Zona, Rays best thru 50

May 27, 2008 7:00 PM

The 3-2 Pitch by Andy Iskoe | The Memorial Day weekend has come and gone and thus presents us with a good point at which to review how the season has unfolded with more than 50 games having been played.

A look at the overall standings shows a two-way tie for the best record in major league baseball. It should not be all that surprising to learn that one of the teams tied with a 30-20 record is the Arizona Diamondbacks. After all, the snakes were a playoff team a season ago.

Arizona strengthened its roster during the offseason, most notably acquiring pitcher Danny Haren, who has been solid in his first 10 starts for his new team. But in guessing which of the other 29 teams is tied with Arizona might require a dozen or so guesses.

Not Boston or either of the New York teams. It isn’t Detroit or the Angels. Even Philadelphia and Cleveland would be wrong.

Nope, nearly one third of the way through the 2008 regular season, on Memorial Day morning, tied for the best record in baseball are the Tampa Bay Rays. And there is nothing devilish about how they have risen to the top of the baseball world, albeit still with more than 100 games to play.

The Rays have a nicely balanced roster filled mostly with youth, but with several up and coming stars such as third baseman Evan Longoria and fleet-footed outfielder Carl Crawford. The top of their starting rotation features the very talented lefty Scott Kazmir and a very solid though unspectacular James Shields.

The bullpen has been more than adequate thus far and is anchored by veteran closer Troy Percival, who basically came out of retirement and has provided great leadership and valuable experience to what is for the most part a very young staff.

It’s way too early to start printing playoff tickets for this franchise that seeks to win more than 70 games for the first time in its barely decade-old existence. However, the future is bright down in west central Florida where there is more than just a ‘Ray’ of hope after many years of being the worst team in baseball.

Tampa Bay begins the week a half-game ahead of Boston and will be home over the next week against Texas and the Chicago White Sox.

Joining Arizona and Tampa Bay atop the standings are the White Sox in the American League Central and the Los Angeles Angels in the AL West. In the Senior Circuit Florida’s "other" team – the Marlins – leads the East, while the Chicago Cubs and St Louis Cardinals are in a virtual tie atop the NL Central just a half-game ahead of surging Houston.

Home teams continue to win at nearly 58 percent through Sunday while, ignoring pushes, unders are hitting at 54 percent, compared to 46 percent for overs.

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

Dodgers at Mets: A pair of teams expected to be contenders, but are struggling do battle for the second time this season. Los Angeles manager Joe Torre returns to the city that provided his managerial greatness, albeit at the other venue. The Dodgers took two of three from the Mets when the teams met on the Left Coast the first week of May.

Both teams have been betrayed by starting pitching that has not delivered as expected.

The Dodgers’ Brad Penny and Derek Lowe both have ERAs above 5.00 but young Chad Billingsley has pitcher fairly well. For the Mets, lefty Johan Santana has not put up the scintillating numbers expected and posted by him in the past. He is limiting base runners, but has been vulnerable to the gopher ball. The Mets have the better offense on paper and it’s also possible Willie Randolph could be ex-manager by the time this series begins.

Preferred plays:

• Either team at least a +125 underdog.

• Mets at -120 or less.

Over 8 or lower without Santana or Billingsley.

Astros at Brewers: Houston has been a major surprise this season as the offense has been more prolific than expected, led by the powerful bat of Lance Berkman. Milwaukee has not been getting the high powered offense that sparked the team last season although the potential remains for explosions up and down the lineup.

Both teams have legitimate aces in the Astros’ Roy Oswalt and the Brewers’ Ben Sheets, but beyond those two the starting staffs are ordinary at best. Back in early May, Houston swept a three-game home series from the Brew Crew.

Preferred plays:

• Houston as underdogs.

• Houston -125 or less if Oswalt doesn’t face Sheets.

• Brewers as underdogs.

• Brewers -130 or less if Sheets doesn’t face Oswalt.

Over 8½ or lower if Sheets or Oswalt don’t start.

Under 8 or higher when Sheets or Oswalt start.

White Sox at Rays: The White Sox took two of three from the Rays when the teams also met in Tampa in mid-April. Both teams start the week leading their divisions with each benefitting from above average pitching and timely hitting. In their first meeting, each team won one game via shutout. The White Sox are the more veteran team.

For the Rays, in addition to Scott Kazmir and James Shields, both Edwin Jackson and Andrew Sonnanstine are showing signs of maturing as pitchers. For the White Sox, in addition to veterans Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras and Mark Buehrle, both John Danks and Gavin Floyd are showing similar signs of emerging.

Preferred plays:

• Either team as +125 underdogs or more.

• Either team -115 or less.

Under 9 or higher.

Under 8 or higher if Kazmir or Shields faces Buehrle, Contreras or Vazquez.

Blue Jays at Angels: The Angels are in first place in the AL West, while Toronto is also playing winning baseball. When these teams met in Toronto a week or so ago, the Angels took two of three with all three games going under the total. Both teams combined to score a total of just 18 runs. Each side has above average pitching.

The Angels have arguably the better lineup, especially with Vernon Wells still sidelined for the Blue Jays. But LA has not been hitting much of late, scoring four runs or less in 11 of 12 games prior to Memorial Day. Toronto has not fared much better, having been held to three runs or less in half of their last 10 games.

Preferred plays:

• Under 8 or higher in any matchup.

• Toronto as underdogs in starts by Sean Marcum, Jesse Litsch or Roy Halladay.

• Angels as underdogs in starts by Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana.