a half game, even with All Star Vladimir Guerrero sidelined. This shapes up as a pitcher oriented series and a matchup of the Angels ace Bartolo Colon against Pedro Martinez would be sweet. Neither team has a totally woeful starter. Every current Angels starter is averaging at least six innings per start and their bullpen is solid. The lack of a DH will affect their offense. For the Mets even their weakest starters (Kaz Ishii and Victor Zambrano) have been sharper of late.

Preferred plays: UNDER 7 or higher if Colon vs Pedro. The UNDERDOG at +150 or more.

Thus aside from a Colon-Martinez matchup, UNDER 8 or higher is the preferred play. The best values come by playing UNDER Totals of 9 or higher.

Rangers at Marlins: Texas’ fine play in 2004 was no fluke under first year skipper Buck Showalter. The Rangers are improved in 2005 largely due to a pitching staff that has benefited immensely under the guidance of the Bulldog, Orel Hershiser. Even veterans Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio have been steady, but the performance of Kenny Rogers this season has been nothing short of spectacular. Florida has gotten its expected solid pitching but the offense has been a major disappointment. Ordinarily one would expect the Marlins to feast on the Rangers pitching.

Preferred plays: If the lines maker shows such a bias, the UNDER and RANGERS might each be very attractive. OVER 9 or lower if Al Leiter pitches for Florida. He has the only ERA above 3.03 for the regular starters and at 6.45 it is more than double the highest ERA from the other four starters. TEXAS as UNDERDOGS in starts by either Rogers or Chris Young. Each should be a dog except against Leiter.

Yankees at Cardinals: The two winningest franchises in Major League Baseball history square off for what many had thought would be a preview of the 2005 World Series. St. Louis has done its part by fashioning the best record in the NL. But the Yankees have struggled after showing signs of straightening things out just over a week ago before a one sided 17-1 loss at home to Boston started the current nosedive. Still, it’s a long season and this might still end up being that preview.

New York has had a multitude of problems this season including a severe inadequacy at the plate regarding driving in runs with runners in scoring position. On the mound the big three starters of Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano have been basically average and inconsistent. Rookie C.M.Wang has been a pleasant addition to the rotation and the Yankees have won five of his six starts. A likely underdog, Wang may be backed in this series. For St. Louis all five members of their starting rotation have been average to above average with Jeff Suppan sporting the highest ERA of the five at 4.41. Only Jason Marquis has displayed what could be considered below average control.

Preferred plays: CARDS as UNDERDOGS against Johnson, Mussina and Pavano. YANKS as UNDERDOGS with Wang. For Totals use 9 as your guide, going OVER totals of 9 or lower and UNDER 9 or higher, regardless of the pitching matchups.