Contenders & pretenders are being separated

May 15, 2001 9:28 AM

The baseball season is rapidly approaching the one-quarter point, with most teams having played 40 games by this weekend.

Although it is still early in the season the pennant races in each division are clearly taking shape.

Teams that have gotten off to strong starts are beginning to show they are for real. Struggling teams, that have had a chance to either play themselves back into contention or have woes, continue on.

Of the eight teams who made the postseason last year, half of them will finish the first quarter of the season with losing records.

Both representatives from the National League East, Atlanta and the New York Mets, have yet to get rolling.

The Mets are in last place and begin the week 8½ games out of the lead. Atlanta is four games below .500 as they struggle on offense. They have scored a meager three runs or less in 22 of their first 38 games.

Even outstanding starting pitching will find it difficult to overcome a severe offensive outage. And now there are questions about Atlanta’s rotation, with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux struggling in recent starts.

In the American League, Oakland and the Chicago White Sox have picked up their level of plays in recent weeks, yet each remain seven games below break even as the week begins. The White Sox were dealt a blow last week. Frank Thomas will be lost for the season along with starting pitcher Jim Parque. For Oakland, the problem has been the inability of Tim Hudson and Barry Zito to follow up last year’s performances.

Three of last season’s postseason participants, San Francisco, St. Louis and the New York Yankees, have played better over the past couple of weeks after struggling in April.

St. Louis begins the week on a seven-game winning streak that has seen the Cardinals take over first place in the N.L. Central. San Francisco is a half-game behind Los Angeles in the N.L. West. The Yankees trail Boston by just a half game in the A.L. East. The Yankees however, continue to struggle when playing winning teams. Their loss to Baltimore last Sunday was their first loss to a sub-.500 team in 16 games this season. But against teams with winning records the three time defending World Series champs are 7-15.

Seattle is the only team that has been consistently strong this season. The Mariners begin the week with baseball’s best record at 28-9. The M’s have opened up an 11-game lead in the A.L. West and, remarkably, won 17-of-21 away from home.

How about early candidates for league MVPs? Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki has already had a pair of double-digit hitting streaks in his initial season. The Dodgers’ Gary Sheffield has had three-game winning home runs in 1-0 wins, including, a leadoff ninth-inning home run against Atlanta last Saturday night. It’s still early to be thinking about postseason awards, but these quick starts should not be overlooked once September arrives.

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

St. Louis at Philadelphia - Philadelphia has been in front most of the season. The Cardinals have used a seven-game winning streak to supplant the Cubs atop the N.L. Central. Philadelphia has used solid starting pitching from a rotation of Robert Person, Omar Daal, Bruce Chen, Randy Wolf and Amaury Telemaco to overcome a struggling offense.

Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu are off to slow starts. The Phils have benefited from poor starts by division rivals New York and Atlanta.

St. Louis has seen its starting pitching come around at the same time the bats have, even with Mark McGwire on the disabled list. Matt Morris was lit up in his first start of the season in Colorado but since then he’s been brilliant.

Look to back Morris in this series if favored by no more than -130. Darryl Kile and Dustin Hermanson have also pitched well of late. When any of those three go for the Cards, the under is the way to look for the total.

Philly’s best chance will be when Andy Benes takes the mound for the Cardinals. That presents the best chance for an over.

San Francisco at Atlanta - Both teams won division titles last season, but Atlanta has struggled through the first quarter. San Francisco has played much better in recent weeks and seem poised to make another run at the N.L. West title. Atlanta’s problems have largely been on offense where only Chipper Jones has been consistently productive. But its starting rotation has also been shaky. John Burkett has been their most effective starter, especially since Greg Maddux has been less than sharp in recent efforts.

The Giants have gotten steady though unspectacular starting pitching. Robb Nen is one of the game’s top closers. Barry Bonds has been hitting for power but not average, while last season’s MVP, Jeff Kent, is off to a slow start. The Giants should be worth backing as an underdog in this series. The under is also the preferred play provided the total is no lower than nine.

Toronto at Texas - Toronto began the season crushing the ball, and getting strong starting pitching. But both aspects of its game have fallen off since May began.

The Jays begin the week just a game over .500 after dropping eight of their last 10 games. Carlos Delgado, Shannon Stewart and Raul Mondesi have cooled. The pitching has also struggled.

Texas has played poorly all season. The managerial change from Johnny Oates to Jerry Naron has had little positive impact. The Rangers have lost eight of 10 beginning the week.

The culprit has largely been poor pitching. Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro have provided power, but Texas has suffered from a lack of timely hitting. The way to look at this series would be to the over, even at a line as high as 11. There is no true "ace" on either staff. Both teams have similar offenses and similarly struggled on the mound. Any underdog at least +125 is worth taking in this series.

New York Yankees at Seattle - Seattle swept a three game series in New York a few weeks ago, defeating Yankee aces Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina.

Seattle scored seven runs in each of the three games. This is a challenge for the Yankees, who’ve played poorly against winning teams this season.

Seattle is the way to look in this series. Especially when made the underdog. The linesmaker might make somewhat of an adjustment following Seattle’s earlier success, but the Yankees were solid -150 to -170 home favorites in that earlier series.

The under is still preferred as the total play provided the line is no lower than nine. This trip to Oakland and Seattle may go far in determining whether the Yankees will be able to turn it on. Right now, it appears as though a struggle is likely this season.