2006 already in Cards,
now let’s play ball!

Apr 4, 2006 6:07 AM

Play Ball!

All 30 teams begin a new season with hopes and dreams. Over the past few seasons we have seen some surprise teams win the World Series, most recently the Chicago White Sox just a year ago.

The Pale Hose ended nearly eight decades of disappointment and frustration a year after the Boston Red Sox did the same. Since the New York Yankees won a third straight World Series in 2002, five different franchises have claimed the next five titles. Arizona won in 2001, followed the next two seasons by Anaheim and Florida.

Who will be this season’s surprise team? Some baseball experts are predicting the Philadelphia Phillies are about to break out. Others look to the American League East and make a case for Toronto or Baltimore, each making major commitments in the offseason.

Milwaukee made great strides with its pitching staff showing marked improvement under coach Mike Maddux, a Las Vegas native. And a case can be made for the Minnesota Twins to ”˜rebound’ from an 83-79 season in which they finished third behind Cleveland and Chicago in the Central.

Minnesota is my choice to take the AL Central, dethroning the White Sox. I do like Chicago as a Wild Card. Oakland appears stronger than the LA Angels and should win the West. The East should be the most contentious of baseball’s six divisions with the Yankees, Boston, Toronto and Baltimore each contending with winning records.

Baltimore’s youth and relative inexperience on the mound and Toronto’s lack of balance up and down the lineup may leave the division again between the Yankees and Red Sox. New York just has too many guns at the plate and perhaps the best closer of all time in Mariano Rivera.

I see history being made in the National League, where Atlanta will fail to win a fifteenth straight East Division title. The Mets made enough changes at key positions and could win the division comfortably. St. Louis still has a significant edge over its five Central rivals, even without No. 2 starter Matt Morris.

San Francisco, which signed Morris, has enough to win the West, a Division that that went to San Diego with just an 82-80 record. The Wild Card race should be very competitive with no fewer than a half dozen contenders into mid September. Look for the Pittsburgh Pirates to exceed the projected 76 total wins and secure the Wild Card.

The Pirates strength is a solid young pitching staff led by a trio of lefties —”˜veteran’ Oliver Perez and up-and-comers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. The offense was bolstered by the acquisition of Sean Casey from Cincinnati, while Jason Bay is one of the game’s rising offensive stars.

Oakland is my AL pick in the World Series on the strength of a pitching rotation ideally suited to win in the postseason, despite recent failures. Rich Harden and Dan Haren are rapidly developing talents to compliment ace Barry Zito. St. Louis should return to represent the NL as Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa looks to defeat the franchise that gave him his only World Series title.

Great pitching stops solid hitting, but the Cardinals have Albert Pujols, arguably the game’s best player. So, they will win the World Series.

With that done, here’s a look at a pair of weekend series in each league.

Cards at Cubs: Prospects don’t appear too bright for the Cubbies, who begin with aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the disabled list. St. Louis, with Pujols, should be one of the top offensive teams. 3B Scott Rolen is back, missing most of last season due to injury and Jim Edmonds is always steady. Chicago figures to rely less on power with speedy Juan Pierre in from Florida at the top of the order.

Plays: St. Louis solid favorites. OVER at 9 or less, especially when the bottom of the rotations oppose one another. Cubs if lefty Glendon Rusch starts. Otherwise, Cards -125 or less. Cubs +175 or more behind any starter.

Nats at Astros: Each figures to rely more on pitching rather than hitting. Both have solid closers to protect close leads in the ninth inning and solid starters in the 1-2 slots. Each is weaker at the 3-4-5 starters with several possibly in action.

Plays: UNDER for both until the offenses show signs of consistency. Here nothing lower than 8, which should cash twice in the three-game series. The DOG (probably Washington) at +140 or more, especially if facing Roy Oswalt or Andy Pettitte.

Twins at Indians: During the offseason, Cleveland lost the league’s ERA leader Kevin Millwood to Texas and signed steady if not overpowering Paul Byrd. Minnesota’s ace Johan Santana finished just .01 behind Millwood in the ERA race and will again be one of baseball’s top hurlers. Both rotations are solid with closers rated in the AL’s top five. Cleveland has the better lineup and likely favored in games other than against Santana, who likely pitches Saturday or Sunday.

Plays: Cleveland if +150 against Santana. Minnesota as underdogs or —120 favorite in starts by Carlos Silva or Kyle Lohse. UNDER if Cleveland starts Cliff Lee or Jake Westbrook.

Yanks at Angels: The Yanks added new centerfielder Johnny Damon. The Angels also return the nucleus of last season’s team. Both have capable pitching and solid closers. New York’s Randy Johnson is the one true dominant hurler, likely pitching Sunday. New York looks to avoid a repeat of last season’s slow 11-19 start.

Plays: Yankees as underdogs. OVER 8 or lower best throughout the series. Otherwise, either side as a +125 dog or higher.

Season: 0-0.