Buckle up for ‘Wild’ 7-week ride to the playoffs

Aug 14, 2007 8:04 AM

Just seven weeks remain in the regular season and things are as tight in the Division and Wild Card races as they have ever been.

Consider that after nearly 120 games or three quarters of the season, no Division leader is up by more than four games. As a natural extension of the six close Division races, three teams are within 1½ games of the Wild Card lead in the American League. Six teams are within three games of the National League’s Wild Card lead.

In the AL East, Boston’s once 15-game lead over the New York Yankees has been trimmed to just 4 — basically making the Division race a toss up the rest of the way.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim continue to lead the AL West by 3½ games over Seattle as both continue to play excellent baseball. Each is 7-3 in the last 10 games.

Baseball’s tightest race remains the AL Central, where Detroit has regained the lead by a half game over Cleveland after the Tribe was swept at home by the Yankees this past weekend. The Tigers and Indians have battled the entire season for the Division lead, yet there is a real chance one will miss the playoffs. Currently second place Cleveland would be on the sidelines, trailing both the Yankees and Seattle by 1½ in the Wild Card race.

Next best in the Wild Card race is Toronto, but the Blue Jays are 6½ back and would need to pick up a game a week on the leaders. That task seems a bit too much given how well the Yankees and Mariners have been playing since the All Star break.

More teams remain alive in the NL for both Division races and the Wild Card chase. Realistically three teams are battling for the NL East, where the New York Mets lead Philadelphia by 3. Atlanta is just a half game further back.

Three teams are also alive in the NL Central. Milwaukee leads Chicago by 1½. St. Louis has closed to within 5½ of the Brewers. The Cardinals have finally started to put it all together, especially on offense. Considering both Milwaukee and Chicago have stumbled of late, the defending World Series champion Cardinals have the experience and leadership to make a run.

At 75/1 odds to win the NL, there is some value in backing the Cards. They got hot at the right time last season, and this time they’d only have to reach the World Series for you to cash your ticket.

Only San Francisco is out of the race in the NL West, where the fourth place Los Angeles Dodgers trail leader Arizona by six games. San Diego is three behind the Diamondbacks and surprising Colorado is five back.

As the above commentary suggests, the NL Wild Card is up for grabs with a half dozen teams within three games of current leader San Diego.

Home teams are winning at a 54 percent pace this season, while OVERs and UNDERs are almost exactly the same. The count is 825 OVER, 821 UNDER through this past Sunday. The push total is 103.

Here’s a look at four key series this weekend.

Cards at Cubs: While Milwaukee hosts lowly Cincinnati, the Cardinals and Cubs renew their ancient rivalry at Wrigley Field. The road teams has won 6-of-8 meetings this season with five staying UNDER the total. The last five contests were in St. Louis and the teams are in Chicago for the first time since late April. Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano and lefty Ted Lilly have each had two solid outings against St. Louis. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright has been hit hard in all three of his starts against the Cubbies.

Preferred plays:

”¡ CUBS -140 maximum in starts by Zambrano or Lilly against Wainwright.

”¡ CARDS as underdogs against other Cubs starters.

”¡ CARDS at +130 tops if Wainwright starts.

”¡ OVER 9 or less if Zambrano or Lilly don’t start.

Rockies at Dodgers: The home team has won 5-of-8 meetings this season with six staying UNDER the total. The Dodgers enter this week in a prolonged offensive slump, having scored two runs or less in eight of the last 10 games. In the most recent homestand, LA scored 2 runs or less in 4-of-6 games so the slump is not entirely road related. Colorado has been a surprising contender this season. The pitching has exceeded expectations and some of the young hitters have developed rapidly.

Preferred plays:

”¡ ROCKIES as +125 underdogs against Brad Penny or Derek Lowe.

”¡ ROCKIES as underdogs of any price against Brett Tomko or Mark Hendrickson.

”¡ UNDER 8 or higher if Penny or Lowe oppose Jeff Francis or Aaron Cook.

”¡ OVER 8 or lower if Penny, Lowe, Francis and Cook are not involved.

Angels at Red Sox: This key four-game series opens with a Friday day/night doubleheader. The home team has won 5-of-6 meetings this season, outscoring the road team 45-18. Although both teams are Division leaders, neither lead is safe. A four-game sweep by either team would be a disaster. Even a 3-1 split could be damaging since both Seattle and the Yankees are at home. Boston’s seemingly deep bullpen has shown signs of fatigue over the past week.

Preferred plays:

”¡ ANGELS as +120 underdogs or more in starts by John Lackey or Kelvim Escobar.

”¡ RED SOX as -140 favorites or less against any other Angels starter.

”¡ UNDER 9 or higher if Lackey or Escobar face Boston’s Josh Beckett or Daisake Matsuzaka.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower if any other Angels starter opposes Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester or Curt Schilling.

Tigers at Yanks: Surprisingly this is the first meeting between these AL powers this season. The Yankees begin the week a season high 15 games above .500 and very much in Playoff contention. Detroit has slumped of late, going 9-16 over their last 25 games. Detroit has been victimized by a breakdown in both starting and relief pitching and of late the offense has slumped. The Yanks have been on a tear at the plate, entering the week having scored 191 runs in their prior 22 games, an average of 8.7 runs

Preferred plays:

”¡ YANKS as -150 favorites or less in any matchup except against Detroit’s Justin Verlander.

”¡ TIGERS minimum +125 underdog if Verlander pitches.

”¡ OVER 9 or more in any matchup not involving Verlander.

”¡ UNDER 9 or higher if Verlander opposes Andy Pettitte or Chien Ming Wang.