Twins, Cubs, Phils are surprises of season

Apr 24, 2001 8:15 AM

Three weeks of the season are in the books and the early-season surprises continue to be Minnesota and Seattle in the American League and Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs in the National League. The four teams, all decided long shots at the start of the season, have combined to win 52 of their first 71 games. On opening day, Minnesota had odds of 70-1 to win the World Series while Seattle was 40-1, Philadelphia 100-1 and the Cubs 50-1.

Of teams considered to be contenders this season only Boston and Cleveland in the American League and San Francisco in the National are playing solid ball over the first three weeks. Three of the four National League teams that made the Playoffs last season are struggling as Atlanta, the New York Mets and St. Louis all began this week with records below .500.

In the AL both Oakland and the Chicago White Sox are winning barely one of every three games after being in the post-season last year. The defending World Series champs, the New York Yankees, are 11-8 as the week begins; but note that six of their wins have come against lowly Kansas City - the Yanks are just 5-8 in their other games, all of which have been against Division rivals Boston and Toronto.

Pitching and defense still define what it takes to win in baseball over the course of a long season. That combination makes the Twins an intriguing team. They have made excellent defensive play after excellent defensive play in the early going. Great defensive plays often bail out pitchers, cut short rallies and draw ”˜oohs’ and ”˜ahs’ from the fans - even on the road.

Go back to 1991. The Atlanta Braves, for years a terrible team defensively, began to make mammoth strides in the field, especially up the middle. A pair of starting pitchers, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, were emerging as two of the best in baseball (Greg Maddux was to join them a few seasons later after establishing himself as a star with the Cubs). Are we seeing a similar situation unfolding in the twin cities?

Brad Radke has been a solid pitcher for several seasons and has been joined by Eric Milton to provide a solid one-two punch.

Youngsters Joe Mays and Mark Redman have started to show promise. The offense, short on big names, has been effective, moving runners and delivering the key hits.

Keep an eye on Minnesota as the season progresses. Sure, they’ve defeated teams like Kansas City and Detroit in their early season spurt.

But they’ve also completed back-to-back weekend series sweeps of last season’s Central Division champions, the Chicago White Sox.

Here’s a look at four interdivisional series to be played this weekend involving teams that are expected to contend.

New York Mets at St. Louis -These teams meet for the first time since the Mets defeated the Cardinals in last season’s NLCS. Both teams are off to sluggish starts thus far, with the Mets suffering from a weak offense despite solid starting pitching. St. Louis has also had offensive woes, but their starting pitching has been erratic.

Both teams should pick up their offense in coming weeks although the Mets have more weaknesses. St. Louis has been without Mark McGwire for most of the early season and his absence has been felt.

The Mets have concerns about the health of staff ace Al Leiter who might be on the DL when this series begins. Rick Reed has been their steadiest hurler and is worth backing when he starts in this series.

The Mets’ hurler to be avoided, should he start, is Steve Trachsel. Kevin Appier is also worth backing for the Mets in what should be a low scoring series aside from starts by either Trachsel or St. Louis’ Dustin Hermanson. The preferred play is on the UNDER if the line is no lower than 9.

The Mets are worth backing as an underdog when anyone other than Trachsel takes the mound.

Atlanta at Arizona - This four game series begins Thursday between a pair of teams that have struggled in the early part of the season. Atlanta has been inept on offense all season and have scored four runs or less in its last 14 games entering this week. Arizona has been streaky.

Of the five outstanding starting pitchers on these teams, only Arizona’s Curt Schilling and Atlanta’s Greg Maddux have been at the top of their games. The Diamondbacks’ Randy Johnson has been hittable while the Braves’ Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood have yet to display their best form. You can expect that these pitchers will return to form as the calendar turns to May.

Atlanta’s hitting woes are more of a concern. The Braves miss the power and average of Andres Gallaraga, and much of their lineup has been in a slump all season. In this series, the first look will be towards the UNDER, especially at totals of 9 or higher. As with much of our handicapping in the early season, the underdog in each game will be attractive at prices of +125 or more.

Oakland at New York Yankees - Oakland proved it was a team that would contend in 2001 when they took the Yankees to the brink of elimination in the AL Divisional series last season. Starters Tim Hudson and Barry Zito showed poised pitching under pressure in Yankee Stadium. But that was six months ago, and the start of the 2001 season has not been kind to either Hudson or Zito nor to the A’s as a team.

Both pitchers have been inconsistent in their first few starts as has the offense, causing the A’s to begin the week just 6-13, in last place in the AL West, trailing Seattle already by 9 games. The Yanks have gotten off to a winning start largely because they took six for six from Kansas City.

But the offense in their other games has been slacking. Paul O’neill is off to a strong start and the Yanks were without Bernie Williams for over a week.

Despite Oakland’s struggles, they are worth backing as underdogs in this series, especially when Hudson, Zito or Mark Mulder starts. The best underdog prices would, of course, be against Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. Clemens may not pitch in the series since he’s scheduled to start in midweek. For over-under play the key number is 9. The play is on the OVER when the total is 8½ or less and on the UNDER when the line is 9½ or higher.

Texas at Cleveland - Both teams have been banging the ball with regularity over the past two weeks, especially Texas. The Rangers have gone OVER the total in virtually every game in the past two weeks, and that will be the way to look here, even though we are likely to be faced with totals as high as 11 or 11½.

Neither team has consistent starting pitching with perhaps Cleveland’s Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley and Texas’ Kenny Rogers the closest either team has to ”˜aces.’ Clearly the underdog is worth playing in each game given the overall similarity in the teams. Both teams have power throughout the lineup and this will be the most entertaining series to watch this weekend. Look for plenty of runs to be scored.