Races heating up with 3 weeks left

Sep 13, 2005 6:22 AM

With three weeks left in the regular season, the division races are up for grabs in the AL East and West. However, the real action is in the Wild Card chase.

Boston starts the week with a three-game edge over the New York Yankees in the East, while the Angels lead Oakland by two in the West. Chicago leads the Central by just 5½ games over surging Cleveland, but the White Sox play at Kansas City this week while the Indians host to Oakland. Cleveland leads the AL Wild Card race by 1½ games over the Yankees and 2½ over Oakland.

Within the next week, St. Louis will officially win the NL Central. San Diego leads the NL West by six games despite a 71-71 record. Atlanta’s lead has grown to seven games in the East. All three teams can be penciled in for the playoffs, although the Padres have to be considered vulnerable if Arizona, Los Angeles or San Francisco can put together a modest five-game winning streak over the next 10 days.

Houston holds a half game lead over Florida for the NL Wild Card lead. The Marlins visit Houston in a key four game set this week. Philadelphia is only 1½ games behind the Astros, but may be hard pressed to make up much ground during its series with Atlanta.

Washington visits the suddenly ice cold New York Mets for three games. The Nationals trail Houston by four games and will not have to face Mets ace Pedro Martinez this week. The Mets have lost 8-of-10 and are 5½ games from the Wild Card lead — tied with Chicago and Milwaukee at 71-72.

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

PHILS at MARLINS: Philly took two of three at home last weekend from the Marlins but did not have to face either Josh Beckett or Dontrelle Willis. All three games went ”˜over,’ which now means the last eight meetings between these teams have been above the posted total.

Preferred plays: The Phillies have the better offense and adequate enough pitching to bet as an underdog in any game. Play ”˜over’ 8 or less should Beckett, Willis or A.J. Burnett start for the Marlins.

NATS at PADRES: These teams have played only three times this season with San Diego sweeping an early August series at Washington. Two of the three went to the Padres 3-2 and 3-0. Petco Park has been a pitcher’s paradise since opening last season. Both the Padres and Nationals are stronger on the mound than at the plate.

Preferred plays: UNDER at 7. Because both teams lack offensive punch, bet the underdog at +125 or higher. The Padres figure to be favored in perhaps all three games, making Washington the likely play with any of its starters.

A’s at RED SOX: The home team has won 5-of-6 meetings this season, but have not met since mid-May. Oakland has cooled off over the past month. Five of their meetings have resulted in ”˜overs’.

Preferred plays: OVER at 10 maximum. Play the A’s as an underdog but only at +150 or higher. Boston may be backed as a -140 favorite, even against Oakland lefty Barry Zito who has been in good form.

CHISOX at TWINS: The Twins have won 7-of-11 meetings this season with eight going ”˜under’ the total. Minnesota may give some of their young players more of a look. The White Sox figure to go all out to fight off a challenge from Cleveland.

Preferred plays: The Sox have a solid rotation and may be played as a -130 favorite. Chicago can be bet as at least a +125 underdog if facing Minnesota ace Johan Santana. We also like UNDER at 8 or higher.