Time to separate contenders from pretenders

July 10, 2001 4:41 AM
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Baseball’s All Star break signifies more than just a dividing point in the long 162-game schedule. It also means that Las Vegas’ ”˜bread and butter’ ”” the football season ”” is just a matter of weeks away.

Traffic in sports books will pick up as the NFL preseason begins in just three weeks, beginning a six-month frenzy of daily activity across the city and throughout the state. But there’s still a lot baseball to be played and much remains to be decided. Let’s take a look at how things stand at midseason and handicap how things might unfold.

Currently baseball’s division leaders are the New York Yankees, Minnesota and Seattle in the American League and Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and Arizona in the National. The leaders in the Wild Card race are Boston by a game over Cleveland in the AL and Atlanta by a half game over Houston in the NL.

Only Seattle, in the AL West, has what can be considered an insurmountable lead in any of the divisions. The Mariners are on track to win 117 games, a pace that is likely to slow down over the next two and a half months but not slow down enough to prevent the M’s from winning the West by 10-15 games.

The remaining five divisions are all being contested to varying degrees with the East in each league providing the closest races. Philadelphia leads Atlanta by just one game in the NL and the Yankees lead Boston by a game and a half in the AL. The other three divisions are almost as tight with Houston trailing the Cubs by just three games in the NL Central, the Dodgers trailing Arizona by three and a half games in the NL West and Cleveland trailing Minnesota by five games in the AL Central.

Realistically, contending teams should be within six games of the lead in either Divisional or Wild Card races. Yet even with about 75 games remaining, a 10-game deficit is not impossible to overcome. The difficulty overcoming a 10-game deficit is the number of teams between that double-digit trailer and the team in the lead.

Using that parameter only Boston and Cleveland are within 10 games of their division leads in the AL, while Atlanta, Florida, Houston, St Louis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all 10 games or less from the NL division leads. The field of playoff candidates is much narrower in the AL.

Using the same criterion in evaluating contenders for the Wild Card, AL challengers to Boston and Cleveland would include Toronto, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and Anaheim. Oakland, best of this group, trails Boston by seven games. In the NL, the challengers to current Wild Card leader Atlanta would include the six teams named above plus San Diego and Colorado, who trail the Braves by eight and a half and 10 games respectively.

Turning first to the AL, Seattle is virtually assured of making the postseason and might set a record for the earliest clinching of a postseason berth. The Yankees have to be considered a solid favorite to make the postseason based on their strong starting rotation of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.

The Minnesota Twins shows no signs of fading in the AL Central and, despite their inexperience, have rallied nicely after suffering through mini-slumps. Again, a solid rotation is the key with Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays all enjoying good seasons. With every passing week, it appears that Minnesota will be able to hold off Cleveland. The Indians have some of the weakest starting pitching in baseball. Thus, it may come down to Cleveland and Boston for the AL Wild Card with Oakland the most likely challenger.

The Athletics have a real shot for several reasons. Oakland owns the finest overall starting rotation with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder all in top form. Also the offense, which has struggled all season, is coming alive. Johnny Damon, among the game’s best players over the second half of 2000, is heating up after enduring a miserable start. Oakland also staged a great run to win the AL West last season. Through the same number of games last year, the A’s were just four games better going to the All Star break. Boston would be the choice if healthier, but the nod here goes to Oakland to gain the Wild Card.

National League Race:

Atlanta should overtake Philadelphia and win the NL East by at least six games. The Braves have advantages in most phases of the game, most importantly experience. The NL Central should be a good race deep into September, but Houston gets the nod on the strength of a solid trio of starting pitchers. Shane Reynolds, Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt are all displaying fine form and complementing what has been an explosive offense the past month.

Unheralded Lance Berkman, a legitimate MVP candidate, is having an outstanding season. With the recent home run drought of Barry Bonds, both Berkman and Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez have entered the picture as the leading contenders for NL honors. Arizona’s strength in the West is found in the outstanding starting duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. If both remain healthy the Diamondbacks will win the West. If either one is injured and has to miss more than three starts, Arizona’s lack of depth would likely cause them to rapidly fade and miss the playoffs.

San Francisco appears most capable of challenging Arizona. The Los Angeles Dodgers could make it a three-team race if any of their young pitchers can fill the voids created by the season-ending injuries to Andy Ashby and Darren Dreifort. The edge here goes to Arizona to win the NL West. The Wild Card should come down to five teams ”” Philadelphia, the Cubs, St Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Giants have the best combination of balance and experience to rate the edge over St Louis.

Here’s a look at a pair of series in each of the Thursday/Saturday and Sunday/Tuesday concluding segments of interleague play. Note that the All Star break usually allows managers to rework their starting rotation for the second half of the season. In many cases a team’s top two or three pitchers will start games in the first series following the All Star interlude.

Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs ”” The White Sox took two of three when the teams met on the south side last month with two going into extra innings. The Cubs have gotten solid pitching all season, something that has plagued the Sox. Neither team has been consistently potent on offense although the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa is having a very good season. The preferred way to play the series would be ”˜under’ although wind conditions always impact the posted totals. The Cubs are worth backing to win when $1.30 favorites or less, but we are unlikely to see such a generous line when the top of the rotation starts. Mark Buehrle, the one White Sox starter worth backing, should be an underdog against either Jon Lieber or Kerry Wood. If the totals are no higher than 10, the under should also be considered.

Los Angeles at Oakland ”” No team had better starting pitching entering the All Star break than Oakland. The A’s swept three games at Arizona in which the starters struck out 25 batters and walked none in 24 innings. Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito combined for a stellar 0.75 ERA. Oakland has momentum entering the second half and will be a dangerous foe. The Dodgers are likely to start Kevin Brown and Chan Ho Park in this series. Any combination involving these five pitchers is ripe for an ”˜under’ play if the line is eight or higher. Oakland is worth a side play when favored by no more than $1.40, which might be the case against both Brown and Park.