Wild Card series create hot September

Sep 6, 2005 3:32 AM

While college and pro football edge their way into the headlines of the sports section this month, some of the most meaningful sporting action takes place on the baseball diamond.

With two very compelling Wild Card races plus a pair of competitive Divisional races, Major League Baseball promises to provide its share of thrills to rival those on the gridiron.

St. Louis and the Chicago White Sox each have commanding Division leads. Atlanta is five games up in the NL East and San Diego is 5½ up in the NL West. Of course, the Padres are at 68-68 and have to be considered vulnerable if any of their foes get hot.

Boston is up 3½ games over the Yankees, but will face their rivals in New York this weekend. The Angels and Oakland are in the best Divisional battle with Oakland a game back as the week begins.

Much of the focus over the final few weeks will be on the Wild Card races. Philadelphia starts the week with a half game edge over both Florida and Houston, with all three tied in the loss column. Washington is just two behind the Phillies with the Mets are just another half game back. These teams have a number of series amongst one another over the remaining weeks and things don’t figure to be resolved much before the final weekend, if not the final day, of the season.

The AL Wild Card is only slightly less contentious. The Yanks hold a one game lead over Oakland, with Cleveland just two games back. With the Yankees facing Boston this coming weekend and the Indians hosting Minnesota, even the Twins’ five game deficit can be made up in the span of a successful week or 10 days.

Get ready for some great baseball as the season winds down, a year that has produced some of the highest quality of pitching that has been seen in the past decade. Pitching that shall likely decide which teams will make the Playoffs and which teams shall barely miss out.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

BRAVES AT NATS: The teams have split their previous 16 meetings this season, averaging 8½ total runs per game. The pitching edge overall goes to Washington with the Braves having the decidedly better offense, especially with Andruw and Chipper Jones having been in good form of late.

Preferred plays: Atlanta should be favored in most of the potential matchups. With no dominant ace aside from John Smoltz, the Nationals are playable as at least +110 underdogs. The "under" at 8 or higher would be the recommended play when Smoltz starts for Atlanta. When Washington is favored, the "under" might be the best play, especially at a total of 9 or higher. Two Washington pitchers worth backing as favorites of up to -125 are John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza. Obviously either would be even more attractive as an underdog of any price.

MARLINS at PHILS: After Florida totally dominated the Phillies in the first half of 2004, the results since last mid season have been much more even. The Marlins have won seven of 13 previous meetings this season. The last five meetings, including four in Philly following the All Star break, have all gone "over" the total. Each game has featured at least a dozen total runs being scored. Florida has the better starting pitching. Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett are superior to any of the Philly starters, although both Brett Myers and Jon Lieber have had solid seasons.

Preferred plays: Philly has the better offense and the fundamentals would favor lower scoring games. Use 9 ½ as your guide, going "under" 10 or higher and "over" 9 or lower. If any of the five listed pitchers (or Philly’s Vicente Padilla) comes an underdog, that starter would be an attractive play.

RED SOX at YANKS: The Yankees have won seven of 13 meetings this season and will do battle again over the season’s final weekend in Boston. The Sox start the week with a 3½ game edge in the AL East. A good showing here would put added pressure on the hosts, who have suffered from a lack of consistent starting pitching all season.

Preferred plays: On the surface the "over" makes for the most attractive play. There have been more "overs" than "unders" between the teams this season. Both sides have powerful and deep lineups. The "over" is preferred in all matchups at totals of 10 or lower, even in starts by New York’s Randy Johnson or Mike Mussina. We might catch a break with a 9. In the unlikely event that either team is a +150 or more underdog, that team becomes a solid play regardless of the starting pitcher matchup.

ANGELS at CHISOX: These teams played seven games against one another in a 10-day period surrounding Memorial Day. Interestingly the four games played in Anaheim all went "under" the Total, while the three in Chicago all went "over." Fundamentally this shapes up as a low scoring series. Each team has gotten solid starting pitching from the top of their respective rotations all season.

Preferred plays: In matchups involving two of the following six pitchers, the "under" and the underdog are recommended. Chicago’s key pitchers are Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Jon Garland. For the Angels their key starters are John Lackey, Jarrod Washburn and Bartolo Colon. Hopefully the total will be 8 or higher, but "under" 7 ½ would also be acceptable. Matchups involving a pair of pitchers not listed may be played "over" a total of 9 or lower.