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Pennant races boiling, except in Seattle

Aug 7, 2001 4:58 AM

The 2001 baseball season has just over a month and a half remaining before the Playoffs begin and the focus of most fans and observers is on the tightly contested races for Division titles and Wild Card berths.

Despite Seattle’s incredible collapse last Sunday in which they blew a 14-2 seventh inning lead, the Mariners still lead the AL West by 19 games and continue on pace to win 117 games. But the other five divisions have leads of three and a half games or less.

The Yankees lead Boston by that margin in the AL East while Atlanta has a three game edge over Philadelphia in the NL East. Those are wide margins compared to Chicago’s game and a half lead over Houston in the NL Central, Minnesota’s half game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central and Los Angeles’ half game edge over Arizona in the NL West where San Francisco is just another half game back. At least three of these races figure to be decided in the final week of play if not in the final series of the season.

The Wild Card chase is just as exciting. Houston and Arizona are tied for the lead in the NL, a half game ahead of San Francisco with Philadelphia just two games back. There is a bit of a gap to the next closest contender but St. Louis is just five and a half games back and Florida six behind.

The AL Wild Card chase is just as tightly contested with Boston just a game ahead of Cleveland and Oakland just two and a half back. Even Anaheim is just six and a half games behind the Red Sox.

With barely 50 games remaining, seven AL teams and nine NL clubs have legitimate shots at post-season play.  Clearly we’ll be treated to some exciting September ball.

Here’s a look at some of the key series this weekend that will impact the pennant and Wild Card races.

San Francisco at Chicago Cubs ”” The Giants are making their expected second half move and have climbed to within a game of the NL West lead as the week begins. Several trades just prior to the deadline have solidified the Giants,  notably the acquisition of starting pitcher Jason Schmidt from Pittsburgh. The Cubs continue to benefit from solid pitching from both the starters and the bullpen. Despite the uncertain winds at Wrigley, this shapes up as a low scoring series. The teams are evenly matched and only Chicago’s Kerry Wood could come close to being considered a dominant hurler. All of the starters in the series are capable of giving seven solid innings. The preferred side to play in each game will be any underdog of at least plus 110.

Los Angeles at Philadelphia ”” The Dodgers cling to the slimmest of leads in the NL West as the week begins while Philadelphia remains close behind Atlanta in the East despite some shoddy play in recent weeks. Philly has had difficulty sustaining offensive productivity all season. The starting pitching has been a strength although signs of fatigue have shown over the past month. Los Angeles remains a surprise contender considering the losses suffered to the starting rotation. Their offense has been very streaky for much of the season. The Dodgers had one recent stretch in which they scored at least seven runs for seven straight games.That was followed less than a week later by a stretch in which they scored two runs or less in five straight games. We’ll let the linesmaker guide us in this series as we look to go over any total of 8½ or less and under any total of 9½ or higher. The Dodgers are worth backing if Eric Gagne or James Baldwin are underdogs while Philadelphia’s best chances might come when Nelson Figueroa or Dave Coggin are in underdog roles.

NY Yankees at Oakland ”” This could be a preview of a post season series for the second straight year. Both teams have many similarities, but the presence of Jason Giambi gives Oakland the single strongest power source despite Tino Martinez’ recent surge for the Yankees. Both staffs have three top notch starters with New York rating the edge based on experience. Very quietly the Yanks have ascended to the second best record in all of baseball. But Oakland is also better than 20 games over .500 following a rough April and the A’s are very much in the Wild Card mix. They’ve played over .500 ball on the road this season and are certainly worth backing in this series as an underdog, especially if Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson or Barry Zito get a start. The under is also preferred as a play at a line of nine or higher.