Still plenty of gold betting on the diamonds

July 31, 2001 5:33 AM
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Although a football frenzy is enveloping Las Vegas, the baseball season still has a solid two months remaining before the playoffs begin. With five division races, a pair of Wild Card races and a potential record-setting season being chased by the Seattle Mariners there are many reasons to continue to follow baseball closely. Many good wagering opportunities develop over the final sixty days of the seasons as teams drop out of contention and look to develop future talent by calling up minor leaguers and giving them significant playing time. Untested pitchers are often trotted out to the mound in late season games and teams will frequently field lineups consisting of inexperienced players or part time veterans playing out their careers.

Since last week several division races have seen gaps develop between the first and second place teams. Atlanta has finally opened up a lead in the National League East, leading second place Philadelphia by three games. In the American League East the Yankees lead second place Boston by three and a half games but note that Boston has gotten Nomar Garciaparra, Carl Everitt and Brett Saberhagen back and ace Pedro Martinez may be back sooner rather than later. These additions may not be enough to regain the division lead but might be enough to claim the Wild Card.

Chicago’s Cubs have opened up a four and a half game lead over Houston in the NL Central with the National League’s best record. St. Louis remains eight and a half behind the Cubbies. In the West Los Angeles has overtaken Arizona as the Diamondbacks lost four straight at home to San Francisco. It was at this time last season that the Giants overtook Arizona for good en route to winning the Division. Currently the Dodgers lead Arizona by a game and a half with fast charging San Francisco just four games back.

In the American League Cleveland clings to a half game lead over slumping Minnesota while Seattle continues to toy in the West, leading second place Oakland by 20 games. Although it has been expected that Seattle would be unable to maintain their record setting pace the Mariners continue to refuse to coast. Seattle has won eight of their last 10 games and still on pace to 117 wins. The team is so well balanced, and has been fortunate in avoiding lingering injuries, that the record becomes more within the realm of possibility with each successive win. It still figures that Seattle will fall short but the Mariners are making those of us who expect them to fall short to at least have cause to pause before proclaiming that it will not happen.

Arizona currently leads the Wild Card race in the National League with San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia each within a pair of games. Florida and St Louis have fallen to more than five games back while San Diego has a faint pulse eight games behind the Diamondbacks.

The American League Wild Card is currently held by Boston with Minnesota being the closes challenger, a half game back. Oakland and Anaheim are the only other AL teams with winning records and they trail the Red Sox by four and a half and seven and a half games respectively.

With just hours remaining before the trading deadline the composition of the contenders might still undergo change but for the most part the teams have decided upon the players with whom to complete the regular season race that has less than 60 games remaining.

Here’s a look at some series this weekend.

Florida at St Louis: This series might well eliminate one of these teams from even Wild Card contention with both hovering around the .500 mark. Florida failed to take advantage of a scheduling edge last weekend by dropping three straight at Cincinnati where the Reds began the series as losers of 37 of 50 home games. The Marlins’ starting rotation is showing signs of fatigue and that gives us reason to look for high scoring games in this series. St. Louis continues to get above average starting pitching with rookie left-hander Bud Smith the hot hurler of the moment. But the bullpen remains inconsistent. Normally the inclination would be to side with the underdog Marlins who figure to be attractively priced but Florida is in the final stages of a Midwest road trip that has already been draining. If favored by minus 140 or less the Cardinals are the preferred play with any starter. At a total of nine or lower the over is also preferred.

Philadelphia at San Francisco: Both teams remain within a manageable distance of a division lead and right in the thick of the Wild Card race. But they are clearly headed in opposite directions. The Giants just swept four games in Arizona, gaining momentum as they host Pittsburgh in midweek. The Phillies dropped the final three games of a four game series at the Mets and are in Colorado before arriving to play the Giants. If the Phillies fail to take advantage of a struggling Rockies team in midweek they could be in for a long weekend against the Giants. Philadelphia’s starting pitching was not the culprit in their disappointing New York trip. The Phillies scored just 12 runs in the four games and have scored more than five runs in a game just five times in their last 23 games. The Giants do not have any aces in their rotation but for the most part each of their starters has been solid over the past two months. At a total of 91/2 or higher the preferred play will be on the under. The Phillies can be considered for play if they are a highly priced underdog of at least plus 150 which is unlikely. In competitively priced games the edge goes to the Giants, especially if favored by minus 125 or less.

Seattle at Cleveland ”” This is a very intriguing series as the American League’s best team, Seattle, faces one of the league’s best offenses. Seattle has already handled Cleveland’s closest pursuer, defeating the Twins seven times since the All Star break. Now Cleveland has a chance to avoid giving back any of the games they gained on Minnesota with a good effort in this four game series. Seattle has been well balanced all season but their bullpen has been a special strength. Seattle has won 40 of 53 games on the road and are worth backing in any game in which they are the underdog, which may be the case given the perception of Cleveland as a strong team. The Indians have had pitching troubles all season and against Seattle even a seventh inning lead is not safe. The best value for Seattle may actually be when the bottom of the rotation gets to start, since the outstanding bullpen may be more of a factor. Note that Cleveland’s Juan Gonzalez was questionable at the start of the week and his bat in the lineup is a key complement to the power of Jim Thome. At a total of 10 or higher the preferred play would be on the under but at a line of 81/2 or lower the over is worth consideration.