Show this writer how West is won?

Jul 18, 2006 5:40 AM

Only four days of action are in the books following baseball’s All Star break but the results have made things very interesting in the major leagues.

Several divisional races remain tightly contested especially the AL and NL West respectively, where four games separate first from last. Oakland has a one game lead over Texas and 1½ over the Angels with Seattle trailing. Each team has played over 90 games.

Should this race remain competitive throughout the balance of the season, there will be one winner and three losers. It’s quite unlikely the AL West could produce the Wild Card winner.

There are six very good teams in the AL, but three will miss the postseason. Boston, the New York Yankees and Toronto are each at least 10 games over .500 as they battle in the East. Boston begins the week just a half game up on the Yankees with the unheralded Blue Jays only 3½ behind. In the Central, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota are all at least 10 games above break even. The Tigers sport the best record in baseball and holding a 4½ game edge over Chicago in the division.

Minnesota trails the Tigers by 11, but within 6½ games of Chicago for Wild Card lead. Their task is not as formidable as would appear at first glance. The lefty tandem of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, along with veteran Brad Radke pitching his best ball, makes the Twins serious playoff contenders. The offense will be hampered in the short term with outfielders Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart just placed on the DL. However, the solid starting rotation should keep them in most games.

The Mets have all but wrapped up the NL East with their 12-game bulge over both Atlanta and Philadelphia beginning the week. They figure to be in the market for another starting pitcher. Don’t be surprised if they turn to an old friend — ex-Met Kris Benson — before the trading deadline.

St. Louis is playing its best baseball of the season and enters this week riding a season high seven game win streak. Still, the Cardinals are just four clear of Cincinnati Houston and Milwaukee are just eight back, despite being three games under .500. Cincinnati’s recent trade of Austin Kearns raised eyebrows in the Queen City. The Reds’ strong offense has complimented the starting pitching of Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang. The bullpen help they supposedly acquired in return for Kearns seems to be questionable at best.

Despite being swept in its initial series following the All Star break, San Diego leads the NL West by 2½ over the Dodgers and Giants. Pitching is considered a strength of the Padres but their staff was touched up for 36 runs in losing three games to Atlanta over the weekend.

That brings us to the Braves, and perhaps the story most worth watching over the next 2½ months. Although their streak of 14 straight Divisional championships appears over, the Braves cannot be dismissed from the Wild Card. They begin the week just 5½ out of the Wild Card lead, although six teams are between them and front-runner Cincinnati.

The Braves have won 8 of their last 10 games and Chipper Jones had a chance on Monday to set a new modern record with an extra base hit 15 straight games. On Sunday he tied the record of 14 set by Paul Waner 79 years ago. That’s 1927! A record definitely worth noting

Eight starting pitchers have shown profits of at least eight units for the season. Five of the eight have ERAs below 3.60, pretty good by present standards. They include Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander. The other three showing solid profits are Kenny Rogers, Miguel Batista and Steve Trachsel. These three have ERAs in excess of 4 and might be good ”˜go against’ pitchers over the second half. Profit/loss results tend to catch up to the level of the pitching.

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

BRAVES/PHILS: Philly won four of five prior meetings, but the teams have not met since early May. Atlanta has started to play well. The Phillies have struggled much of the season, largely due to the lack of a solid rotation. "Ace" Brett Myers has struggled and has just recently rejoined the team after time off to sort out his well documented personal issues. The Phillies still have some big bats in their lineups. This should be a high scoring series, especially with no true quality starting pitcher aside from Atlanta’s John Smoltz.

Preferred plays: UNDERDOG +125, except if Smoltz starts. BRAVES -130 with Smoltz. OVER 9 in any other matchup.

PADRES/GIANTS: The Padres have won five of eight previous meetings as the teams play a four game series beginning Thursday. The entire Division has struggled both just before and immediately following the All Star break. The five begin the week losing a collective 17 straight after opening second half play against non-division rivals. San Diego has one of the best road records in baseball at 25-16, just behind Detroit.

Preferred plays: SAN DIEGO as +125 dogs against Jason Schmidt. OVER 8 or higher in other matchups. UNDER 9 in starts by either Schmidt or San Diego’s Jake Peavy.

A’s/TIGERS: The teams have split six earlier meetings, all in Oakland. Four dipped below the posted total. Only twice did either team score more than five runs. Each side has solid starting pitching, but Detroit has the better offense. At least it’s been more consistent. Detroit is off a critical three game mid week series against Chicago so the level of focus and intensity could be a concern. Manager Jim Leyland has made it clear that complacency will not be tolerated, so this series should be played at a high level.

Preferred plays: UNDER 9. UNDERDOG +125 in any matchup. A’S as a dog at any price except facing Detroit’s Kenny Rogers

RANGERS/CHISOX: The road team has fared well in this series. Texas took two of three in Chicago. A week later in June, the White Sox won three of four in Arlington. The Sox played a midweek series in Detroit with a chance to narrow their deficit in the Central Division. Chicago has a clear edge in starting pitching, although several starters including Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras have struggled recently. For the season, only Contreras has a WHIP of under 1.35. That compares to last season when only one of the six starters were above 1.25. Both feature solid lineups.

Preferred plays: TEXAS as underdogs in starts by Kevin Millwood or Vicente Padilla. OVER 9 in any matchup. WHITE SOX as an underdog or a -140 favorite except if Millwood or Padilla pitch.