Surprises still in baseball

May 1, 2001 10:59 AM

The first month of the season has concluded and not much has changed over the past week.

In the National League, Philadelphia continues to set the pace in the East despite having lost the last four games of their West Coast trip. The Phillies are the only team in the Division above .500 with both Atlanta and the Mets struggling with inconsistent hitting and pitching.

The Cubs cling to a one game lead over Cincinnati in the Central, where five of the six teams are playing at least .500.

In the West, the Los Angeles Dodgers have played the best ball in the league over the past week and a half and now lead that division.

Toronto had a slight half game lead over Boston in the American League East at the start of the week with the Yankees lurking close behind. The defending World Series champs have been streaky in the early going but their weekend sweep of Oakland may signal that the pitching is rounding into form. The offense is still a concern but has started to be more productive.

Minnesota continues to lead the Central while playing better than .700 through the first month. Cleveland is also playing well and the Twins and Indians have opened a gap between themselves and the rest of the division. The defending Central champs, the White Sox, continue to struggle and have already fallen nine games behind.

In the West, it remains all Seattle. The Mariners had their nine-game winning streak snapped in Chicago Sunday, although it took 14 innings to lose. Yet Seattle still leads second place Texas by nine games with defending division champ Oakland stuck in last place and trailing the Mariners by 12 games.

The unbalanced schedule has much to do with why the divisional races have already seen huge gaps develop amongst the teams.

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

Los Angeles at Chicago Cubs - Both teams have relied on steady pitching rather than potent offenses to ascend to the top of their divisions. Kevin Brown and Chan Ho Park lead the Dodgers’ staff and young Luke Prokopec has been a pleasant addition. Jon Lieber has anchored the Cubs’ rotation while Kerry Wood seems back on track to his form of several seasons ago and Jason Bere has been a pleasant surprise. Los Angeles has the better offensive potential with Gary Sheffield, Eric Karros and Shawn Green and would be worth playing any time it is an underdog in the series. The winds are always a factor when setting totals at Wrigley Field but the preference would be for the UNDER in the series provided the line is in the 8½ to 9½ range. Totals of 10 or higher usually suggest the winds are blowing out and make under plays more risky.

St Louis at Atlanta - These teams meet for the first time since St. Louis swept Atlanta in the N.L. Divisional series last October. Both teams struggled in the first month with St. Louis suffering from inconsistent starting pitching and the absence of Mark McGwire from the lineup. Atlanta has gotten solid pitching but the bats were silent for most of the first month. As April wound down, both teams showed signs that their early season weaknesses were changing to good form. After scoring fewer than five runs in 17 of their first 19 games, the Braves have scored five or more in six of seven games starting the week. St. Louis has gotten strong outings from Darryl Kile, Matt Morris and Dustin Hermanson. John Burkett has been effective as an Atlanta Starter although Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood remain the strengths. The Cards won seven of 10 against Atlanta last season, including their playoff sweep, and should be considered for play here as underdogs. The under is also preferred except should Rick Ankiel start for the Cards or Odalis Perez take the mound for Atlanta. Both pitchers are ”˜go against’ and overs.

Chicago White Sox at Texas -The performance of the Texas Rangers has been only slightly less disappointing than that of the White Sox. Both teams are below .500 and, whereas Texas has been getting hitting but not much pitching, the White Sox have been getting little of either aside from the early season efforts of lefty David Wells. Both Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez has gotten off to slow starts and therein lies many of Chicago’s early offensive woes. Paul Konerko has swung Chicago’s most effective bat while Texas’ Rod-men (Alex and Ivan Rodriguez) are hitting over .300 and keying the offense. Neither team has solid starting pitching, and the preferred in this series is to take the over. Texas ended April with 13 overs in its last 16, with two of missing the over by one run. Chicago was a strong under team in April, but that was mostly due to facing good starting pitching. That won’t be the case this weekend. At a line of 11 or less, the under is the way to look with Chicago’s best chance to win being in a start by Wells, especially if he is not favored by more than -120.

Toronto at Seattle - Both teams lead their divisions as the week begins although Toronto’s edge in the East is tenuous at best over Boston with the Yankees just a series sweep behind. Seattle set a record by winning 20 games in April and has used a combination of strong starting pitching, a solid bullpen, defense and timely hitting to pull away from the West. Seattle does not have great power but it has enough of a rat-a-tat-tat attack to make opposing pitchers work hard. Seattle should be favored in all games in this series with Toronto not having a true ”˜ace’ among its starting pitchers. But the series should be competitively priced with Toronto’s potent attack and Seattle’s Freddie Garcia and Aaron Sele, both worth backing if not favored by more than -130. Toronto’s best chance would be when Chris Carpenter or Esteban Loaiza start. The under will also be preferred provided the line is no higher than nine.