Arizona making major impact in NL West

Jun 6, 2006 6:12 AM

About a month ago, five of the six teams in the National League’s Central Division were playing winning baseball. Starting the week, the number has dwindled to two — St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The Cards face perhaps more than a month without star Albert Pujols, on the DL with a pulled muscle. Both the Reds and Cards have been a rather ordinary 5-5 over their last 10 games.

Another early season surprise, Colorado, has slumped of late. The Rockies have fallen from atop the NL West to the cellar, dropping 8 of their last 10 games. The pitching continues to be solid but the offense has scored more than three runs just twice in their previous dozen games.

Arizona, another surprise team in the NL West, continues to play outstanding baseball. Winning over 60 percent of their games, the Diamondbacks have the second best record in the NL. They are 2½ games up on the Los Angeles Dodgers, yet another team that has to be considered a pleasant surprise.

Detroit continues to have baseball’s best record despite splitting their last 14 games. The Tigers still have the best ERA as a staff although their edge of more than a half run per game has narrowed considerably over second best St. Louis.

Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.

Cubs at Reds: Few clubs have had to contend with as many injuries as have the Cubs. Cincinnati got off to a strong start but has cooled of late. Still, starting pitchers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo have performed both consistently and better than expected. For the Cubs, veteran starter Greg Maddux has struggled following a brilliant April. Carlos Zambrano has pitched much better after a rough April

Preferred plays: CUBS as underdogs when not facing Harang or Arroyo; UNDER 9 if Harang or Arroyo face Zambrano. OVER 9 in games not started by Zambrano. OVER 10 in games not started by Zambrano, Harang or Arroyo.

Mets at D’backs: The Mets took two of three from Arizona in New York last week. The finale was a terrific 1-0 gem that went 13 after both New York’s Pedro Martinez and Arizona’s Brandon Webb were spectacular in 8 and 7 innings respectively. Each team has been able to win on the road. The Mets’ offense has used both power and speed for their production. Arizona has been hitting for a significantly higher average. On the mound, both teams rank in the top five in ERA with the Mets leading the majors in strikeouts.

Preferred plays: UNDERDOG if New York’s Martinez or Tom Glavine face Arizona’s Webb or Miguel Batista. OVER 9 in starts other than Martinez, Webb or Glavine. UNDER 7 if Martinez faces Webb. UNDER 8 if Glavine faces Webb.

Rangers at Red Sox: The Sox come off four midweek games at the hated Yankees, Texas was feasting on the Royals in Kansas City and should head to Beantown with great momentum and confidence, especially at the plate. The teams have split four meetings this season. Texas pitcher Kameron Loe has two solid starts against Boston this season. Both teams have gotten generally better than expected pitching yet each still rely more on their offense. Both are among the best in slugging percentage and batting average.

Preferred plays: RED SOX -140 if Curt Schilling or Josh Beckett doesn’t face Loe or Kevin Millwood; RANGERS as an underdog in starts by Loe or Millwood not facing Schilling or Beckett. OVER 10 in starts not involving any of the four. UNDER 9 in starts involving two of the four. OVER 9 involving one.

A’s at Yankees: Gary Sheffield is the latest of the Yankees regulars expected to miss significant playing time. Fortunately the Yanks have gotten solid contributions from their backups. Oakland has also had its share of injuries. Rich Harden returned this past weekend and was solid in a limited four innings against light hitting Minnesota. The best starting pitcher in this series is New York’s Mike Mussina, sporting an ERA below 2.50 and allowing less than a runner per inning.

Preferred plays: YANKS -1½ with Mussina, especially in a day game where NY is 17-3.UNDER 8 if Mussina faces Zito, Harden or Danny Haren; A’S as underdogs in starts by Zito, Harden or Haren except against Mussina. OVER 9 or less if Oakland starts Joe Blanton, Brad Halsey or Kirk Saarloos against anyone but Mussina.