Inter-league play stimulates sluggish season

Jun 5, 2001 7:11 AM

Baseball’s All Star break is about a month away, and with it comes the half-point way of the season. But as an appetizer to the All Star break is the start of interleague play. Since being introduced several seasons ago, interleague play has been met with mixed reviews. Longtime fans, especially those in cities with teams in each league, finally have had a chance to see which of their hometown teams could claim bragging rights, at least for a season. Rivalries such as Yankees-Mets, Athletics-Giants, White Sox-Cubs, amongst others, finally get to be played out on the field. The concept has infused some much needed energy into a sport that needed to take major measures to regain fan interest following the 1994 labor dispute. Interleague play has certainly done that.

Not much has changed in the pennant races as the one-third mark of the season has passed. Whereas several teams have started to play much better baseball in recent weeks, in the American League, at least, it may not mean much. Five teams remain well ahead of the rest of the league in the battle for four Playoff spots. With two thirds of the season remaining, it will be difficult for the remaining nine AL teams to catch Seattle, Minnesota, Cleveland, Boston and the Yankees. Seattle has all but wrapped up the AL West as they begin the week a staggering 31 games above .500! Both Cleveland and Minnesota are playing at a not-quite-as-torrid pace in the AL Central but the second place team in that division has a nice hold on the AL Wild Card. The team that could be left out is the second place team in the AL East. Boston and the Yankees have created some distance between themselves. At the current pace the second place team in the division will trail the AL Central runner up by a decent margin.

Things are not quite as clear cut in the National League, although Philadelphia continues to lead the East with the league’s best record. The major question for the Phils is how long their pitching, especially their starting pitching, can hold up. Atlanta has started to play much better of late, especially on offense, and the experience of the Braves should make the NL East competitive later this summer. Don’t expect too much from the Mets, however. The Cubs continue to play streaky baseball, following an eight game losing streak with a 12 game winning streak. Three other teams in the division, Milwaukee, Houston and favored St. Louis, figure to battle things out all summer with Milwaukee perhaps the first of the four to fall back. The Cubs have been getting solid starting pitching from guys who are more proven than those on the Philly staff. Unlike their Eastern compadres, the Cubs might hang around to challenge both the Cardinals and the Astros well into August and beyond. Out West, Arizona and Los Angeles have opened a bit of a gap between themselves and the other three teams in the division, with San Francisco the most likely of the three to remain a viable contender. Colorado continues to struggle with their offense on the road and San Diego has too many deficiencies to overtake their more talented divisional foes.

Here’s a look at three interleague series to be played this weekend plus the lone National League series which should be very entertaining as well.

St. Louis at Colorado - The lone National League series figures to have a lot of offense at Coors Field and the obvious first choice would be to look to the over in all match-ups if not being asked to go over a total higher than 14. Big Mac, Mark McGwire, is back in the St. Louis lineup, if only on alternating days for the time being. But his presence strengthens an already potent attack featuring Jim Edmonds and rookie sensation Albert Pujols. Colorado has their share of talent with Larry and Todd Walker plus Todd Helton, so we could be treated to an offensive treat in this series. The Cardinals have the better of the pitching and would be worth a look when made the underdog, even against Mike Hampton. But beware of Darryl Kile if he starts for St. Louis. He has nothing but nightmares from his days as a Rockie and, in fact, was rocked when he returned to Colorado with the Cardinals in the opening series of this season, a series in which the host Rockies took all three games.

Atlanta at New York Yankees - The two best teams of the 1990’s square off at Yankee stadium and the Yankees have been steady though unspectacular all season. They’ve finally shown they can beat winning teams in recent weeks after feasting on the AL bottom feeders for most of the first six weeks. Atlanta has only recently started to swing better bats and it’s only a matter of time before Andruw and Chipper Jones, Javey Lopez and the other slow starters start to pound the ball regularly. Perhaps we saw the start of that last weekend in Pittsburgh. This might be a higher scoring series than the roster of marquee starting pitchers might at first suggest. Certainly any total under eight would be worth going over and even a total as high as eight-and-a-half is worth considering when anyone other than Greg Maddux starts for Atlanta. As is often the case, the underdog is worth playing if priced at +125 or better and the anticipation is that Atlanta will be such an underdog should they face Roger Clemens or Mike Mussina.

Philadelphia at Boston - This match-up is most interesting this season given the hot start being enjoyed by the Phillies. They will be tested here, however, especially since Boston is playing so well, having swept a four game road series in Toronto last weekend. As mentioned earlier, the chief concern for Philly backers is their rotation and how long pitchers such as Omar Daal, Randy Wolf and Bruce Chen can pitch as effectively as they have thus far. Boston’s Manny Ramirez is swinging a hot bat and should challenge the Philly pitchers in this series. Only if we can get at least +140 would we consider the Phillies as a side play. Except against Pedro. Martinez will be too heavily priced a favorite to back but whoever gets the starting assignment for Philly might just be a bit intimidated by the match-up. If anything, the under is worth considering when Pedro takes the hill as long as the total is no lower than seven-and-a-half.

San Francisco at Oakland - The Battle of the Bay is renewed this weekend. In this series Oakland’s combo of Tim Hudson and Mike Mulder are the only ones worth considering as far as a side play is concerned, but only if they are laying no more than -140. In all other games the Giants would be considered for play.