Look to National League for consistency

June 19, 2001 10:43 AM
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With the NHL and NBA seasons having just ended and pro football training camps about a month away, major league baseball has the sports stage all to itself for the next several weeks.

The first round of interleague games ended last weekend with the American League winning 64 of 126 games. But that apparent slight edge for the junior circuit might be illusory, since the American League played 72 of those games in their home ballparks. Interleague play will now take a two and a half week hiatus before resuming on the weekend prior to the All Star break. During the first half of interleague play, San Francisco benefited most, winning seven of nine games. Cleveland, which had been outstanding in interleague play in previous seasons, had the worst mark, losing seven of nine games.

Seattle continues to be the biggest story in baseball almost halfway into the season. At 52-15 the Mariners are winning more than three games in four and have a commanding 19-game lead over Anaheim in the AL West. That’s not a typo. That’s more than the sum of the leads by the other five division leaders combined!

Although there are more than 90 games remaining, it appears that just five teams will be in contention for the playoffs in the American League. Minnesota, Cleveland, Boston and the New York Yankees are the other four contenders. The Yankees are the team on the outside, trailing first place Boston by a pair of games in the East and Minnesota by two and a half games in the Wild Card Race. These five are the only teams in the American League with winning records. The sixth-best team, Anaheim, lags five games behind the Yanks.

As has been the case all season, the National League is more compelling almost halfway into the season. Although gaps are developing in two of three divisions, there are enough teams within reasonable distance of the lead to conclude that much will not be decided until September. Eleven of the League’s 16 teams are at .500 or better and the margin between the team with the best record in the NL, Chicago, and the pair of teams exactly at .500 is just eight games.

Philadelphia’s once healthy lead in the East has shrunk to just three games over Atlanta. The Braves have begun to hit and the Philly pitchers have started to struggle. Note that Florida is just five games out of the lead as its capable starting pitching has kept them in most games. The Marlins are surely a longshot but they are just within a 7-3 stretch of being right near the division lead.

The Chicago Cubs have opened a six game lead over St. Louis with both Milwaukee and Houston just a couple of games further back. What makes baseball’s only six-team division so interesting is the unbalanced schedule, where clubs will be able to knock off one another and the trailers will have more opportunities to make up ground on the leaders.

Arizona has a five game lead over Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West with Colorado just a half game further back. The D’backs’ tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling gives them perhaps the two best pitchers in the National League. The Giants figure to remain a serious contender as their pitching tends to improve as the season wears on, and Dusty Baker is acknowledged as one of the game’s best managers. The Dodgers have to overcome some serious injury concerns with starting pitcher Andy Ashby out for the remainder of the season and staff ace Kevin Brown on the DL for an uncertain amount of time. Previously two of Los Angeles’ big bats, Gary Sheffield and Eric Karros, have missed time while on the DL.

Here’s a look at some of this weekend’s more attractive series.

Atlanta at NY Mets - Although it looks bleak, if the Mets are going to be a factor in the NL East race, they need to win at least two of the three games this weekend. Atlanta has shown signs recently that they shall be in their customary contender role. With the starting pitching of Philadelphia showing major weaknesses over the past few weeks, it would not be surprising if Atlanta claimed the division lead by the All Star break. The Braves have concerns of their own in their rotation with both Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz on the DL and Tom Glavine continuing to suffer from unusually poor control. On the other hand, both John Burkett and Odalis Perez have been pleasant surprises, while Greg Maddux continues to be one of the most dependable starters in the game. Rick Reed has been the Mets’ most effective starter, although Al Leiter has been sharp since his return from the DL, and Kevin Appier has been very sharp in his last half dozen outings. In this series the first look will be to the under if the line comes in at eight or higher. The Mets are worth a look as an underdog with Reed, Leiter or Appier on the mound although we’d need to get at least +125 with Appier. Should the Braves be an unlikely underdog with Burkett or Perez they would be the choice in such games.

Arizona at Colorado - Colorado swept their series in Cincinnati last weekend and have a chance to gain ground on division-leading Arizona in this series. Arizona has an outstanding pair of starters in Johnson and Schilling, while Mike Hampton has been very solid as the Rockies’ top hurler. Hampton has even contributed at the plate, slugging five home runs this season. Although its always dangerous to play the under in games at Coors Field, that would be the first way to look when any of these three pitchers get the start provided the line is no lower than 12. In other matchups the over would be the preferred option at a line of 14½ or lower. Colorado’s Todd Helton has regained his form after a sluggish start. Colorado does have the better overall offense statistically than Arizona, although some of that edge is due to their home field. In games in which Johnson, Schilling and Hampton are not involved, the preferred side will be on the underdog.

Toronto at Boston - After contending for the lead in the AL East into early May, Toronto has struggled the past month and now trails Boston by eight and a half games at the start of the week. They are below .500 at home. Their once-potent offense has been inconsistent with Carlos Delgado hitting well below .300 and Tony Batista lagging behind his power output of last season. Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart are having good seasons but it seems as though all four of these hitters are not swinging well at the same time. Boston remains a surprising division leader considering they’ve been without Nomar Garciaparra all season. Pedro Martinez has been the dominant pitcher we’ve come to expect of him although he’s been bothered by injuries that forced him to miss a start last week. The BoSox have gotten better than expected seasons from Frank Castillo and Hideo Nomo and even David Cone is pitching better with each start. Boston’s edge in this series is in their starting pitching and their bullpen. At totals of nine or higher the under is worth a look. Toronto’s best chance as an underdog would be when Chris Carpenter or Chris Michalak get the start. The Jays have won nine of Carpenter’s 14 starts - the only pitcher behind whom the Jays have a winning record. Michalak is Toronto’s only starter allowing fewer hits than innings pitched and has the starting staff’s best ERA.

Anaheim at Seattle - If Anaheim is going to make any move in the AL West they will have to start here by taking at least two games. Although they currently trail the Mariners by 19 games and one below .500, the Angels have a potentially potent lineup and a young starting pitching staff that continues to improve. Catching Seattle is probably a very unrealistic goal, but Anaheim has a strong upside for the rest of the season. Ramon Ortiz and Scott Schoeneweis have been the best starters although the rest of the regular rotation have pitched surprisingly well. The worst ERA among the five regular starters is just 4.55 - not all that bad considering the weakness of most number four and five starters. In fact, a pair of Seattle starters, Jamie Moyer and John Halama, have worse ERAs. Seattle has received solid overall pitching especially from the bullpen and they’ve gotten consistent and timely hitting. The Angels have enough balance between power and average to be worth a play throughout this series and can win at least two games. Neither team has what could be considered an ”˜ace’ starter and Seattle finally lost a game last weekend when Aaron Sele started. The M’s had won Sele’s first 13 starts this season. No preference is given for a play on the total although the under would be the first option at a line of 10 or higher and the over is worth a look at eight and a half or lower. Most likely the games will carry lines of nine or nine and a half.