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Yanks, Indians start clearing AL picture

Aug 21, 2001 7:11 AM

The 2001 baseball season has just over a month remaining before the Playoffs get underway and while everything is up for grabs in the National League things are starting to become much more settled in the American League.

Seattle has had a double digit lead in the AL West virtually all season but the races in the East and Central Divisions have been close since day one. Yet as this week begins the Yankees have quietly amassed the second best record in all of baseball which has propelled them to a five game lead over Boston.

Cleveland begins the week leading severely slumping Minnesota by four and a half games in the Central, a turnaround of almost 10 games in just a few weeks. The Wild Card race is also starting to show signs of clearance with a widening gap developing. Currently Oakland has control of the final Playoff berth, leading Boston by four games, Anaheim by six and Minnesota by seven.

The National League continues to feature four tight races. Atlanta holds just a one game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East while Florida has pretty much fallen out of contention for both the Division title and the Wild Card. That reduces the number of teams still in contention in the National League to eight teams ”” still half of the entire league!

The Central race has tightened up and has a new leader as the week begins. Houston has supplanted Chicago atop the Division, leading the Cubs by two games and surging St Louis only another half game back. In the West Arizona begins the week riding a nine game winning streak that has the Diamondbacks leading San Francisco by two and a half games. The Dodgers are another three games back.

The Giants are the leaders in the Wild Card race, leading the Cubs by just a single game. The Phillies, Cardinals and Dodgers are all within three games of the Giants in a Wild Card race that figures to go down to the season’s final weekend.

Things in the senior circuit are so tight that any of the eight teams could just as easily end up with the league’s best record as they can end up out of the Playoffs entirely. As we go to press the gap from top to bottom amongst the eight teams is just five and a half games, the margin by which Arizona leads the Dodgers in the NL West.

With the unbalanced schedule and three tight Division races the 2001 season may go down in history as having the most exciting final month ever seen in the National League. Add to this the numerous individual milestones being chased, including Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the single season home run record, and baseball fans will have as much to look forward to over the next month as will those who eagerly anticipate the transition from baseball to football.

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

St. Louis at Chicago Cubs: St Louis begins the week as the hottest team in all of baseball, currently riding an 11 game winning streak which has put them back into contention both in the NL Central race and the Wild Card race as well. All season the Cards have seemed to be the best balanced team in their Division but it has only been within the past few weeks that both their pitching and hitting have been consistent.

The Cubs did not play badly over the past week, splitting six games in Houston and Arizona, but that enabled the Cards to make up three games on the Cubbies.

Chicago has gotten solid starting pitching all season although only Jon Lieber can be considered close to being an ace. Kerry Wood has the potential to be in that class but continues to be plagued by injuries. Pitching should be the stories of this series and as such the UNDER would be worth a look although wind conditions always dictate the line. At a total of between 8 and 9 the UNDER is preferred. The Underdog is also the preferred way to look in this series since the teams are fairly evenly matched combined with the Cubs being at home. At a price of plus 110 or higher, the underdog represents the value and could take at least two of the three games.

Arizona at Philadelphia: Arizona has been hot over the past two weeks while Philadelphia was cooled down in dropping three straight last weekend in St Louis. Arizona continues to get Cy Young Award type efforts from big guns Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling but their winning streak has been fashioned by getting solid games by Albie Lopez and Brian Anderson as well. Philadelphia’s starting pitching is starting to fade at about the same time that 3B Scott Rolen is starting to heat up.

Despite slumping for most of the season Rolen finally is hitting with power and his average is flirting with .300. Arizona’s offense is led by Luis Gonzalez, a leading contender for MVP honors. Certainly Arizona is worth playing as an underdog in this series which may be the case in games started by other than Johnson or ex-Phillie Schilling. In starts by those two hurlers the Under is worth consideration especially if the linesmaker gives us an 9 or higher. In games started by other than this pair the preferred play will be on the OVER. This is a four game series that stretches through next Monday.

Cleveland at Seattle: This series could well be a preview of the opening round of the Playoffs if Oakland wins the AL Wild Card. Seattle remains on a record setting win pace and the Mariners have shown no signs of letting up. This is a very well balanced team getting solid contributions from offense, defense, starting pitching and the bullpen. On paper Seattle may be no better than the third or fourth best team in the league but they will end up with the American League’s best record by a margin that could approach twenty games.

Cleveland has perhaps the deepest starting lineup in the Al with both Jim Thome and Juan Gonzalez as powerful a one-two punch as any in the game. The main Cleveland weakness has been their pitching, both starting and relief. The Tribe is likely to be an underdog throughout the series and would be worth backing should either Bartolo Colon or C.C. Sabathia get to start.

Those two starters also provide the best chance for Unders as well. In matchups not involving Colon or Sabathia, or Seattle’s Freddy Garcia or Joel Pineiro, the OVER is the preferred total.