Astros, Athletics represent pitching

Aug 9, 2005 6:22 AM

Pitching, pitching and more pitching. How many times have we heard that pitching is the key to success in major league baseball.

For nearly two months both the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics have played phenomenal baseball. And, that fine play may continue.

Consider that Houston has three of the top pitchers in the National League — Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Oakland’s veteran lefty Barry Zito has been superb over the last month. Youngsters Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Danny Haren have blossomed nicely over the past several months.

Both the Astros and A’s have gotten significant contributions from their starting pitchers. As a result their bullpens are fairly fresh compared to most other teams. With barely 50 games remaining many teams’ starting pitchers are showing signs of fatigue, placing more of a strain on the bullpen to protect late leads or keep games close.

Houston’s big three starters are averaging between 6.7 and 7.2 innings per start. They are all veterans capable of pacing themselves through a game and a season. Houston’s ”˜fresh’ bullpen likely becomes the key to winning the NL Wild Card.

The Oakland situation is somewhat different. We really don’t know how many innings the young starters have in those arms. After starting the season a lowly 17-32, Oakland has played baseball at such an amazing pace, winning 40 of the last 50 games. The A’s have caught the Angels in the AL West, beginning the week tied for the division lead entering Tuesday’s three game series in Oakland.

The Angels’ starting rotation has not been nearly as effective as Oakland’s in recent weeks. Now a key part of that rotation, Jarrod Washburn, has missed a couple of starts due to injury. Though tied for the division lead, the Angels and A’s also have a four-game lead over the Yankees in the AL Wild Card race.

New York has all sorts of starting pitching problems with no realistic help on the horizon. If there is a decent long shot to mount a serious run at the Wild Card, give consideration to Cleveland. The Indians have gotten solid starting pitching from Kevin Millwood, Scott Elarton and Jake Westbrook. The supposed ace, C.C. Sabathia, has struggled more often than not.

Either way, the gamble Oakland GM Billy Beane took last offseason in trading away both Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder seems to be paying off much earlier than expected. A solid bullpen gives Oakland an excellent chance to make postseason play either as the Wild Card or now as the AL West champ.

Here is a look at four series this weekend.

Cards at Cubs: Chicago has won three of five, all in St Louis. The Cubs have to be content to challenge for the Wild Card. Both of the St. Louis wins over the Cubs were started by Cy Young Award contender Chris Carpenter.

Winds always play a factor in setting Totals at Wrigley Field. Preferred plays: CARPENTER up to -150. ST. LOUIS as an underdog, even against Mark Prior. CHICAGO as underdogs in starts by Greg Maddux and Carlos Zambrano (except vs. Carpenter). OVER 9 or lower.

Phillies at Padres: Both teams are in playoff contention although the prospects for each vary greatly. Starting the week the Phillies have a better record than the Padres by 1½ games. Philadelphia swept a three game series at home in late July. The Padres were shut out in one game and scored just one run in another. San Diego has been a strong pitcher’s park since opening last season.

Preferred plays: UNDER 8 or higher. San Diego ace Jake PEAVY as -150 favorite. PHILS as an underdog in starts by Jon Lieber, Brett Myers or ex-Padre Vicente Padilla if not opposing Peavy.

Rangers at Yankees: The teams have split six games this season with the "over / under" also at 3-3. The Yankees are 3½ games ahead of Texas in the Wild Card standings. Texas had not been very potent on the road prior to warming up on its recent homestand. Both teams are struggling with their starting pitching.

Preferred plays: OVER 10 or less. RANGERS as +140 dogs. YANKEES -140 in starts by either Mike Mussina or Randy Johnson.

Twins at A’s: Minnesota is likely to miss the playoffs this season after winning three straight AL Central titles. The Twins have suffered from a lack of timely offense for much of the season. They do have an above average rotation. Minnesota does catch Oakland coming off a big series against the Angels and could be ripe for a letdown.

Preferred plays: UNDER 8. TWINS -130 if Johan Santana pitches or as an underdog in starts by Brad Radke or Carlos Silva. UNDER no lower then 7 in matchups between Santana, Radke or Silva against Zito or Harden.