Rockies, Reds continue to surprise in NL

May 9, 2006 5:26 AM

Colorado and Cincinnati have remained two of the biggest early season surprises and both begin this week atop their divisions in the National League.

The Rockies have gone 10-5 on the road entering a three game series at St. Louis where their strong early season pitching will be tested. Star first baseman Todd Helton has rejoined the team after being sidelines a few weeks and the Rockies’ young offense will benefit greatly from his clubhouse leadership and on field production.

Colorado arrives in St. Louis following a three game home sweep of Houston. The Rockies have a chance early in the week to continue to build momentum should they fare well against the Cardinals, the NL rep in the World Series a year before the Astros.

Cincinnati has gotten strong offensive production throughout the lineup. Solid efforts from starting pitchers Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are even greater reasons why the Reds lead both Houston and St. Louis in the Central. Interestingly Harang has performed much better on the road, where he has allowed just one earned run in just over 24 innings. Arroyo has made five of his seven starts on the road with an impressive 2.38 ERA.

Bullpens remain the great equalizing factor when handicapping baseball games. An effective bullpen can overcome a shaky outing by a normally reliable starter or can totally undo his efforts deep into the contest. Thus far, 67 pitchers have made at least five starts and averaged at least 6 innings per outing. Their teams have won just 56 percent of those starts. The likelihood is greater that the bullpen will be needed in a start by a below average pitcher than an ace.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Phillies at Reds: Philadelphia has turned its season around following a current eight game winning streak. The offense has broken out of a slump that limited productivity in April. In many ways the Phillies and Reds are similar in that they rely more on offense than pitching for success. Cincy still wins games with the bats. Through 32 games the Reds have scored at least six runs 18 times, — nine coming in 13 home games

Preferred plays: .OVER 9 or lower. REDS -125 with Harang and Arroyo. PHILS +120 in starts by Brett Myers or Jon Lieber.

Rockies at Astros: Houston will be playing to avenge a three game sweep in Denver this past weekend. The pitching stars are on the Astros, but the two staffs have nearly identical ERAs through the first five weeks. Colorado has a slight edge on offense. The Rockies should be solid underdogs in all three games.

Preferred plays: ROCKIES +150. ASTROS -130 or less with either Wandy Rodriguez or Taylor Buchholz pitching. UNDER 9½ or higher.

Rangers at Red Sox: Both teams bring above average offenses into this series. The pitching is average at best for both teams, though Boston ace Curt Schilling is enjoying a strong start. For Texas, the most effective starters have been Kevin Millwood and Jon Koronka.

Preferred plays: UNDER 9 or higher if Schilling opposes Millwood or Koronka. UNDER 10 against all others. RANGERS as underdogs with Millwood or Koronka. RED SOX -140 against all others.

A’s at Yanks: Oakland is struggling with two of its five starters on the DL. The loss of Rich Harden is especially painful. The Yankees are unbeaten in 11 day games and both Saturday’s and Sunday’s games are daytime contests. All but one of the Yankees’ 18 wins has been by at least two runs, making the run line an attractive option. Mike Mussina has been the ace thus far with Randy Johnson posting just average stats even though the Yanks have won five of his seven starts.

Preferred plays: A’S as underdogs all series, especially against Jaret Wright and Chien-Ming Wang. YANKS on run line. OVER 9 in starts not involving Mussina or Oakland’s Barry Zito.