Matchups with No. 5 starters can be brutal

Jul 17, 2001 7:00 AM

   The days for decisions dwindle to a precious few as baseball’s trading deadline arrives in two weeks. This season should see a typical flurry of moves as July turns into August and the contenders seek to strengthen their rosters while the pretenders slash payroll and look to the future.

   The group of contenders clearly includes the six division leaders and those teams within a half dozen games of either the division lead or the Wild Card lead. Using this guideline half of baseball’s 30 teams harbor realistic Playoff hopes ”” six in the American League (the Yankees, Boston, Minnesota, Cleveland, Seattle and Oakland) and nine in the National (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Florida, Chicago, Houston, St Louis, Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco). These teams figure to be in the market for adding a player or two, most likely and additional starting pitcher or reliever, to bolster their chances for the final two months.

   Then we have seven teams that really must decide if they can make up close to 10 games over the balance of the season. With roughly 70 games remaining that would mean a pace of picking up a game a week in the standings and also passing by other teams in contention. This group of teams includes Toronto, the Chicago White Sox and Anaheim in the AL and the Mets, Milwaukee, San Diego and Colorado in the NL. It would not be surprising if at least one team in this group makes a strong run at making up that double digit deficit only to fall short but each of these teams must decide if the are willing to pay the price for a run at contention by adding players or whether they will concede the 2001 season by selling or trading players with an eye towards 2002. Most of these teams have much to offer in terms of quality and ­­experience.

   Last week mention was made of the unusually scheduling quirk created by the All Star break in which the first couple of series following the break were played from Thursday through Saturday and Sunday through Tuesday. The All Star break also created the necessity of scheduling two game series this week on Wednesday and Thursday following the conclusion of Interleague play before enabling the standard Friday through Sunday (or in some cases Monday) scheduling to resume. But there was an even greater impact created by such scheduling. Barring rainouts, every team will have played for at least 11 straight days coming out of the All Star break and running through this coming Sunday. All but six of the teams will play an additional three straight days as well. Starting pitching rotations and especially bullpens will be sorely taxed during this stretch and many managers will rest some of their lineup players. This makes for some very unattractive and occasionally downright ugly matchups as several games during these two weeks will feature matchups of number five starters and may also feature starts by pitchers with limited or perhaps no major league experience.

   The first four days of action following the All Star break produced 23 overs, 34 unders and three pushes. Normally we can expect the results to level off and for there to be a few more overs during the next few days. Keep an eye on what happened this past Monday when mostly the number five starters were in action. Because of the long stretch of continuous activity that will span almost two full weeks, those number five starters, usually the ones with the poorest performances or the least experience ”” or both ”” can be expected to start again this Saturday and then again, for many clubs, next Thursday. We may have the opportunity for some over plays based on the combination of weak starters and bullpen fatigue.

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

   Chicago Cubs at Houston ”” This key four game series could legitimize the Cubs as favorites to win the NL Central or might enable the second place Astros to overtake Chicago for the division lead. The Cubs have ascended to first place on the strength of solid starting pitching throughout the rotation. Houston has remained in contention largely due to their offense which has been paced by Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Houston’s most effective starting pitchers have been youngsters Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller while veteran Shane Reynolds has been more consistent over the past two months than when he began the season following his time on the DL. At presstime there has been no ”˜final’ decision by Tampa Bay’s Fred McGriff concerning his waiver of a no trade clause to accept a trade to the Cubs. His presence would give Chicago much needed pop in the offense and Sammy Sosa might be the major beneficiary. Oswalt and Miller are the two Houston pitchers worth backing as favorites in this series provided the line is no higher than minus $1.35. Otherwise the Cubs are worth considering for play as underdogs. Additionally, look to play the under in games when Oswalt, Miller and Reynolds start for Houston provided the total is no lower than 10½.

   Arizona at San Francisco ”” It was at about this time last season that the Giants were on the verge of overtaking Arizona in the NL West, a lead they would hold from the first of August through the end of the season. San Francisco begins this week five and a half games behind Arizona so they’ll have a chance to repeat history as these teams will meet seven times in 10 days. The Giants have been much better at home than on the road this season so any run that they might make should begin here. They may escape having to face Curt Schilling but Randy Johnson should get the start on Friday. San Francisco will be worth a play as a sizable underdog in this game that should set the tone for perhaps the entire seven games. Arizona’s Brian Anderson is worth backing as an underdog if he gets the start on Sunday. Barry Bonds enters this week in a slump that has seen him homer just once in the past three weeks. Arizona has been in a prolonged hitting slump as well, scoring one run or less in five of seven games entering this week. San Francisco’s overall starting pitching has been pretty average and given the below average form of both teams’ offenses of late, the under may be the preferred play throughout this series, especially when the line is nine or higher.

   Toronto at New York Yankees ”” Toronto is on the verge of realistic playoff elimination and will be one of the decision makers in the next two weeks. They are essentially 10 games out of the AL East lead and the Wild Card race and while such a deficit can be made up over the season’s remaining 10 weeks, this series may well determine the Blue Jays’ fate. The Yankees have struggled in the first few days following the All Star break with their pitching the main culprit, allowing 33 runs in four games. Toronto has three solid hitters in Shannon Stewart, Carlos Delgado and Raul Mondesi that make them worth backing as underdogs in this series. Chris Carpenter has pitched fairly well for Toronto over the past month or so and they’ve also gotten some decent recent efforts from both Steve Parris and Joey Hamilton, both of who could be traded by the deadline. The Yankees are clearly vulnerable and although the expectation is that they will prevail in the AL East the events of last week suggest that New York is in the midst of a mild slump. We’ll back Toronto to take at least two of the four games in this series that concludes on Monday.

   Seattle at Minnesota ”” Surprisingly, the teams with the two best records in all of baseball meet in the weekend’s most attractive series. Seattle and Minnesota are the only teams playing better than .600 baseball and this could be a preview of the AL Championship series in October. Minnesota has relied on three quality starters, Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays and am improving offense to begin this week 23 games over .500 and with a five game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central. But Seattle is an incredible 41 games over the break even mark and lead second place Oakland by a mind numbing 19 games in the AL West. The Mariners remain on pace to win 117 games, a pace mentioned last week as unlikely to be maintained. Seattle has gotten steady starting pitching, outstanding work in the bullpen and timely hitting up and down the lineup.

   This four game series figures to be tightly played and managed and consequently the preferred plays will be the Underdog and the under. Each game should be competitively priced regardless of the starting pitching matchup because of the overall performances of both teams. Minnesota’s outstanding 33-14 home record is surpassed by Seattle’s amazing 35-12 record on the road. This should be a series to be savored and enjoyed.