Bookies answer call to ‘play ball!'

Apr 2, 2002 9:23 AM

Batter up!

The 2002 major league baseball season is finally here, and over the next six months we will be treated to virtually daily action. And Las Vegas sports books are ready to book all the action.

“True sports fans love betting on baseball, and we’re expecting a solid season,” said the sports director at a Strip casino.

Each week we will preview several weekend series with wagering suggestions, often based upon starting pitcher matchups. Over the past few decades the relative importance of starting pitching has diminished in determining the winner of a baseball game, largely due to the increased reliance on relief pitching, most noticeably closers, and the use of lefty/righty and situational platooning of players.

For this opening week of coverage a look at the Divisional races is in order and a prediction on the Playoffs and World Series, always a hazardous undertaking will be made.

April is a good month for playing underdogs. Often teams that are underdogs in April are favorites by June. And vice versa.

New York Mets at Atlanta: Both teams figure to show improvement at the plate this season and the first look in this series is to the OVER. The Mets are likely to be the underdog in all three games and the combination of METS and OVER has a very good chance of cashing at least four of six possible tickets.

St. Louis at Houston: These games should each be competitively priced with either team as likely to be a small underdog as a small favorite. Houston’s ballpark has been conducive for run scoring so even with quality starters it will be tough to recommend the Under. Rather, as stated above, look to take the underdog throughout the series.

Anaheim at Texas: Texas has received much hype for their offseason moves and figure to come as favorites throughout the series. That makes Anaheim attractive as a nicely priced underdog. The Angels looked woefully inept at the plate in losing 6-0 at home to Cleveland last Sunday night. That “negative impression” in front of the national television audience might make Texas an even larger favorite than if that game were not seen by the entire nation. The combination of ANGELS and OVER has the possibility to cash perhaps as many as five of six tickets.

The National League East is marked by very solid starting pitching with perhaps the New York Mets, a team picked by many to contend for the pennant, having the weakest overall starting rotation amongst the Division’s five teams. The Mets will score a bunch of runs following an offseason that greatly beefed up the league’s worst offense from last season.

But Atlanta remains the team to beat. They are the best balanced team in the division and have won 10 straight division titles. Philadelphia and Florida could contend with the Mets for a Wild Card. Montreal has a decent rotation and Vladimir Guerrero and not much else but don’t be surprised if the Expos exceed their expected win total of 69 games.

St. Louis is the class of the NL Central and has an excellent chance of winning more games than any other team in baseball. A strong starting rotation and consistent offense rate them a solid edge over both Houston and the Chicago Cubs, the only other teams in the Division likely to play better than .500 ball.

There is a huge falloff from those three teams to the other teams in the Division with little to recommend Milwaukee, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

With Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling the defending World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks should be favored to repeat in the NL West. Brian Anderson and Rick Helling make their rotation the best in the division. San Francisco’s weakness is the starting rotation but the offense is a strength behind Barry Bonds.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may struggle to reach the .500 mark with some serious pitching questions, not the least of which is whether ace Kevin Brown is fully recovered from injury. San Diego has a real shot to surprise and contend for the Wild Card. Colorado is likely to finish last in the division because of a relatively weak pitching staff that must contend with the hitter friendly characteristics of Coors Field for half the season.

The New York Yankees should again win the AL East with their biggest challenge coming from Boston. The addition of Jason Giambi to the Yankee lineup adds strength and the starting rotation is among the best in the league. If Pedro Martinez is healthy for the Red Sox the Yanks might hear footsteps into September but the most likely scenario for Boston is as a Wild Card contender. Toronto might also contend for the Wild Card if the pitching staff plays close to their potential and the Blue Jays can average over five runs per game.

Minnesota may have the best balanced team on paper in the AL Central with a solid starting three of Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays anchoring the rotation. The bullpen is a question but some up and coming hitters are enough to give the Twins the nod over the Chicago White Sox to win the Division. The White Sox should put plenty of runs on the board but the rotation is not very deep with young Mark Buehrle considered the staff ace. The bullpen is a strength.

The AL West may be the strongest division in baseball.  Oakland may have the best starting rotation in the league with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Cory Lidle and Eric Hiljus each capable of double digit wins with the top three legitimate 20 win candidates. Seattle got career years from several players last season and there is a question as to whether Ichiro Suzuki can repeat his performance from last year’s ”˜rookie’ season. The rotation is still solid but Aaron Sele will be missed.

This shapes up as a season of favorites. The predictions in the NL are for Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona to repeat as Division champions with Philadelphia edging Houston for the Wild Card. In the AL, the Division winners are projected to be the New York Yankees, Minnesota and Oakland with Anaheim edging both Seattle and Boston for the Wild Card. In the World Âí­Series, the forecast is for Atlanta to beat the Yankees in six games.