Pirates, Expos enjoying 15 minutes of first place

Apr 23, 2002 8:21 AM

Virtually nobody would even suggest that the Pittsburgh Pirates could have the best record in the National League through three weeks.

Solid starting pitching and strong support from the bullpen have the Bucs off to a 12-5 start. Pittsburgh begins the week in the lead in the AL Central over surprisingly second place Cincinnati. Pitching is also the reason for Cincy’s fine start, most notably the efforts of Elmer Dessens and the well traveled Joey Hamilton. Both teams are likely to fade over the next month as co-favorites St. Louis and Houston warm up.

Montreal is the surprise of the NL East, beginning the week with a one game lead over both Atlanta and the New York Mets. Philadelphia is struggling. Young Vicente Padilla has been the only effective starter thus far and the bullpen, especially middle relief, has performed poorly.

Arizona, San Francisco and Los Angeles are all playing well in the NL West where perhaps the league’s biggest disappointment, Colorado, sits in last place with the league’s worst record. The pitching was expected to struggle, but the offense has been slow to produce.

In the recently concluded 10-game homestand, the Rockies averaged just 4.4 runs per game and scored more than six runs just once. Last season Colorado averaged nearly seven runs per game at home and scored at least 10 in one of every four contests at Coors Field.

The Boston Red Sox begin the week with baseball’s best record, 12-4, and sit atop the AL East. More importantly, Boston leads the New York Yankees by a pair of games. Of course it’s only April but why deny Red Sox fans some time for boasting and gloating before reality sets in by July and August.

Boston has gotten solid efforts from starters Darren Oliver and Derek Lowe, while Pedro Martinez appears to be rounding into shape after a very strong outing in Kansas City.

The Central is clearly divided with Minnesota, the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland battling for the lead and already separating themselves from Kansas City and Detroit by five games just three weeks into the season. The three leaders have been dominant at home thus far, combining to go 22-3.

Seattle is again leading the West, already up by four games over Oakland. At 15-4, the Mariners are already ahead of last season’s pace and are unbeaten in 10 road games.

Only two of the 15 series this weekend feature a pair of Division rivals. Here’s a look at the most interesting matchups.

Dodgers at Cubs: The Dodgers have gotten off to a fairly good start as a result of solid starting pitching, timely hitting and unexpectedly strong results of newly found closer Eric Gagne. The Cubs’ early season struggles have resulted mostly from a lack of offense. Chicago has scored four runs or less in two thirds of its games. But three of their five starters have ERAs under 2.50.

The Dodgers have also gotten strong starting pitching with only the often-injured Kevin Brown sporting an ERA above 4.00. With both teams having solid pitching and suffering from subpar hitting the plays in this series are the UNDER and the Underdog. Winds will affect the setting of the Totals in Wrigley Field but the preference is UNDER at any total of 8 or higher.

Astros at Braves: Atlanta swept the Astros in three straight games in the NLDS last season. Both teams are hovering around .500 after almost 20 games. The Braves have had problems at the plate where they’ve tallied three runs or less in more than half of their games. Houston has been more potent on offense but the production has also been very inconsistent.

Atlanta’s Tom Glavine is off to a strong start as are Houston’s Roy Oswalt and, surprisingly, Dave Mlicki. Glavine and Oswalt are worth backing if not opposing each other and laying —130 or less. Mlicki is worth a play as an underdog of at least +140. Houston’s Shane Reynolds and Atlanta’s Jason Marquis are worth going against due to control trouble. The OVER is worthy of play in games started by other than Glavine, Oswalt or Atlanta’s Greg Maddux.

Indians at Rangers: Last week the Indians were riding a 10-game winning streak. One week later, the Tribe has lost six in a row, having been swept by both the White Sox and Twins. The offense scored under four runs in the last five of those losses after producing at least four runs in 12 of 13 games. The bats should get healthy against Texas whose starting pitching has performed better than expected even though the rotation is fairly weak.

The bullpen has been a major problem, which is why Texas has been unable to hold onto late leads. Cleveland’s starting rotation has performed poorly. Bartolo Colon has the best ERA, but 4.29 is not impressive for a staff ace. The other four starters are above 5.00. Texas should have success hitting despite both Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez on the DL. The preferred plays will be OVER even though the line is likely to be 11 or 11½. Texas will be worth backing in starts by Kenny Rogers and Doug Davis provided the price is no greater than —130.

Yankees at M’s: The Seattle fans have eagerly awaited the arrival of the Yankees after the New Yorkers ended the M’s dream season in five games in the ALCS. For the players it’s just another series although the media will pump it up. Seattle won an AL record 116 games last season, breaking the Yankees mark set just three years earlier.

The Seattle starting rotation has posted just average numbers, but offensively Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Cameron and John Olerud have started nicely and DH Ruben Sierra has been a major surprise. The Yankees have gotten strong starting pitching, as expected, although Roger Clemens has been shaky. In fact, The Rocket (5.53 ERA) is the only starter above 3.50, but that will come down. David Wells, Mike Mussina and Orlando Hernandez, have each averaged at least seven innings per start, and Ted Lilly was impressive in starting for the injured Andy Pettitte.

The UNDER is the first way to look in this series provided the line is no lower than 8. The Underdog is also the play in all games except when Paul Abbott pitches for Seattle. Abbott has been hit hard in all four starts. The Yanks, if favored, are the play at up to —150.