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Expect at least a full regular season in majors

Jul 2, 2002 9:22 AM

Three down and three to go. Months, that is.

As the calendar turns to July almost exactly one half of the 2002 regular baseball season is in the history books. And despite the lingering possibility of a work stoppage similar to the one which wiped out the last third of the 1994 season plus the Playoffs and World Series, there is optimism that at least the balance of the regular season will be played in full.

Certainly it makes sense from the players’ standpoint Âí­”” they don’t get paid for time missed. The players, this time, would play out the regular season and not miss any paychecks as they did when they walked out in August of 1994.

The unofficial midpoint of the season occurs after this weekend when baseball takes a three-day break for the All Star Game and attendant festivities. Conventional wisdom has held that teams in the lead at the All Star break have an excellent chance of reaching the post season. Teams within 10 games of the lead are generally considered to have a realistic shot to make up those games at the rate of just under one a game a week over the final 13 weeks.

There are six legitimate contenders in the American League with another pair of teams in position to mount a challenge in the very weak Central Division. Minnesota currently leads the AL Central but is just 10 games over .500.

The Yankees have a two game lead over Boston in the AL East with the Red Sox clinging to the AL Wild Card by a half game over Anaheim. The Angels trail Seattle in the AL West by 3½ with Oakland just five back. The AL West is shaping up as a three team race into September and there is the possibility that only the Division winner will make the postseason if the Wild Card goes to the second place finisher in the AL East.

Atlanta is beginning to make a runaway of the NL East with an 8½ game lead over Montreal and no other challenger less than 10. The Braves appear to be the best balanced team in the National League.

Arizona, with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, might take issue with that statement but beginning the week the Diamondbacks find themselves in second place in the NL West, 1½ games behind surprising Los Angeles. San Francisco is still in contention only 4½ Âí­behind the Dodgers.

Baseball’s most mediocre division, the NL Central, might provide the most interesting race of all. St. Louis and Cincinnati are virtually tied for the NL Central lead as the week begins with the poorest records of any Division leader. Houston is third 6½ games out.

Interleague play is over for 2002 with the exception of this past Sunday’s rained out game between Houston and Texas which will be made up on September 2. The All Star break occurs next week when we examine some secondary statistics you can use in your handicapping of baseball games over the second half of the season.

Here’s a look at four significant series this weekend that involve division leaders, teams in contention and teams that are in danger of quickly falling out of contention should they be swept in a weekend series.

Dodgers at Cards: The Cards have clearly been affected by the tragedy of the Darryl Kile death as their play on the field has been lethargic. They had just overtaken Cincinnati for the NL Central lead a few days before Kile’s death and seemed poised to extend that lead and take control of the division. But the Reds took two of three in St. Louis over the weekend the Reds and Cards begin the week tied for the lead.

The Dodgers have relied on solid starting pitching and the emergence of Shawn Green over the past six weeks to take the lead in the NL West. Andy Ashby (Dodgers) and Woody Williams are the two most underrated pitchers in this series and each can be played provided they do not face one another. If they do meet, the UNDER might be the solid play. The overrated pitchers on each staff, worth going against, would be the Dodgers’ Kaz Ishii and any St. Louis pitcher other than Williams, Matt Morris and Jason Simontacchi. The OVER can be played if the line is no higher than 7. The UNDER is worth a look at 9½ or higher.

Giants at D’backs: Arizona has won 29 of the combined 35 starts made by Johnson and Schilling but are just 19-26 when other hurlers take the mound. Of the other starters Rick Helling has been the most effective. The snakes have a winning record when Helling takes to the hill. Helling is worth backing if laying no more than —140 while both Schilling and Johnson will be too prohibitively favored to warrant backing either. Jason Schmidt has recovered from a rocky start to his season, which was delayed because he was recovering from injury.

Schmidt has been one of the sharpest pitchers in the league over the past month and is worth a shot at a hefty price against either Johnson or Schilling. If Schmidt matches up against either of those two or against Helling the UNDER is also worth a look. A trio of Giants pitchers to avoid would include lefty Kirk Rueter and righties Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. Each pitched quite well in April and May but have struggled and shown inconsistency of late. Their games might best be played OVER the total, even if they match up against Johnson or Schilling.

Indians at ChiSox: Things have gotten so bad for the Indians after their trade last week of ace Bartolo Colon to Montreal for essentially some minor league prospects. Aging Chuck Finley might now be considered the staff’s ace as young C.C. Sabathia still struggles to find consistency. Chicago has an emerging ace in lefty Mark Buehrle but there’s a sizable drop-off after that.

Danny Wright and Jon Garland have had their moments but both Todd Ritchie and Gary Glover are disappointments. The White Sox are the better team and have the more potent lineup suggesting a play on them when favored by —125 or less. The better play throughout the series may be on the OVER, especially at a total of 9½ or less. Cleveland’s best value in the series would be if Chuck Finley gets a start. The Indians have won just five of Finley’s 16 starts but with a respectable 3.88 ERA the veteran lefty could be attractive if getting at least +130.

Twins at M’s: Minnesota has actually gotten barely average seasons from most of its starting rotation but lefty Johan Santana has been a pleasant surprise. The Twins have won four of his five starts and Santana’s 1.88 ERA makes him a solid play in this series since he’s likely to be taking a big price against any Mariners starter. No other Twins starter has an ERA below 4.25.

Seattle’s staff is anchored by Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer. The Mariners have won 25 of their 35 combined starts and both are averaging almost seven full innings per start. Seattle should be favored throughout the series but unless priced at —140 or lower will be too risky of a play. Minnesota is worth wagering when Santana starts but the best play throughout the series might be on the UNDER, especially at total of 9.