AL shows no mercy on NL in last licks

Jul 4, 2006 5:05 AM

If the results of the 256 interleague games are any indication, the balance of power not only remains in the American League, but has grown.

The junior circuit compiled the highest winning percentage in the 10-season history of interleague play, winning 154 games, or 61.1 percent. The previous record was the NL’s .547 winning percentage in 1997, the first season of interleague play. The AL not only had a winning record in NL venues (68-58) but defended home turf by winning more than two of every three games (86-40).

Boston and Minnesota each went 16-2. Detroit was 15-3, while both Seattle and Chicago’s White Sox were 14-4. Only two National League teams had winning records in interleague play, Colorado (11-4) and San Francisco (8-7).

These results follow a pair of World Series sweeps by the White Sox and Red Sox. The AL has not lost an All Star game since 1996. This recent phenomena is a dramatic illustration of the "what goes around, comes around" theory as it was a generation ago when the NL won 19 of 20 All Star games between 1963 and 1982.

This past weekend saw most teams play game 81, the halfway point of the season. Five of baseball’s six divisions remain tightly contested with only the New York Mets holding a commanding lead. Despite losing five of their last six games, the Mets still hold an 11-game lead in the NL East over second place Philadelphia. Barring an unprecedented comeback, Atlanta’s streak of 14 straight division titles will end. The Braves begin the week 12 games below .500.

Boston’s four game lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East is the second largest margin of any division leader. Toronto is five back and has quietly remained in contention, despite pitchers A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin missing extended periods of time.

Baseball’s hottest team over the past three weeks has been the Minnesota Twins, winners of 20 of their last 22 games. Even with that phenomenal stretch, the Twins are 10 games behind Detroit in the AL Central and in third place behind Chicago. That’s because Detroit has continued its red hot play, winning 18 of 22 to hold a 2½ game lead over the White Sox. Chicago (17-5 in its last 22), Detroit and Minnesota are a combined 55-11 in the last 22 games. Yet at least one, and perhaps two, of these teams will not make the postseason.

Oakland has a slim one game lead over Seattle and 1½ game edge over Texas in the AL West. Last place Los Angeles/Anaheim is just five games back so this remains a wide open race with all four teams likely to remain in contention through August.

St. Louis’ recent slump (2-10 in last 12) has enabled the NL Central race to be competitive. Neither Cincinnati nor Houston has taken great advantage of the Cards’ slide. The Astros have won only four of their last dozen, while the Reds have split their last 12. The Cards begin the week just one game up on Cincinnati, with Houston and Milwaukee within 5½. There are concerns about the quality of the Cardinals starting pitchers. There is a big dropoff after ace Chris Carpenter.

The NL West remains the most competitive division in baseball with just three games separating first (San Diego) from fifth (Arizona). It appears that it may not take a record much better than San Diego’s 82-80 mark of last season to win. However, the division is much stronger in 2006 with all five teams hovering around .500. Last year the Dodgers, Giants and Rockies each finished at least a dozen games below .500 with Colorado tying Pittsburgh for the worst record in the senior circuit.

This weekend’s series will usher in the All Star Break. Following next Tuesday’s All Star game in Pittsburgh play resumes next Thursday with the next major date of significance being the trading deadline at the end of this month.

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

CARDS/ASTROS: The home team has won four of five this season with no game featuring more than nine total runs. This four game series begins Thursday. The return of Roger Clemens gives the Astros an even greater pitching edge over the Cards, which is offset by St. Louis’ stronger offense. Clemens has been sharp though not overpowering in his first two starts prior to Monday’s effort against the Cubs.

Preferred plays: CARDS as underdog in starts by Chris Carpenter or Anthony Reyes. UNDER 9 if Carpenter or Reyes faces Clemens, Roy Oswalt or Taylor Buchholz. ASTROS as underdog against any St Louis starter.

GIANTS/DODGERS: These long time rivals have split six meetings with the road team winning four. The first four games went UNDER. Jason Schmidt has been the Giants most effective starter, although both Matt Cain and Noah Lowry have shown solid improvement. Derek Lowe and Brad Penny have been the Dodgers’ best starters with Lowe having enjoyed a spectacular first half. In 12 of his 17 starts Lowe has pitched at least 6 innings while allowing 2 earned runs or less. The Dodgers are second to the Mets for most runs scored in the NL. This four game series begins Thursday.

Preferred plays: GIANTS as an underdog with Schmidt, Cain or Lowry. UNDER 8 or higher with Schmidt, Cain or Lowry facing Penny or Lowe; OVER 9 in matchups not involving any of these pitchers.

TWINS/RANGERS: Minnesota’s resurgence has coincided with the return to form of both Johan Santana and Brad Radke along with the rapid development of Francisco Liriano. Both Santana and Liriano are allowing less than one base runner per innings over 118 and 59 pitched, respectively. Texas continues to have pitching woes. Minnesota’s offense is better, though relying more on timely hitting.

Preferred plays: TWINS as an underdog in any matchup or -150 in starts by Santana or Liriano. UNDER 8 in starts by Santana or Liriano. OVER 9 in starts in any other matchup. RANGERS as an underdog against other than Santana or Liriano.

RED SOX/CHISOX: Chicago has actually been more productive on offense, hitting 20 more homers and scoring 32 more runs through Sunday. The teams are each hitting .287. Each has similar pitching stats with the White Sox having the better starting rotation. Boston has the more dominant closer in Jonathan Papelbon. Jim Thome has spearheaded the offense for Chicago. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz carry the big bats for Boston. This should be a high scoring series.

Preferred plan: RED SOX as underdogs if Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield or Josh Beckett throw. WHITE SOX as a dog against any Boston starter; OVER 8 if Schilling, Wakefield or Beckett oppose Chicago’s Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle or Freddy Garcia; OVER 9 if one of those listed starters; OVER 10 involving NONE of the listed pitchers