Wild Card races shaping for wild finish

August 14, 2001 5:21 AM
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As each week of the baseball season falls off the calendar the pennant and Wild Card races hold even more promise for exciting finishes perhaps even up to the final series.  Only Seattle can coast to the finish line and the Mariners’ march to perhaps a record setting performance for most wins in a season has us following their results daily.

But the other five divisional races and both Wild Card berths remain up for grabs and the leaderboards are changing on a weekly basis.  Over half of baseball’s 30 teams still have realistic chances for making the post season although the hopes of a few of these teams grow fainter with each loss.  Still, with most of baseball still in contention the final six weeks of the regular season will provide us with many thrills.

While Seattle continues to lead the AL West by 17 games, the second largest lead is held by the New York Yankees, who lead Boston in the AL East by just 3 games.  The three time defending World Series champions have the second best record in all of baseball and must still be considered a legitimate threat to repeat despite their advancing age.  Their huge edge in postseason experience will present a formidable challenge to both Seattle and Oakland.  It appears that nobody wants to win the AL Central as both Cleveland and Minnesota have slumped of late.

Most surprising is Minnesota’s inability to capitalize on a scheduling edge last weekend as the Twins dropped their first three games at Tampa Bay to begin the week a game behind the Indians.  Oakland is the hottest team in the game right now and actually have baseball’s third best record.  Last week’s home sweep of Boston enabled the Athletics to assume the Wild Card lead and they begin the week with a two game lead over Boston and three and a half ahead of Minnesota.  Division rival Anaheim has played well of late and is a manageable six games behind Oakland.

In the National League the largest Division lead beginning the week is Philadelphia’s one game edge over Atlanta in the East.  The other races have leads of just a half game with the Cubs leading Houston by that slimmest of margins in the Central and Arizona with that same edge over San Francisco in the West.  Each Division also has a third team no further than six games behind the leader.  Florida trails Philadelphia by that margin in the East while St. Louis trails the Cubs by five games in the Central and the Dodgers are just a game and a half behind Arizona in the West.  Clearly all nine of these teams have a real chance at winning their Divisions but could just as easily be out of the postseason picture as only four teams will advance.  Currently the Wild Card is controlled by Houston, a half game ahead of San Francisco and a game and a half ahead of the Dodgers.  The ninth team in the NL pecking order, Florida, is seven games behind Houston, meaning that they are closer to winning their Division than they are to winning the Wild Card.

The unbalanced schedule will give these teams numerous chances to make up ground within their Divisions over the final 40 or so games of the season.  Many of the contending teams are just a series sweep away from assuming a controlling position or from falling behind several other teams should they be swept in a series.

Here’s a look at some key ­­series this weekend.

Philadelphia at St Louis: These teams have met just once this season with the Phils winning two of three at home back in mid May.  Philadelphia’s starting pitching was at its best early in the season but has struggled lately.  They did get some strong efforts in last week’s sweep of Los Angeles, a series in which third baseman Scott Rolen seemed to shake off a season long slump. St. Louis struggled early with their rotation but they’ve gotten more consistency over the past month as they’ve gotten back into playoff contention.  Darryl Kile is having a strong season as is Matt Morris while the emergence of rookie Bud Smith has been a key to the Cards’ recent success.  St Louis is the more talented team overall and will be worth backing if not favored by more than —125 throughout this series.  The guideline for Over/Under play is 9, looking to go OVER any total below 9 or UNDER any total above 9.  Back in May the teams played a pair of UNDERs and a Push.

Atlanta at San Francisco: San Francisco has been the hottest team in the National League over the past month.  They made some wise moves just before the trading deadline that strengthened them both on the mound and at the plate.  Atlanta did not do much in the way of addressing their season long problems on offense and have slid out of first place in the East after being swept at home by Arizona.  The Braves have been very inconsistent on offense as evidence by a recent stretch which has seen Atlanta score two runs or less in 8 of 12 games entering this week while also scoring double digits in consecutive games during this same stretch.  Much of the Braves’ woes at the plate can be attributed to the decline in ­­Andruw Jones’ productivity.  The Giants have started to get increased production from last season’s MVP, Jeff Kent, and Barry Bonds appears to be out of a slump that plagued him much of July.  In this series look to back the Giants in any game in which they are made the underdog.  Atlanta’s best value might come when youngster Jason Marquis gets the start if he is an underdog.  When these teams met in May the games were high scoring with two Overs and a Push.  Scoring should be down in this series but caution should be exercised on playing the Under for any total lower than 9½.

Seattle at New York Yankees: Seattle has won four of six games between the teams this season including a three game sweep at Yankee Stadium over Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina back in May.  The Mariners remain on pace to win 117 games with under 45 games remaining.  Over the past few weeks we have seen the top teams in the AL East struggle while all four AL West teams have surged.  Despite the emphasis that will be placed on the importance of this series to the Yankees in the New York media, Seattle will be worth playing in any game in which they are the underdog.  Seattle begins the week having won 45 of 60 road games and they’ve gotten solid starting pitching all season.  Recently, rookie Joel Piniero has been added to the rotation and he has been sharp.  The first four games between the teams went Over the total while the last two have gone Under.  This series shapes up as low scoring with the Under the preferred play in all three games.

Anaheim at Cleveland: Anaheim has played their best baseball of the season over the past few weeks but it may be too late for their post season chances with Oakland playing even better and leading the Angels by six games in the Wild Card race.  Cleveland has struggled of late but so has Division rival Minnesota so the Indians remain the leader in the AL Central but are just one of several Wild Card contenders.  Anaheim has the edge in pitching and their offense is often underrated.  Cleveland has the edge in power with Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome putting up strong numbers.  Anaheim has perhaps the best bullpen in all of baseball and that figures to be their edge in this series.  Quite likely the Angels will be underdogs throughout this series and it won’t be a surprise to see them win at least twice.  Interestingly, Anaheim is a .500 team on the road and Cleveland is just a game over .500 at home.  The teams have split six prior meetings this season with four of the six going Under the total.  The best chances for an Under in this series would be in matchups involving Bartolo Colon or C C Sabathia of Cleveland and Jarrod Washburn or Ismael Valdes of the Angels.