Cards stillhave fight

Jul 31, 2007 7:07 AM

Baseball is a grueling season — the longest of any of the professional sports. In fact, the 162 game schedule is practically twice the length of both basketball and hockey.

Thus it’s often hard to point to any single game short of the final couple of weeks of the season as being more important or significant than any other. But such might be the case for a pair of teams involved in a game this past weekend.

On Friday night the Milwaukee Brewers opened a four game series in St Louis with a resounding 12-2 victory over the Cardinals. Less than 12 hours later, in the first game of a doubleheader, the Brewers blew out to an early 6-0 lead after 2½ innings, seemingly in control to assure themselves of no worse than a split in the series.

But the Cardinals rallied for a 7-6 victory by scoring 3 in the bottom half of the ninth. St Louis then won the nightcap and came from behind Sunday to take the final three games of the series. The weekend’s results had Milwaukee leaving St Louis still in first place, but barely.

The Brewers had built up a commanding lead in the NL Central over the past two months but that lead was down to a scant half game over Chicago. The Cubs have been the hottest team in baseball since early June and actually begin the week with one less loss than the Brewers.

St. Louis’ successful weekend still leaves them a full six games behind Milwaukee, but with some positive momentum with which to begin the season’s final two months. Chicago appears to be the best balanced of the three teams, especially with both foes’ aces sidelined. St. Louis will be without Chris Carpenter for the remainder of the season while Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets likely is sidelined for at least the next month.

As close as the race is in the NL Central, things are even tighter in the NL West. Los Angeles and Arizona begin the week tied for first. San Diego is just a half game back. Even fourth place Colorado, two games above .500, starts the week only 3½ out.

San Diego will be without Chris Young for at least a couple of weeks as he’s been placed on the DL. The combination of Young and Jake Peavy are largely responsible for the Padres success this season, especially considering the weak offense. If the Padres are able to withstand Young’s absence, they may well go on to win the division. They have the best overall pitching staff in the West.

Compared to the other two divisions, the race in the NL East is one sided. The New York Mets have a 3½ game lead over Philadelphia and 4½ ahead of Atlanta. Clearly this also appears to be unfolding as a three team race. All have their flaws but the Mets may be in the best position. New York has the best and most reliable closer in Billy Wagner and may get ace starter Pedro Martinez for the season’s final month.

Martinez has been rehabbing well and the Mets are not rushing him back. His return likely will be the difference in deciding both the NL East race and the playoffs once postseason play begins.

The race in the AL Central figures to be tightly contested the rest of the way. Detroit starts the week with a half game lead over Cleveland. The Tigers and Indians have been battling for the top of the division almost since opening Day. Minnesota, normally a strong second half club, is seven back.

In the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are up by four over Seattle as they travel to Seattle for a three game series that began Monday night, giving the Mariners a chance to gain some ground and let the Angels know there will be a pennant race.

Boston’s lead over the New York Yankees in the AL East is eight. History tells us that no lead is safe when the Yankees are not in first place and rumors persist that this week the Yanks will have made a major acquisition to strengthen their one area of weakness, the bullpen.

The latest scuttlebutt has New York acquiring Eric Gagne from Texas in exchange for some prospects. Gagne would serve as set up man for closer Mariano Rivera, essentially giving opponents just seven innings to gain a lead on the Yankees. The Yanks have had a dozen different pitchers start games for them this season for a variety of reasons including injuries and ineffectiveness.

At the moment Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang are as formidable a starting four, top to bottom, as is any in baseball. Expect some fireworks from the Yankees even if they cannot close the deal for Gagne.

Philadelphia continues to be the best team in baseball when it comes to winning by more than one run. Of the Phillies’ 55 wins, 49 have been by at least 2 runs (89 percent). The New York Yankees are next best with 84 percent (47 of 56). St. Louis, Baltimore and Colorado have also seen more than 80 percent of their wins by more than a single run. Boston, the Mets, White Sox and Angels are each between 75 and 80 percent.

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

Mets at Cubs: The teams have had just one prior series this season with the Mets taking 3-of-4 four at home from the Cubs in Mid May. All four games went OVER the total as the teams combined to average 10 runs per game. The Cubs have won 33 of their last 50, while the Mets are just 24-26.

The Cubs resurgence has been fueled by the return to form of pitching ace Carlos Zambrano and the hitting of Alfonso Soriano. The Mets are plagued by the batting woes of Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado.

Preferred plays:

”¡ METS as underdogs in starts by John Maine or Orlando Hernandez.

”¡ CUBS in starts by Ted Lilly or Sean Marshall.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower if Jorge Sosa, Oliver Perez or Tom Glavine oppose Chicago’s Rich Hill or Jason Marquis.

Phils at Brewers: Ryan Howard has started to hit and the Phillies lineup has contributed. Although star second sacker Chase Utley is on the DL, the Phillies have scored 23 runs in their three game sweep of Pittsburgh.

Milwaukee’s offense has slipped and the bullpen has had problems, especially late relief.

Preferred plays:

”¡ UNDERDOG at +125 or more in any matchup.

”¡ OVER 8 or lower in any matchup.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower if Philly starts Kyle Kendrick, JD Durbin or Adam Eaton against Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano or Claudio Vargas.

White Sox at Tigers: The road team has won 5-of-9 games. The teams have combined to average just below 12 total runs per game. Chicago has been plagued by inconsistency, especially at the plate. Detroit is explosive on offense, leading the majors in runs scored and batting average (.290).

Both teams have several solid starters and a few weak links. Chicago has been a major disappointment this season.

Preferred plays:

”¡ WHITE SOX as underdogs in starts by Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland or Javier Vazquez.

”¡ TIGERS as -150 favorites or less in starts by Jeremy Bonderman or Justin Verlander except against Buehrle, Garland or Vazquez.

”¡ OVER 9 or less in any matchup except if Buehrle, Garland or Vazquez is matched against Bonderman or Verlander.

Red Sox at M’s: The home team has won 5-of-6 meetings, with the teams combining to average 11 runs per game. Boston rookie Daisake Matsuzaka has started three of the six games. He pitched well in the two Boston lost and poorly in the game the Red Sox won. The Sox have the superior pitching staff although the Mariners have gotten better efforts than expected recently from starters Jeff Weaver and Miguel Batista.

Both Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn have had their moments, but both have had more disappointing efforts than expected. Every Seattle starting pitcher has allowed more hits than innings pitched.

Preferred plays:

”¡ RED SOX as underdogs in any matchup.

”¡ RED SOX as -125 favorites or less in starts by Matsuzaka or Josh Beckett.

”¡ MARINERS as +120 underdogs or more in starts by Hernandez, Washburn or Batista.

”¡ OVER 8 or less in any matchup.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower if Boston starts Tim Wakefield or Seattle starts Weaver, Washburn or Horacio Ramirez, regardless of the opposing starter.