Playoff contenders are pulling away in A.L.

May 8, 2001 9:53 AM

Although only about 20 percent of the Major League Baseball season has been played, several observations can be made about how the remaining 80 percent of the season may unfold.

The American and National Leagues are providing rather different stories six weeks into the season. The National League has been much more balanced thus far while the American League has already been divided into groups of playoff contenders and teams already out of the running.

In the American League, six teams have already distanced themselves from the other eight. The East Division is tightly packed with Toronto and Boston tied for the lead but just a half game ahead of the Yankees.

Minnesota leads Cleveland by just a game in the Central as both teams continue outstanding play.

In the West, Seattle has already opened an eight-game lead.

These are the only six teams in the AL that have winning records with the weakest of the six, the 19-13 Yankees, having a 3½-game edge over Anaheim. Of the six, Boston, the Yankees and Cleveland are most likely to continue playing solid baseball while major questions remain about Minnesota and Toronto.

Minnesota has the pitching but lacks in offense while Toronto has the bats, but is suspect in its pitching.

Seattle is the team that seems misplaced considering that over the past three seasons they’ve lost future hall of famers Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. But the M’s have developed solid starting pitching and a strong bullpen while ”˜rookie’ Ichiro Suzuki has exceeded all expectations.

The Mariners have also played excellent defense. The longer Seattle remains atop the division and plays well, the more legitimate a contender it becomes. It took until this past weekend for Seattle to lose their first series of the season, dropping two of three to Toronto.

The season is unfolding quite differently in the National League where only one team, the Cubs, is playing better than .600 as the week begins. Similarly, just one team, Montreal, is playing under .400 (compared to four teams in the AL). The gap between the Cubs and Montreal is just 7½ games. In the American League, the gap between Seattle and Tampa Bay is 14.

Philadelphia leads the East by four games over Atlanta, which, while playing better of late and starting to hit the ball, is still below .500. Atlanta’s strong starting pitching is becoming a concern with the latest issue being Kevin Millwood, who left a game with shoulder concerns after just two innings last Sunday.

The Central is considered to be the weakest division in the league, but currently four of the six teams are at .500 or better with a fifth, St. Louis, just one game under. Only Pittsburgh is struggling in the early going yet it is 6½ games out of first.

The tightest division is in the N.L. West, where all five teams are separated, amazingly, by two games. The first-place Dodgers, losers of three straight at the start of the week, are just three games over .500, while last-place San Diego is a game below break even and riding a four-game win streak.

The unbalanced schedule is designed to increase the likelihood of tight divisional races into September. Roughly eight of the final 10 series for each N.L. West team will be against divisional foes beginning in late August.

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

Chicago Cubs at St. Louis - These long time rivals meet for the first time this season with the Cubs leading the division. But unlike past Cubs’ teams, it’s been their pitching that has sparked their strong start.

The Cubs have gotten great efforts from Jon Lieber, Kerry Wood, Kevin Tapani and especially Julian Tavarez. Middle and late relief has been solid and Tom Gordon has returned from the disabled list to be the full time closer after Jeff Fassero filled in much better than expected during Gordon’s absence. The Cubs’ offense has struggled, scoring four runs or less in 60 percent of their games.

St. Louis’ concern at the start of the season was their pitching, but it has begun to come around nicely in the past few weeks, especially Matt Morris. Darryl Kile has been solid, Dustin Hermanson has rebounded from a rough first few starts and even Rick Ankiel has shown improvement.

The best play in this series should be the under, especially if the totals are 9 or higher. The Cubs as underdogs are also worth backing, especially since Mark McGwire remains on the DL and absent from the St. Louis lineup.

New York Mets at San Francisco - The Mets defeated the Giants in four games in last fall’s N.L. Divisional Series with two of their three wins coming in extra innings. The Giants won the regular season series 4-3, so these teams were evenly matched last season.

Both teams suffered losses in the off-season and figure to be hard pressed to match last season’s win totals of more than 90 games. The Giants rate the edge on offense with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent packing more punch than the Mets’ Mike Piazza. The Mets would rate the edge in starting pitching but for Al Leiter’s injury that has him on the DL and potentially missing this series. Rick Reed has been solid for the Mets as has Glendon Rusch, except that Rusch has been brilliant at home and has struggled on the road. The Giants should take two of three in the series with the Mets’ best chance if Reed gets a start. The Giants are worth backing when favored by - 130 or less and the over is the preferred totals play, but not at a line of higher than 9.

Oakland at Boston - Boston took two of three in Oakland last weekend as the Athletics continue to struggle, nine games below .500 and trailing by a dozen games in the A.L. West. Boston is tied for the lead in the East despite the season-long absence of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra who is not expected back until the All-Star break.

Boston’s pitching has been the major cause of its success, especially the efforts of Hideo Nomo and youngsters Paxton Crawford and Tomo Ohka. Even veteran Frank Castillo has contributed. The only weak pitcher has been Derek Lowe, last season’s closer. But his duties have been handled by others, including Rod Beck. And, of course, there’s Pedro Martinez.

Much of Oakland’s problems can be attributed to the early-season struggles of starters Tim Hudson and Barry Zito plus the lack of offensive production with several bats from last season, though struggling elsewhere, have clearly disrupted the chemistry displayed by last year’s Athletics.

It’s hard to see Oakland turning things around here, but should Oakland perform well in midweek by taking at least two of three in Toronto, the A’s would be worth backing as underdogs in all three games in Boston. For totals plays we’d look to go over a line of 8 or lower and under a total of 10 or higher.

Texas at Chicago White Sox - Both teams are among the biggest disappointments. Both are well below .500 despite pre-season projections that each would contend for the playoffs. There’s still a lot of season remaining, but both teams have major pitching concerns.

Kenny Rogers is the ”˜ace’ of the Texas staff while David Wells fills a similar roll for Chicago. Both are past their prime and subject to inconsistent efforts. The problems created by poor starting pitching cause too much use of the bullpen early in games, and that repeated use takes its toll later in the season.

The first way to look in this series is to the over, especially if the line is 10½ or lower. Texas has the better offense and can be played as an underdog in the series.