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Only Angels up big

Aug 26, 2008 6:58 PM

The 3-2 Pitch by Andy Iskoe | Baseball has barely more than a month remaining before the playoffs start. As is usually the case there will be some down-to-the-wire races for either division titles or Wild Card berths.

The two most contentious divisional races are in the National League East where the New York Mets begin the week with a slim half-game lead over Philadelphia. That is the same margin by which Chicago’s White Sox lead Minnesota in the American League Central.

Arizona has extended to a three-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. To a lesser extent there are still races in the AL East (where Tampa Bay leads Boston by 4½ and in the NL Central (where Milwaukee has closed to within 4½ of the Chicago Cubs.

The AL West race has seemingly been over for months as the Los Angeles Angels hold a commanding 17-game lead over Texas. The Angels still have the best road record in baseball (40-25) and are one of only four teams with winning road records. Philadelphia, Milwaukee and St. Louis are the other three.

The ability to win on the road is a key to success in the playoffs. Division leaders Tampa Bay and the Cubs are exactly .500 on the road. The rest are below .500.

Tampa Bay and the Angels are tied for the best record in the AL at 79-50, while the Cubs (with one extra win at 80-50) have the best mark in the senior circuit. Home field can be a significant edge once the postseason starts for both the Cubs and Rays. Both are just .500 on the road yet each has outstanding marks when sleeping in their own beds.

The realistic Wild Card field is slimming down as just three teams in each league are within five games of the lead. In the AL, Boston holds a one-game lead over Minnesota with the Yankees five games back. The Yanks host the Red Sox for three games this week beginning Tuesday. In the NL, Milwaukee is 3½ ahead of St. Louis with the Phillies a game further back.

Here’s a look at four key series this weekend before the major league rosters expand from 25 to 40 players on Sept. 1:

Phillies at Cubs: This four-game series begins Thursday. The Phillies and Cubs have had some wild and wacky games at Wrigley Field. In the first meeting back in April, the Cubs won 2 of 3. Both Cubs wins went under. The Cubs have an edge in overall pitching while the offenses are pretty even.

Preferred plays:

• Phillies +150 or more against Chicago’s Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden or Carlos Zambrano.

Phillies as underdogs with Cole Hamels.

Under 9 or higher if Dempster, Harden or Zambrano oppose Hamels or Brett Myers.

Over 10 or lower if none of these pitchers start.

Mets at Marlins: The Mets have won 7 of 12 against the Marlins this season with the teams splitting six in South Florida. The over is 8-2-2. The Mets have played well over the past month as their talent is finally playing up to potential. The Marlins have started to fade.

Preferred plays:

Marlins +150 or more against Johan Santana or Pedro Martinez.

Marlins as underdogs with Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson or Chris Volstad.

Under 8 or higher if Santana or Martinez oppose Nolasco, Johnson or Volstad.

Over 9 or lower if none of these pitchers start.

Blue Jays at Yanks: The teams have split their 12 prior meetings this season with the over at 8-4. Toronto has the better overall pitching, while New York has the edge in offense, although it has largely been feast or famine. The Yanks have scored two runs or less 39 times, yet scoring at least 8 runs 27 times.

Preferred plays:

Blue Jays as underdogs or -125 favorites with Roy Halladay.

Blue Jays +125 with AJ Burnett or Jesse Litsch.

Under 9 or higher if Halladay, Burnett or Litsch oppose Mike Mussina or Andy Pettitte.

Over 9 or lower if Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner or Carl Pavano don’t face Halladay, Burnett or Litsch.

White Sox at Red Sox: The teams split four games in Chicago earlier this month. Boston is banged up with pitchers Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield injured and J.D. Drew nursing an injury that may land him on the DL. Boston is 43-18 at home and the White Sox are just 28-34 on the road – the worst away mark among AL teams in playoff contention.

Preferred plays:

White Sox +140 in starts by Mark Buehrle, John Danks or Javier Vazquez.

Red Sox -150 or less against other Chicago starters.

Over 8 or lower in any pitching matchup.