Team on fire: Evil Empire!

Aug 21, 2007 8:06 AM

Barely six weeks remain in the regular season and the race to the playoffs intensifies.

No division leader is up by more than five games. Three lead by two games or less. Both Wild Card races are also tightly contested although there are fewer teams with realistic chances in the AL than NL.

In trying to forecast how the balance of the season may unfold it might be helpful to look at current momentum. Only the New York Yankees can be said to be truly "on fire." Over their last 40 games, the Bronx Bombers are 28-12 for a winning percentage of .700. No other team has won more than 24 games during the span.

Next best at 24-16 are Arizona and the Mets, both currently leading their divisions by four and five games respectively. Seattle, Toronto, Colorado and Philadelphia have gone a rather modest 23-17, a percentage of .575.

With the recent rather average play of both Boston and the Los Angeles Angels, no team in baseball is winning 60 percent of their games. We might well see four or five divisions won with less than 90 victories, meaning a late season hot streak can turn a Wild Card contender into a division winner.

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

Padres at Phils: Both teams remain in contention for both division titles and, more realistically, the NL Wild Card. If you combined San Diego’s pitching and the Phillies hitting you’d have one heck of a team. The Phillies took 3-of-4 in their only previous meeting in San Diego a month ago, outscoring the Padres 28-8. Other than ace lefty Cole Hamels, Philly’s starters are average at best. San Diego has a huge edge in overall pitching, although the Phils did have success against ace Jake Peavy

Preferred plays:

”¡ PHILS -150 favorite in a start by Hamels against other than Peavy or Chris Young.

”¡ PADRES +120 underdogs or more if not facing Hamels.

”¡ PADRES -120 favorite in starts by Jake Peavy or Chris Young.

”¡ UNDER 8 or higher if Young, Peavy or Greg Maddux oppose Hamels.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower in any matchup not involving Peavy, Young, Maddux or Hamels.

Braves at Cards: Both teams are within striking distance of the leaders in their respective divisions with Atlanta also alive in the Wild Card race. The teams split their only four games a month ago in St. Louis, although the Braves outscored the Cardinals 28-18. St. Louis bats have been hot since that series, averaging over five runs per game at home. Atlanta has also hit the ball better of late, scoring at least 5 in 14 of the last 21 games. The Braves have the pitching edge with John Smoltz and Tim Hudson rating the edge against any Cardinals starter. However, young Adam Wainwright has started to show more consistency.

Preferred plays:

”¡ BRAVES as a +120 underdog in any matchup except against Wainwright.

”¡ BRAVES -120 in starts by Smoltz or Hudson.

”¡ CARDS -130 with Wainwright, except against Smoltz or Hudson.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower in any matchup not involving Smoltz, Hudson or Wainwright.

”¡ UNDER 8 or higher if Smoltz or Hudson are matched up against Wainwright.

Yanks at Tigers: New York took the final three games of the series at home against Detroit last weekend in the first meeting since the Tigers eliminated the Yanks in last year’s playoffs. The Yankees bats and improved starting pitching has gotten them back in contention both in the AL East and in the Wild Card race. Detroit’s pitching has let them down in recent weeks, although the bullpen will be bolstered by the return of fireballer Joel Zumaya this week. Detroit’s offense, so strong in the season’s first half, has declined. The Tigers are averaging under 3½ runs per game over the past two weeks.

Preferred plays:

”¡ YANKS as underdogs in any matchup except against Justin Verlander.

”¡ TIGERS as -120 favorites in Verlander’s start.

”¡ YANKS as -125 favorites in starts by Chien-Ming Wang or Mike Mussina if not facing Verlander.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower in any matchup.

Indians at Royals: Cleveland has been a contender all season. The Royals have been an also ran, contending with Chicago to avoid the basement in the AL Central. Yet KC has played well for the past few months and has a better record than the Indians over the last 60 games. The season series is pretty even with Cleveland having won 5-of-9 games, but the perception is that the Indians are by far the better team. The Royals have shown an improved offense over the past two months, with solid starting pitching from Gil Meche and Brian Bannister. Cleveland has the better overall offense, but has scored 3 runs or less in 15 of the last 25 games. Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook have joining C.C. Sabathia to form a solid starting trio.

Preferred plays:

ROYALS +130 underdogs in any matchup.

INDIANS as underdogs or as -120 favorites in any matchup against other than Meche or Bannister.

UNDER 9 or higher if Sabathia, Carmona or Westbrook opposes Meche or Bannister.

OVER 10 or lower if none of the five listed pitchers are involved.