Here come the Yankees

Aug 30, 2005 6:45 AM

Five months into the baseball season and the best is still to come.

Both leagues have compelling Wild Card races to tantalize us as we enter the final month of the regular season. Two division races are extremely tight, with a pair of others still having the potential for drama.

While much of the focus at the sports books will be on the start of the college and pro football seasons, with so many teams in contention for baseball’s postseason there will be many attractive opportunities for the astute handicappers and bettors.

St. Louis has all but wrapped up the National League Central and the Chicago White Sox are all but set in the AL Central. But the other four divisions still have races in progress. Considering the number of teams in Wild Card contention, nearly half of baseball’s 30 teams remain in contention.

Atlanta has a 4½ game lead in the NL East with all five teams in the division playing winning baseball. Last place Washington, seven games out as the week begins, is just one decent winning streak away from challenging the Braves. The five teams still have several series within the division so almost anything can happen over the final 30 games.

Comic relief is provided by the teams in the NL West, where San Diego holds a 5½ game edge over both Arizona and Los Angeles. San Francisco is lurking just a game further back. San Diego leads the division, despite being a game below .500. There is the real possibility that the champion will have a losing record. By all rights, the Padres should be at least a dozen games in front, but the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants still have hopes of making the playoffs with one hot stretch over the next few weeks.

Realistically five teams are battling for the NL Wild Card. Philadelphia begins the week with a half game edge over Florida, although both have an equal number of losses. The New York Mets and Houston are just a 1½ behind, with Washington 2½ back. Houston has the tactical advantage of being able to make up ground, while the four others battle among themselves.

The AL East and West races are tight as can be, with Boston leading the New York Yankees by a scant 1½ games in the East and Oakland a half game better than Anaheim.

Minnesota has fallen back in the Wild Card race, although playing host to Cleveland this weekend with a chance to gain ground. The Yankees begin the week with a half game edge over the Angels with Cleveland one back. The Twins are five behind the Yankees, so basically we have six teams battling for five playoff spots.

It certainly appears not much will be decided until the final week, perhaps the last series or maybe the Sunday finale. Let’s enjoy, and hopefully profit, from what should be a great end to the 2005 regular season.

Here’s a look at four key series this weekend.

Phillies at Nationals: Philadelphia has the edge on offense, while Washington has the better overall pitching. The season series is virtually even with Philly having won 7-of-13 meetings, though 10 of the 13 have been at home. After three of the first four games went "over" the total, seven of the last nine have gone "under" with one push. Preferred plays: UNDER 9 or higher. UNDERDOG, -either way, at +130.

Mets at Marlins: The Mets have won 7-of-12 meetings, but have not met since before the All Star break. Both teams have thrived more on pitching than offense. The matchups will determine whether sides or totals are the best plays. Key starters for the Marlins are AJ Burnett, Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis. For the Mets, the key starters are Tom Glavine, Jae Seo and Pedro Martinez. Preferred plays: UNDER 7 if two of these pitchers go. OVER 9 or less if none pitch. UNDERDOG +125 if any of the six are in action. FAVORITE -140 if one of these pitchers faces a pitcher not listed.

Indians at Twins: Minnesota has won 7-of-13 games and has the greater sense of urgency this weekend. Cleveland has played some of the best ball in the majors over the past two months. The Indians have gotten better than expected starting pitching up and down the rotation. Preferred plays: INDIANS at +130 or more against Johan Santana and possibly Brad Radke. UNDER at 9 or higher.

Yankees at A’s: Both teams were struggling when these teams met in May, although the Yankees won five of the six meetings. Since then both teams have been playing their best ball of the season with identical records starting this week. The best bet in the series would occur on Sunday on the team looking to avoid a sweep. Oakland has the edge in starting pitching, while the Yankees have the far more potent lineup and better closer. Preferred plays: OAKLAND, especially if the underdog. PARLAYS: Oakland / under, Yankees / over. YANKS if Shaun Chacon starts, He has been brilliant since coming over from Colorado.