Interleague rivalriesset for final encore

Jun 21, 2005 6:45 AM

As baseball nears the All-Star break, regular intraleague play marks the middle of this week.

Things then get interesting with the final installment of interleague (AL vs. NL) games, featuring round two of many burgeoning rivalries, taking place over the weekend.

Looking at the American League all but Tampa Bay in the AL East (Baltimore, Boston, the New York Yankees and Toronto) remain in contention. However, a slide by Toronto (currently 7½ games behind Baltimore and playing under .500 baseball) might have the Blue Jays dispose of talent as they fall further behind.

In the AL Central, the red-hot Chicago White Sox have a comfortable lead in a division that, as a whole, is playing excellent ball. The second place finisher in the division is very much in contention for (and currently controlling) the wild card.

Cleveland’s recent fine play (nine game win streak at the start of the week) has the Tribe on the heels of Minnesota. At .500, Detroit also remains optimistic about the second half. Kansas City is likely the only team in this division to have conceded by the break.

Anaheim and Texas have opened up a nice gap in the AL West over both Seattle and Oakland, thus making the Angels and Rangers the teams most likely to strengthen themselves for the season’s second half.

All five teams in the NL East are very much in contention for the postseason, although the New York Mets have faded recently to become the only team in the division below .500. At three games below .500, the Mets are just seven games out of first with many interdivisional games remaining in August and September.

St. Louis has all but won the NL Central, with only the Chicago Cubs having a realistic shot at the wild card. Currently the Cubbies are a scant 2½ games out of the wild card (currently held by Philadelphia) with aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood expected back before the All Star break.

San Diego is the only team playing winning baseball in the NL West. Arizona is at .500 and the Los Angeles Dodgers falling a pair of games behind the D’backs. San Francisco and Colorado are likely to be talent providers in late July.

The All Star break is just a few weeks away. The figurative halfway point of the season calls for teams to make decisions as far as becoming buyers or sellers of talent with the trade deadline approaching in late July.

Ten teams looking to trade veterans will be in discussions with possible trade partners, who may be asked to showcase some young talent. We could see some relievers making starts in the next few weeks or minor leaguers called up for a series or two. While much of our handicapping focuses on the relative merits of opposing starting pitchers, we should also keep our eyes on position players making their debuts or getting shots at playing everyday.

Pitching is still the primary factor in handicapping a baseball game, but offense is not to be ignored. We often see well pitched games lost for lack of offense. Just take a look at how many times a team may be on the short end of a game in which the starting pitcher (or perhaps the starter and relief corps) have allowed three runs or less.

One handicapping technique preferred here is to keep track of games in which the offense bails out the pitching staff or vice versa — when the pitchers bail out a silent offense.

In assessing which teams are likely to be buyers and sellers, a look at the standings is our best indicator. Teams now have a shade over 90 games remaining. The All Star break offers a pretty good idea as to which teams have realistic chances of making the playoffs — either as division champion or a wild card.

Here’s a look at four such series.

Mets at Yankees: The Mets have faded badly in the last few weeks and dropped two of three at home to the Yankees back in May. Carlos Beltran has been a major disappointment, but the entire offense has slumped. The Mets have scored more than five runs just once in their last dozen games. The Yankees bats have been hot, plating at least five runs in six straight games and eight of the last 10. Preferred plays: YANKS at -130 or less. They might even be underdogs if facing Pedro Martinez. OVER at 8 or less. UNDER at 10 or higher. We may not get such opportunities unless the chance for an "over" matchup occurs between Martinez and Randy Johnson or Mike Mussina.

Cubs at White Sox: The Sox took two of three at Wrigley when the teams met a month ago. The "under" was 2-0-1 with the Cubs managed just eight runs total. The Sox did not fare much better, scoring 13. No game produced more than five for either side. Preferred plays: UNDER at 8 or higher. UNDERDOG if the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano or the Sox’ Jon Garland are not favored. WHITE SOX if Mark Buehrle is favored at -140. The Sox ace did not face the Cubs in the first series.

Orioles at Braves: These teams have not met this season. Baltimore has gotten above average pitching and solid hitting. Only the White Sox and Cardinals have lost fewer games. Atlanta continues to be beset by injuries both on the mound and in the field. Starting pitchers Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Tim Hudson are all on the disabled list. And Chipper Jones is out as well. Preferred plays: BALTIMORE as "underdogs." It would not be surprising to see the Os take at least two of three. At 19-12 no team has lost less often on the road. UNDER at 9 or higher.

Rangers at Astros: Texas won all three games at home last month outscoring the Astros, 27-6. In the middle game, the Rangers scored 18. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte did not start in that series. Pitching will be the key in the rematch. Preferred plays: UNDER at 8 if Houston starts Clemens, Pettitte or Roy Oswalt against Texas’ Chris Young or Kenny Rogers. OVER at 9½ or less if the five pitchers are not involved. UNDERDOG when two of these pitchers start against one another. Bet +140 on the fab five against a pitcher not listed (like Texas righty Chan Ho Park) as a go against.