After 50, Tigers have baseball by the tail

May 30, 2006 5:06 AM

On the baseball highway that is the 162 game regular season, Memorial Day represents the first significant milepost for measuring a team’s chances of making the postseason.

Most teams have played close to 50 games. Within the past week several divisions have seen the leaders gaining some separation between themselves and their nearest challengers.

The story remains the Detroit Tigers with baseball’s best record, 35-15. Their recent play for new manager Jim Leyland has opened a 3½-game lead over the second place Chicago White Sox. To put Detroit’s performance into perspective, consider that the White Sox own baseball’s second best record at 32-17. That deficit represents the second largest gap between a division leader and its nearest competitor. St. Louis is four up on Cincinnati in the NL Central.

Elsewhere in the NL, the New York Mets lead Atlanta by 3½. Arizona has a 1½-game margin over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco are all 3½ back at the start of the week.

Boston holds a two game edge over the New York Yankees in the AL East a week prior to meeting in New York for what should again be an intense four-game series. Texas is the only team playing winning baseball in the AL West. The Rangers lead Oakland by three games.

Barry Bonds finally passed Babe Ruth with home run 715 this past Sunday and the countdown to Hank Aaron’s 755 has begun. It’s a huge longshot that Bonds will catch Aaron this season and chances are uncertain whether Bonds will return in 2007 given the apparent decline in bat speed and health.

Nevertheless, being No. 2 on the all time home run list is quite a feat, not withstanding the questionable scenarios surrounding the most recent 200 or so home runs and the impact the alleged use of artificial enhancements may have had on his career total.

At least the baseball world can return to game wide play on the field and the developing pennant races. Two full months remain before the trading deadline approaches and the biggest individual story should be a decision by Roger Clemens concerning where, or if, he will pitch over the second half of the season.

Houston, Texas, Boston and the Yankees remain the four most likely candidates. Should he decide to pitch over the second half of the season, we might see him in uniform by the July 4.

Here’s a look at four interesting weekend series.

Giants at Mets: The Mets have led the NL East almost since the season began, even with a makeshift starting rotation. New York has used 10 starters in its first 50 games, getting decent results from spots 3, 4, 5. Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine have been outstanding. Jason Schmidt has been outstanding for SF over the last month. Young lefty Noah Lowry has been in better form since returning from the DL. The Mets have edge on offense, are vulnerable defensively.

Preferred plays: UNDER 7 if Martinez or Glavine oppose Schmidt or Lowry. UNDERDOG with any of the four. GIANTS as underdogs and OVER 9 versus any other Mets starter.

Reds at Astros: Cincinnati has cooled since their "red" hot start to the season, especially at the plate. The Reds were shut out twice at home this past weekend. Houston should have a mindset of needing to play well over the next few weeks to convince Roger Clemens that the franchise can contend for the postseason. Both teams have gotten better than expected starting pitching. Houston’s offense has improved since the start of the season but still average.

Preferred plays: REDS as underdog in starts by Aaron Harang or Bronson Arroyo if either opposes Andy Pettitte or Roy Oswalt, UNDER 8 ½ or higher in matchups involving one of those pitchers. If not, OVER 9½ with none of the four.

Red Sox at Tigers: Boston is playing as well as expected. Jon Papelbon has been a major strength as closer as the offense has contended with numerous nagging injuries. The Red Sox are well balanced, but the Tigers must be given the overall edge in starting pitching. There is no true ”˜go against’ in the starting rotation. The Tigers lead the majors in lowest ERA, nearly a half run less than St. Louis.

Preferred plays: TIGERS as underdogs in any matchup; UNDER 9 if Boston starts Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett. OVER 9 with any other starter.

Rangers at White Sox: Chicago is well balanced with a strong starting rotation and an offense improved from last season with the addition of Jim Thome. The bullpen is more of a question mark this season, but it’s hard to find much fault with a team that has baseball’s second best record. Texas has been solid on offense and has received better pitching than expected. The staff still remains a weakness. Kevin Millwood seems to have regained his form from last season when he was in Cleveland, but the rest of the rotation has been inconsistent at best.

Preferred plays: WHITE SOX -125 in starts by Jose Contreras or Javier Vazquez or as an underdog in any other matchup. RANGERS as a dog with Millwood. OVER 9 in any matchup, 10 or lower when Chicago’s Jon Garland starts.