Final month could tell all

Sep 2, 2008 7:03 PM

The 3-2 Pitch by Andy Iskoe | The homestretch. The final lap.

Perhaps even the final frontier.

Refer to it as you will but baseball’s final month has begun. Only eight of 30 teams will make the playoffs with a chance to win the World Series.

With less than 30 games remaining only a handful of teams are in excellent shape insofar as their playoff chances are concerned. The Los Angeles Angels are in the best shape by far of any team. They have a 17-game lead in the American League West and their "magic number" to clinch the division title is just 9. In the NL, the Cubs have the best record in the league.

The Angels are in very good shape, and the Cubs are close.

Clinching too early could be a problem if rust sets in, but manager Mike Scioscia is a smart guy and he’ll parcel out rest to his regulars throughout September.

He should play his regulars for much of the final week to have the Angels game ready and refreshed for the season that counts.

There remain tight races in three divisions as Philadelphia and the New York Mets battle in the NL East, Arizona and the Dodgers in the NL West and Chicago and Minnesota in the AL Central. Those are each two team races where the margins starting this week were less than three games.

The Chicago Cubs are trying to hold off Milwaukee in the NL Central where the Brewers trail by 4½ lengths. The good news for the Brewers is that they currently have a 5½-game lead themselves for the NL Wild Card.

Tampa Bay continues to lead the AL East although it is now just a two team race as the Yankees have fallen a dozen games back. Our preseason prediction that the Yanks’ streak of making the layoffs for 13 straight seasons would end is looking very good. The Yanks are seven games behind Boston in the AL Wild Card race with Minnesota just 2½ behind the BoSox.

Tampa will be challenged over the final month of the season, beginning this week with a series against New York, a weekend series against Toronto and then a series next week in Boston followed by another pair of series against the Yankees and Red Sox.

But the Rays continue to amaze. They begin the week with the best record in baseball and continue to win games late.

The success of Tampa Bay this season may be the most remarkable rise from the ashes to the summit since the 1969 New York Mets, more than a generation ago.

September handicapping can often be hazardous. The rosters expand to 40 players and many of the minor league call ups are given long looks by the parent club, especially by those teams out of contention. Teams that are Playoff bound will also use these call ups to rest several of their regulars in the season’s final couple of weeks.

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

Phillies at Mets: The Mets have won 10 of 15 meetings this season. New York has played the better baseball over the past month and has the better starting pitching. But the Mets have a weak bullpen and so Philly will look to be patient and make the Mets starters labor to get through six innings.

Preferred plays:

Phillies as underdogs in starts by Brett Myers and Cole Hamels.

Mets as underdogs in any matchup.

Under 8 if Hamels or Myers starts against Johan Santana or Mike Pelfrey.

Over 8 in games not started by Hamels, Myers or Santana.

D’backs at Dodgers: Arizona has won 8 of 15 meetings this season but the Dodgers took 2 of 3 last week in Arizona, defeating both Danny Haren and Brandon Webb. Of the 15 games, 10 have gone over the total including each of the last four.

Preferred plays:

D’backs as underdogs.

D’backs -125 or less in starts by Haren, Webb or Randy Johnson.

Dodgers -140 or less against any other Arizona starter.

Dodgers +140 or more against Haren, Webb or Johnson.

Under 7 if Haren, Webb or Johnson face Derek Lowe or Chad Billingsley.

Over 8 if none of these five pitchers start.

Rays at Blue Jays: Tampa has won 11 of 15 meetings and has taken two of three in each of their last three series. The Rays swept the first three-game series. Tampa continues to win in all sorts of ways getting excellent starting and relief pitching and timely hitting, especially late in games.

Preferred plays:

Blue Jays if an underdog.

Blue Jays -125 or less in starts by Roy Halladay or A.J. Burnett.

Rays if an underdog.

Rays -140 against all other Toronto starters.

Under 8 if Halladay or Burnett face Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza or James Shields.

Over 9 if none of these five hurlers is involved.

Angels at White Sox: The Angels have won four of seven meetings this season with each of the last six games staying under the total. The Angels have all but clinched the AL West while the White Sox are involved in a tight race in the Central and Wild Card. The Angels may start to rest some regulars.

Preferred plays:

White Sox as underdogs.

White Sox -125 in any matchup.

Angels +130 underdogs or more in starts by John Lackey, Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana.

Under 8 if Lackey, Saunders or Santana oppose John Danks, Gavin Floyd or Mark Buehrle.

Over 8 or lower if Jered Weaver or Jon Garland starts for the Angels against other than Danks or Floyd.