Surprises continue this year in baseball

May 22, 2001 10:52 AM

The concluding comments in last week’s column prior to previewing the weekend focused upon a pair of potential MVP candidates in each league.

During the past week Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki has done little to diminish his status as a legitimate American League candidate (along with Boston’s Manny Ramirez) despite the end of his 23-game-hitting streak. He begins this week having at least one hit in all but three of his team’s games this season.

An early case in the National League was made for Los Angeles’ Gary Sheffield. But after last weekend’s awesome display of power in Atlanta, there is a new front-runner in the senior circuit.

San Francisco’s Barry Bonds smashed six home runs in a three-game series against the Braves that vaulted him to 13th place all-time on the home run list. It’s hard to argue against Bonds being the best offensive player over the past quarter century, and his future Hall of Fame status has already been cemented with three previous MVP awards. Bonds begins this week with 22 home runs and is on a pace to shatter Mark McGwire’s record of 70 home runs set just a few seasons ago. Breaking the record is a long shot, but Bonds certainly has the credentials to give it a good run if he stays healthy.

Not much has changed atop the American League leader boards where the same six teams continue to distance themselves from the competition.

In the East, Boston holds a slim ½-game lead over the Yankees heading into their midweek three game series at Yankee Stadium, with Toronto just three games out. Minnesota leads Cleveland by that same ½-game in the Central.

Seattle has opened up an 11-game lead over Oakland in the West. The Athletics have started to play better, winning eight of 10 entering the week, and with three quarters of the season remaining, they can still make a run.

But they’ll need Seattle to suffer a slump and for either Cleveland or Minnesota to cool down. The unbalanced schedule will help Oakland battle Seattle and also help in the wild card battle since the Twins and Indians will face each other more often.

Balance remains the buzzword in the National League with only Philadelphia having more than a 1-game divisional lead. The Phillies lead Atlanta and Florida in the East. The Braves have started to hit the ball more of late while their starting pitching has struggled.

The Marlins have a fine young pitching staff and enough offense to be a difficult team to put away early in games. They will likely fade but have a chance to be a wild card contender into August.

St. Louis holds a 1-game lead over Houston in the Central, with Chicago and Milwaukee just two and half games out.

But the situation in the West is interesting. The five teams are separated by just 2½ games with more than one quarter of the season complete. The Dodgers are in first despite being just four games over break even while last place Colorado is a game below .500.

The West is the division of mediocrity but also the division in which all teams are contending. San Diego is the most likely of the five to be the first to fade, but manager Bruce Bochy has shown in the past he’s an above average skipper with two division titles and one World Series appearance in his six seasons of leading the Padres.

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

Milwaukee at Chicago Cubs - After leading the division for a good part of the early season, an eight-game losing streak moved the Cubs behind St. Louis. Chicago did win the final two games of their weekend series against Arizona and host Cincinnati during the week.

Milwaukee has performed better than expected given the questionable status of its starting pitching entering the season. It was dealt a blow when "ace" Jeff D’Amico was injured and is on the disabled list.

This series is an interesting contrast with Chicago’s strength being its pitching and Milwaukee’s strength is its offense. The Brewers’ got both Mark Loretta and Geoff Jenkins back in their lineup last weekend.

Playing totals at Wrigley Field are dependent on the winds off of Lake Michigan. On the surface this would appear to be a high-scoring season, with totals in the range of nine to 10 as the over (this range is pretty much wind-neutral). For side plays look to playing Milwaukee if they are an underdog of at least +125 or the Cubs when laying no more than -110.

Colorado at San Francisco - Colorado continues to display a strong offensive dichotomy with a significant decline in its production when leaving Coors Field. Todd Helton has started to heat up and Larry Walker is having another fine season. At the same time, the Rockies have above average pitching with newcomers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle enjoying early season success.

The Giants have been fueled by Barry Bonds and a pitching staff that is average. There is no "ace" on San Francisco’s staff although Russ Ortiz seems to be emerging as one. Yet only the injury to Shawn Estes has made the fifth spot in the rotation a cause for concern. Jeff Kent is off to a slow start following his MVP season of 2000.

The most likely games to go under would be in starts by Ortiz, Hampton and Neagle and we’d back their teams to win if not laying more than -130. Eight of Kirk Rueter’s nine starts had gone over the total prior to Monday’s game against Arizona.

New York Yankees at Cleveland - The Yankees continue to struggle against winning teams although they did take two of three in Seattle last weekend. Cleveland continues to hammer the ball and has gotten above average starting pitching.

Both teams are in contention in their divisions, although the Indians have the significantly better record.

New York has struggled on offense as Bernie Williams has been off to a slow start. Derek Jeter is starting to round into form and the Yankee bats are capable of exploding at any time.

This should be a high scoring series and the over would be the first way to look, especially at a total of 10 or less. Cleveland’s Chuck Finley has always had success against New York and would be worth backing if not too heavily favored.

The Yankees’ Roger Clemens is worth backing in this series as well. Otherwise the underdog is worth playing if getting at least +120 in what should be a high-energy series.

Oakland at Minnesota - Last season’s surprise team was Oakland while Minnesota has been the surprise this season. The Twins have played outstanding ball all season, relying on a solid defense and strong starting pitching.

Oakland has only recently started to play like the team that took the champion Yankees deep into the playoffs last season. The A’s have ground to make up, but a good effort in this series would help them in the wild-card race, even though such talk is way premature.

Oakland’s Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson have put together good back-to-back efforts while the Twins’ Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays have been solid all season (despite Milton being roughed up in Baltimore last weekend).

Any match-up involving these five pitchers present the best chance for an under in the series. Games involving a pair of other pitchers would be the most likely games to go over, including a start by Oakland’s Barry Zito who has struggled thus far.

Oakland should be an attractively priced underdog against either Radke or Milton and would be worth backing if getting at least +140. Despite its fine play, Minnesota is best backed when an underdog or when favored by no more than -125.