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46-7, Boston!

Aug 28, 2007 8:58 AM

Five weeks remain before the baseball playoffs begin and much will be decided over the next 35 games.

Gaps between Division leaders and their closest challengers continue to fluctuate. The New York Mets in the NL East and Boston in the AL East now sport leads of at least six games.

As play continues over these next few weeks, teams will slowly drop out of contention. A key date to keep in mind is this Saturday, Sept. 1 when rosters expand. Teams out of contention will often use the month as chance to give up and coming minor leaguers a shot at some meaningful playing time.

In the AL, it appears that only seven teams remain in playoff contention. Minnesota is barely in that group, trailing Cleveland by 5½ in the Central and in third place behind Detroit. The Twins are seven games out of the Wild Card lead.

The Angels are looking to hold off Seattle in the AL West with the teams playing a three game series in Seattle that began Monday night. The Red Sox and Yankees play a three game set in New York beginning Tuesday. A sweep by either side would pull the Yankees within 4½ games of Boston or extend the Red Sox lead to 10½, which would virtually wipe out New York’s chances for winning the Division. Boston enters this key series having swept four from the White Sox by a combined total of 46-7. Ouch!

The Mets and Arizona are vying for the best record in the NL, but neither has been able to fully shake free of their challengers. The Mets have a tough week ahead, traveling to Philadelphia and Atlanta before hosting both teams in New York in mid September. There is a real chance the NL East race will tighten up over the next 10 days.

Milwaukee’s once big lead in the NL Central has evaporated. The Brewers are now playing just .500 ball after losing 21-of-30. That has allowed the Cubs to take over first by 1½ games. The Cardinals are just two behind the Cubs and have plenty of experience on their side. Don’t count out the Cards, who made a similar late rush last season that carried them all the way to the World Series title.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Mets at Braves: Fresh off of a four game midweek series at Philadelphia, the Mets must now face their other NL East challenger. The Braves could have already narrowed the gap behind the Mets after hosting last place Florida for three games. These teams have played four 3-game series previously with Atlanta winning 2-of-3 each time. Since the Braves traded for Mark Teixiera, the offense has been much more productive. The Mets have not gotten the offensive production expected from Carlos Beltran and especially first baseman Carlos Delgado.

Preferred plays:

”¡ METS as +120 underdogs or higher in starts by Orlando Hernandez or John Maine.

”¡ BRAVES as -125 favorites or underdogs in starts by John Smoltz or Tim Hudson;

”¡ UNDER 8 or higher if Hernandez or Maine faces Smoltz or Hudson.

”¡ OVER 9 or lower if none of the four pitchers start.

Rockies at D’backs: Colorado starts the week 6½ behind NL West leading Arizona and can make up ground with a successful series in the desert. The teams have split their previous 12 meetings, averaging a surprisingly low 8 combined runs per game. The OVER is 5-6-1 in that span. The teams are separated by just one game going back 50 games as the overall talent is fairly even. Arizona has the pitching edge while Colorado is better on offense. Only twice has either team scored more than 6 runs.

Preferred plays:

”¡ UNDER 9 or higher in any matchup.

”¡ ROCKIES or D’BACKS as a +140 underdog or more.

”¡ ROCKIES +160 against Arizona’s Brandon Webb.

M’s at Blue Jays: This is the only AL series of the weekend involving two teams that started the week at .500 or better. In each of the other six, one team with a winning record gets to beat up on a losing ball club. Toronto began this week at 65-65, trailing Wild Card leader Seattle by 9. This is a virtual must win series for the Blue Jays. Even a sweep might not help their chances. The home team has won 5-of-6 this season. The UNDER is 4-1-1, with the teams averaging just above 6 runs per game.

Preferred plays:

MARINERS as -125 favorites when not facing Sean Marcum, AJ Burnett or Roy Halladay.

BLUE JAYS as -130 favorites in starts by those three hurlers.

UNDER 8 or higher if Seattle’s Felix Hernandez or Jarrod Washburn face Marcum, Burnett or Halladay.

OVER 9 or lower if Seattle’s Jeff Weaver or Miguel Batista don’t face Marcum. Burnett or Halladay.

Tigers at A’s: Oakland has not displayed the second half magic that has marked its past few seasons. The pitching has been barely average, while the offense has disappeared for games at a time. These teams met for their third series in a month with Oakland having won 4-of-7. Neither team has shown much consistency of late on offense and is seeking some sustained, solid pitching. The Tigers are the better team on paper but have dropped 20 of their last 30 games heading into this week.

Preferred plays:

TIGERS -130 in any matchup except facing Oakland’s Danny Haren.

UNDER 9 or higher in most any game.

UNDER 8 or higher if Haren opposes Detroit’s Justin Verlander or Jeremy Bonderman.