NL pennant races should be tight to the wire

July 24, 2001 6:38 AM
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Baseball nearly died seven years ago when the players went on strike in August of 1994. Fans were fed up with what had become constant work stoppages in America’s National Pastime but when the playoffs and World Series were canceled, it sent a significant percentage of long time baseball fans over the edge, vowing never to return.

The differences between players and management were ultimately resolved, quite obviously, and the 1995 season began about a month late and fans were indeed slow in returning to the ballparks. But baseball has benefited from some great events since its return, including Cal Ripken Jr’s assault upon and ultimate breaking of Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak and 1998’s battle between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to break Roger Maris’ 37 year old single season home road record. Both did break the record with McGwire setting the new standard at 70. The nation in general, not just baseball fans, were captivated by the chase and in the years following the drama of Sosa/McGwire baseball has enjoyed a resurgence. Not all of the disgruntled fans have returned, although many have, and baseball has attracted legions of new followers, especially amongst the youngsters, the fans, and consumers, of the future.

Well baseball is at it again. Sure there are undercurrents about another possible work stoppage after this season although negotiations are going on behind the scenes that suggest a stoppage will be avoided. No, baseball is giving fans of the game a real treat as we endure the summer heat. We are being treated to no fewer than five pennant races as well as a run on history. As the week begins only Seattle has more than a two game lead in any of baseball’s six divisions. And at 71-27 the Mariners are on a pace to win a record 117 games. They lead second place Oakland in the American League West by a staggering 19 games with barely over a third of the season remaining.

In the American League East the Yankees cling to a one game lead over Boston, a team that has endured as many key injuries as any team in recent memory. They’ve been without All Star shortstop Nomar Garciappara all season and perhaps baseball’s best pitcher, Pedro Martinez, for a month. There’s been no timetable established for their return. The Sox have also been without Carl Everitt and Jason Varitek for an extended length of time and strained relations between manage Jimy Williams and GM Dan Duquette have contributed to a clubhouse that is less than harmonious. Given these factors and the fine play of Boston thus far one can have trouble determining whether the Sox and their fans are being cursed or blessed.

Minnesota’s struggles against Oakland and Seattle over the past week have enabled Cleveland to close the gap to a single game in the AL Central. The Twins and Indians begin the week tied in the loss column and it will be very interesting to see what moves each team makes, or doesn’t make, in the next week as the trading deadline approaches. The Indians need pitching and the Twins need hitting.

Cleveland currently holds a one game lead over Boston in the Wild Card race with hard charging Oakland just five games back. Anaheim and Chicago are each eight games behind the Indians while Toronto has fallen to 10 and a half games back. Barring a weeklong winning streak by any of the three teams it is likely that any moves made by the Angels, White Sox and Blue Jays will be as talent providers to contending teams while this trio looks towards 2002.

All three National League divisions have tightened up. Atlanta has a two game lead over Philadelphia in the East while the Cubs begin the week with a similar lead over Houston in the Central. Arizona’s lead over Los Angeles in the West is down to just a game and a half. Only three other teams have records above .500, one in each division, and will most likely have to be content with challenging for the Wild Card. Los Angeles currently holds the lead in that race with Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Florida and St. Louis all within six games of the Dodgers. The NL is so tightly bunched, in fact, that the gap between Arizona, holding the league’s best record, and St Louis is just seven and a half games. Only one other team, San Diego, is within 10 games of a division lead and the Padres are teetering on the brink of practical Playoff elimination. Yet it must be noted that the Pads have been a very streaky team this season and manager Bruce Bochy deserves much credit for having his team within three games of break even this late into the season.

The Dodgers must also be given special recognition for playing as well as they have despite the loss of perhaps as many as three of their starting pitchers being lost for the season. Darren Dreifort and Andy Ashby have already been shelved for the rest of the 2001 season while ace Kevin Brown has spent a couple of stints on the Disabled List and might be shut down for the duration. Rookie manager Jim Tracy is to be commended for having the Dodgers in contention despite losses that would almost certainly crush the chances of most other teams given the overall shortage of capable starting pitching.

Here’s a look at several series to be played this weekend as the trading deadline nears and teams in a questionable state of contention must decide if they will be buyers or sellers.

St. Louis at Chicago Cubs ”” This series might deal the Cardinals the fatal blow for their 2001 Playoff chances. St Louis begins the week trailing the Cubs by seven games and are off of a three games series hosting second place Houston. The Cards’ offense was very explosive earlier in the season but has struggled recently, especially rookie Albert Pujols. Mark McGwire has returned from injury but, other than occasional displays of power, has been ineffective with a batting average below.200. The starting pitching have generally been a strength with Darryl Kile and Matt Morris anchoring the rotation. Dustin Hermanson has been both brilliant and terrible at times while the bullpen has had trouble finding a consistent closer. Manager Tony La Russa has often been criticized for his handling of pitchers and the bullpen might be the reason why the Cards fail to defend last season’s NL Central title. The Cubs have been leading the division because of their overall pitching. The offense has been erratic all season and the recent inability to acquire Fred McGriff was a major disappointment. If not too heavily favored the Cubs are worth backing when Jon Lieber, Kerry Wood or Jason Bere takes the mound while the Cards are worth playing when facing Julian Tavarez. Totals are always affected by the winds at Wrigley Field but on the surface the under appears to be the more attractive option, especially when the line is between the relatively neutral limits of 8½ to 9½.

San Francisco at Arizona ”” San Francisco failed to capitalize on their chance to close ground on division leading Arizona last weekend by dropping two of three at home to the Diamondbacks. This four game series, beginning Thursday, gives the Giants another chance to narrow what is currently a five and a half game gap in the NL West. The Giants had a great second half in 2000 which enabled them to overtake Arizona at about this time of the season. Recently the Giants have gotten good efforts from their entire starting rotation including Livan Hernandez who had struggled mightily during the season’s first half. Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz are having solid campaigns although Estes had struggled recently. Arizona has their two big guns, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling but other than Brian Anderson the rest of the rotation has struggled. The Giants are likely to be underdogs throughout the series and will be worth backing in that role as they are capable of winning at least twice. Ortiz and Estes are even worth backing as small favorites of minus 120 or less. Despite two of last weekend’s three games going over the total, the under will still be preferred in this series at a line of nine or higher, which means starts by Johnson and Schilling won’t qualify to be played under.

Chicago White Sox at Boston ”” Many baseball observers believed the White Sox overachieved in 2000 when they won the AL Central title with 95 wins, an improvement of 20 games over 1999. Giving support to this line of thinking was the early season struggles of Chicago this season that has seen them only recently climb back to a .500 record. It’s quite likely that the White Sox will be sellers within the next week as they conclude that their Wild Card chances are remote barring a sweep of this three game series. Boston’s adversities were chronicled earlier. They show no signs of fading and figure to challenge the Yankees for the AL East title and remain in Wild Card contention deep into September. Chicago has a promising pitching staff with Mark Buehrle, Kip Wells and Sean Lowe a solid nucleus for the future. Keith Foulke has been solid as a closer and, if he is not traded, will be a reason why Chicago will be a fashionable choice to contend next season. In this series the White Sox are worth backing as underdogs provided the price is at least plus 140 or higher or as any priced underdog against Tim Wakefield or Tomo Ohka. Boston can be backed when favored by no more than minus 130 in starts by Hideo Nomo or Rollando Arrojo. Chicago took two of three at home last weekend from Boston with a pair of overs and a push.

Minnesota at Seattle ”” Surprising Minnesota had the unenviable task of opening post interleague play with a pair of back-to-back series against Oakland and Seattle. In the first set the Twins lost four of five at home entering Monday’s series finale against the Mariners. Now they must travel to both cities with their lead over Cleveland in the AL Central having almost fully evaporated. Minnesota’s story has been a pleasant surprise with three solid starting pitchers and an enthusiastic lineup. But they just don’t measure up well against the better balanced A’s and Mariners. It would be tempting to back the Twins in this series as nicely priced underdogs but last weekend’s series showed that Seattle is clearly the better team. Certainly Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays can be expected to keep Minnesota in games into the late innings. But Seattle has been able to do many of the little things at the right time that it is hard to go against the Mariners, especially at home where they have the Majors’ best home mark at 32-14. In fact, in the unlikely event Seattle is favored by minus 125 or less they would become the play. The preferred play in this series will be the under. The first three games last weekend in Minnesota each went under and the Metrodome is much more hitter friendly than is Seattle’s Safeco Field. Even when the lower part of each team’s rotation gets the start the under will be preferred. The lines should range between nine and 10.