Harang, Bonderman on ‘fatigue factor’ watch

Jul 25, 2006 6:24 AM

The dog days of summer are upon us. The long stretch of games between baseball’s All Star break and the end of August test the stamina of both players and fans.

Teams slowly fall by the wayside and out of contention for the postseason. Baseball’s long 162-game schedule is unique among the major sports. Playing on nearly a daily basis for six months, it’s hard to maintain continuous focus. This is the time of season fatigue begins to set in.

Many younger players can begin to exhibit a dramatic reversal of form. Frontline starting pitchers are approaching 150 innings for the season and it becomes important to monitor the less established arms to see if fatigue is setting in.

A list of such pitchers would currently include Aaron Harang of Cincinnati, David Bush of Milwaukee, Jeremy Bonderman of Detroit, Chien Ming Wang of the Yankees and Dan Haren of Oakland. Each of these starters has logged over 130 innings through last weekend.

The AL East has become a three team race with Toronto now in the mix after taking three of four games from the Yankees to close within 4½ games of first place Boston. The Blue Jays are just two behind New York.

Oakland is just a half game ahead of Texas in the AL West, where last place Seattle is just four games from first. A similar situation exists in the NL West where San Diego is a half game ahead of San Francisco, while last place Colorado is just 4½ out of the lead.

Barroom debates over which is the strongest or weakest division in baseball have no clear cut answers. The answer depends on the factors you consider important in assessing quality.

One reasonable approach would be to look at non-division records. Using this criterion, the AL East is 22 games above .500 against the rest of baseball. The AL Central is +29 games and the AL West +5.

In the NL, the East is -12, the Central-43 and the West -1. These figures also show the dramatic difference between the two leagues, where it’s been acknowledged that the AL is superior to the NL. These records illustrate just how large a gap exists.

The Mets maintain the largest division lead with their 12½ game edge over Atlanta in the NL East. St Louis has a five game cushion over Cincinnati in the NL Central and Detroit has increased their margin over the White Sox to 6½ in the AL Central.

The Wild Card races remain very competitive in both leagues with roughly 65 games to be played. Five teams are within 10 games of current leader Chicago in the AL, while a whopping 10 teams are within 10 games of NL leading Cincinnati. Only Pittsburgh and the Cubs have no realistic chance of making a late run to the postseason.

This scenario makes the upcoming trading deadline even more intriguing. Thus far, a pair of closers changed teams with Seattle sending former full time closer Eddie Guardado to Cincinnati and Atlanta acquiring Bob Wickman from Cleveland.

In just a few weeks, Guardado matched for Cincinnati the five saves he registered for the Mariners. It’s rare that closers are traded this deep into the season, but 2006 is developing into a rather unique year. We can expect plenty of surprises as the final two months of the season get underway next week.

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

Marlins at Phils: Philly has been a major disappointment this season whereas Florida has been a pleasant surprise. Much can be attributed to the respective managers. Charlie Manuel is under daily attack in the Philly media for the poor pitching and inconsistent offense. Joe Girardi is being hailed in Florida for his ability to squeeze wins out of a very inexperienced roster. The Phils have a 3-1 edge in the matchup, but all were played in the first five weeks.

Preferred plays: FLORIDA as an underdog in any matchup. UNDER 9 if Brett Myers starts for the Phils. OVER 9 if it’s Ryan Madson.

Mets at Braves: The Braves are playing their best ball with the offense tallying at least five runs in 13 of the last 16 games. Andruw and Chipper Jones have been hot, though each was out of the lineup at the start of the week nursing injuries. Both are expected back, as is Mets ace Pedro Martinez. Pedro has been on the DL since just before the All Star break. The Mets have won five of nine in the series with the road team going 2-1 three times. All nine games were played in the first five weeks.

Preferred plays: ATLANTA as an underdog against Tom Glavine or with John Smoltz and Chuck James. UNDER 8 if Glavine or Martinez oppose Smoltz or James. OVER 9 in starts not involving Martinez or Smoltz.

LA Angels at Red Sox: First meeting. Boston won 6 of 10 games in 2005, with the final six going ”˜under’ the total. The Angels have the better starting pitching, although Boston has the best proven starter on both clubs in Curt Schilling. Young Jered Weaver has been impressive in his Angels debut, winning all seven starts while posting dominant statistics. John Lackey is having a solid season. His 8-6 record is more a reflection of his lack of offensive support. His 2.93 ERA ranks him third in the AL with at least 98 innings.

Preferred plays: ANGELS as underdogs with Lackey and Weaver or anyone other than Schilling, Jon Lester or Josh Beckett. UNDER 9 if Lackey or Weaver face Schilling, Lester and Beckett. OVER 9 if only one of those pitchers start. OVER 10 if none start.

Tigers at Twins: Minnesota is 29-7 in its last 36 games, but has gained just two on first place Detroit. The home team has won eight times in the nine previous games. Both teams have had excellent starting pitching. The Tigers own a deeper starting staff and a solid bullpen. The Twins have the top two starters in a pair of lefties, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Minnesota has won 27 of the duo’s 34 starts. The Tigers have won 30 of 39 when either veteran Kenny Rogers or rookie Justin Verlander pitch. Detroit has the better offense, but the Twins had scored at least five runs in seven straight games before winning a 3-1 game in Cleveland started by Liriano.

Preferred plays: DETROIT +140 against Santana or Liriano. DETROIT -120 against any other Twins starter. UNDER 8 in starts by Liriano or Santana. OVER 9 if Twins starters Scott Baker or Carlos Silva face Detroit’s Nate Robertson or Zach Miner.