Spell slump, Y-A-N-K-E-E-S

Jun 14, 2006 1:18 AM

It’s possible the Yanks could be mired in a major slump as they travel to Washington to face the Nationals over the weekend as interleague play resumes.

After taking two of three from Boston last week the Yankees were swept in a three game set by Oakland over the weekend and begin a mid week series hosting Cleveland. New York’s skid has hit four and faces life without both Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield until September at least.

With nearly 100 games left in the regular season, five of the six division races are extremely tight. Only the New York Mets have more than a two game lead.

The Mets lead Philadelphia by 6½ games in the NL East. Otherwise the NL Central has St. Louis up 1½ over Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Dodgers one game better than second place Arizona. Last place Colorado is just 4½ back.

Texas has the biggest lead in the American League, up by two games over Oakland in the West. Detroit is ahead by 1½ games over the Chicago White Sox in the Central while Boston is one clear of the Yankees in the East.

Injuries and depth increasingly become factors this deep into the season. Often that’s what separates the major market teams from the lesser ones. Major markets often have the resources to go out and purchase the needed fill-ins or develop strong enough minor league systems to have prospects ready.

The Mets appear to be the most complete team in baseball. Their weakness is in the 3-4-5 spots of the rotation. The top two, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine, are as solid as there is. The offense is deep and well balanced. Billy Wagner is an excellent closer, even though he’s had several tough games. Most notably was his blowing a 4-0 lead in the ninth inning to the cross-town rival Yankees last month.

The Mets have the second best staff ERA in baseball, just .04 behind Detroit. On offense, they lead the majors in stolen bases and rank sixth in homers. The highly anticipated arrival of rookie Lastings Milledge has created even more excitement in the Big Apple, where the Mets have long played second banana to the Yankees.

St. Louis hosts Colorado in the lone NL series while baseball’s other 28 teams are involved in Interleague play, which continues uninterrupted through Sunday, July 2.

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

Tigers at Cubs: The Tigers have the majors best record and were the first to reach 40 wins. A developing young pitching staff complements an underrated offense. The Cubs, when healthy, have a similar profile. But slugger Derrek Lee is still on the DL and he’s been joined once again by starter Kerry Wood. Detroit’s 23-10 road record is remarkable.

Preferred plays: TIGERS as Underdog except against Carlos Zambrano; CUBS -130 with Zambrano.UNDER if Zambrano is matched against Kenny Rogers, Justin Verlander or Jeremy Bonderman. OVER involving none of these starting pitchers.

White Sox at Reds: Both teams are in second place in their respective divisions and have been playing well. The White Sox’ pitching has not been as strong as last season, but the offense is improved. The Reds have shown improvement both on the mound and at the plate. Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang have become a solid 1-2 combo. Averaging nearly seven innings per start, has lessened the pressure on the suspect bullpen.

Preferred plays: SOX as dogs pitching Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras or Javier Vazquez. REDS as dogs if starting Arroyo or Harang. OVER 9 except if two of the above listed pitchers face one another. Otherwise UNDER 9. OVER 10 if none of the listed pitchers are involved.

Red Sox at Braves: Atlanta is in two unaccustomed positions — four games below .500 and third place in the NL East. Boston is atop the AL East but facing challenges from both the Yankees and Toronto. Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield have pitched well for the BoSox, but Josh Beckett, red hot in early April, has struggled of late. Atlanta’s Tim Hudson and John Smoltz have been the stars of the rotation following the recent decline of John Thomson, another pitcher who left his best stuff behind when the calendar changed to May.

Preferred plays: OVER 9 in any matchup. BRAVES as an underdog in starts by Hudson or Smoltz; RED SOX -140 favorite if throwing other than Smoltz or Hudson.

Dodgers at A’s: Oakland has been red hot of late, winning 8 of 10. Alhough their starting pitching has been solid, the offense has started to click on a regular basis. The Dodgers have a pair of quality starters in Brad Penny and Derek Lowe. When healthy, the lineup is very well balanced and could be the factor that keeps Los Angeles atop the NL West.

Preferred plays: DODGERS as an underdog in starts by Lowe or Penny. UNDER 8 or higher if Lowe or Penny oppose Barry Zito or Dan Haren. OVER 9 or lower in matchups involving none or these four pitchers.