Close races support parity

May 16, 2006 6:33 AM

Nearly one quarter of the way through the season and all of baseball’s six divisions feature very competitive races.

It’s still early, but the fact that no team has been able to establish a big lead in any division is suggestive of even greater parity than in recent seasons. The biggest lead in any division is the 1½-game edge Texas enjoys over Oakland in the American League West. The last place Angels are just four back, the same margin last place San Francisco trails San Diego in the National League West.

The list of pleasant surprises early in the 2006 season has two new members following the results of the past couple of weeks.

games into the season. Add Philadelphia and San Diego to the list. Both teams struggled for much of April, but each has had lengthy win streaks to begin the week.

Cincinnati, Colorado and Detroit have played consistently well since the season began and each is within one game of their respective division lead nearly 40 games into the season. Add Philadelphia and San Diego to the list. Both teams struggled for much of April, but each has had lengthy win streaks to begin May — streaks that once snapped have begun again following a lone loss.

Here’s a look at four of the more intriguing series that will open interleague play.

Cubs at White Sox: After an encouraging start to the season without aces Kerry Wood or Mark Prior seeing action, reality has set in for the Cubs. Losers of 12 of their last 13 games, manager Dusty Baker’s dugout tenure is tenuous at best. The losing began with the injury to Derrek Lee, which exposed the lack of depth on the roster. Wood is expected to return just ”˜prior’ to this series, so there is some reason for optimism in the near term.

The White Sox have begun defense of their World Series title by fashioning baseball’s best record through last weekend at 24-12. The teams split six meetings last season with each winning twice on the road. The White Sox should be favored throughout the series. Preferred plays: CUBS as underdogs with Greg Maddux or Carlos Zambrano. UNDER 9 or higher in their starts. SOX at -140 or less.

Red Sox at Phillies: Both teams are expected to go as far as their pitching will take them. The Red Sox have arguably a more established staff with the Phils being one of potential — especially with the arrival of Cole Hamels last week. Impressive in his minor league career, Hamels had a solid major league debut last week although he did have control issues.

Boston swept the lone series last season with all three games played in Philly. The Phils are better balanced offensively and should score more than the 9 total runs they plated against the Sox last year. Preferred plays: PHILS -130 or less with Hamels or Brett Myers. SOX, OVER 9 or less with Curt Schilling against other Philly starters.

Yankees at Mets: This season may present the best chance for the Mets and Yankees to meet in the World Series since the Yanks’ five game defeat of the Mets in 2000. There are many similarities between the teams. Each has a solid 1-2 tandem in the starting rotation after which there is a considerable drop off. Both teams have outstanding closers and each has a potent lineup.

Injuries have hurt the Yankees more than the Mets with Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui sidelined for the Bronx Bombers. Sheffield’s return is imminent, but Matsui is sidelined perhaps for the rest of the season. The teams split six games in 2005, each winning twice on the road. Preferred plays: YANKS as dogs with Mike Mussina or Randy Johnson. METS as dogs with Pedro Martinez or Tom Glavine. UNDER 8 or higher if two of the four face each other. OVER 9 or less in other matchups.DOG +150 or higher in any matchup.

Angels at Dodgers: The renewal of the Freeway Series finds the Dodgers playing the better baseball. Newcomers Rafael Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra are contributing. J.D. Drew is healthy and Jeff Kent remains consistent. Offense has been a problem for the Angels, especially with Darin Erstad sidelined. Vladimir Guerrero is a stud, hitting .322 with 9 homers, but he is the only regular batting above .280.

Historically, the Dodgers have had the edge on the mound and the Angels have had the better offense. The Angels won 5 of 6 last season. Preferred plays: DODGERS -135 or less with Derek Lowe. ANGELS as dogs with Kelvim Escobar or John Lackey except against Lowe. UNDER 9 or higher.