Jul 16, 2002 9:11 AM

After suffering through the shame of an All-Star tie and receiving the worst TV ratings ever for the midseason classic, baseball begins the second half.

Over the next 10 days, teams must determine if they are going to acquire players in hopes of contending for the playoffs.

Provided, of course, that the players decide not to call a strike for late August and all payroll checks are delivered on time.

Most teams will be playing a minimum of 10 straight days barring rainouts. Some National League clubs will have to play 18 straight games until a full off day on July 29. That means several starts by the No. 5 men in rotations. More importantly, it also places an extreme burden on bullpens with so many days of potentially uninterrupted action.

It’s always been a challenge to handicap baseball games by considering the impact of the bullpen because its use is a major unknown factor. An effective start by the starting pitcher could mean only an inning or two of work by the relievers. A poor start could mean the bullpen is needed after perhaps only a couple of innings.

A number of tightly contested games in a row could mean the team’s closer might be unavailable. Strategic considerations in games without the designated hitter can also impact the use or non-use of the bullpen.

Still, knowing the overall quality of a team’s bullpen is important to successful handicapping, especially in games in which the use of the pen is more likely (because of a weak starting pitcher).

There is a strong correlation between bullpen effectiveness and a team’s place in the standings. The NL’s best bullpens belong to Atlanta, San Francisco, Arizona, Los Angeles and the New York Mets. Of this quintet only the Mets are not realistically in playoff contention.

The Mets failures have more to do with a lack of offense than poor starting pitching. The significant offseason acquisitions of Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn have not turned out as expected.

The weakest bullpens in the senior circuit belong to Colorado, the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia, Montreal and San Diego. Only Montreal is in playoff contention.

In the AL, Seattle has the best bullpen with Anaheim well above average. Boston, New York and Oakland have gotten only average results from their relief pitchers.

The weakest belong to Texas, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and Tampa Bay.

Here are several attractive series matchups this weekend including three between division contenders.

Braves at Phillies: Atlanta is running away with the NL East. Philadelphia is long out of contention and about ready to unload payroll over the next week or so. That means goodbye to All Star third baseman Scott Rolen.

The Braves should be favored throughout the series and can be played when at no more than —130 regardless of the pitching matchup. Philadelphia’s best chances should come when either Vicente Padilla or Brandon Duckworth are on the mound. But it might take a price of at least +140 before backing a team that has to be in a disinterested mental state. Despite Atlanta’s fine overall pitching the OVER would be attractive at totals of less than 8. The UNDER might be a preferable play at totals higher than 9.

Giants at Dodgers: The NL West remains a three team race after both Arizona and San Francisco picked up a couple of games on Los Angeles last weekend. The Dodgers begin the week with just a half game lead over the Diamondbacks with the Giants just two games further back.

The Giants are attractive in this series as underdogs when Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter or Russ Ortiz gets a start. The Dodgers’ most consistent starter has been lefty Odalis Perez, who can be backed if favored by no more than —140 if he faces any of the other Giants starters. The UNDER seems to be the way to look throughout the series as well.

Red Sox at Yanks: The Yanks made a couple of major moves to strengthen themselves over the past two weeks. The Red Sox have yet to pull the trigger, although this could change any day. Boston leads the season series, 7-4. The home team is 6-5 and the UNDER is 7-4. If the Sox are underdogs in starts by Pedro Martinez or Derek Lowe, they become a solid play.

Martinez is likely favored, however, and he’d still be a play if not tabbed by more than —130 and can avoid a matchup against Mike Mussina. John Burkett is also worth playing if the Red Sox are at least +125. The UNDER is still the preferred play throughout the series but only at totals of 9 or higher.

M’s at Angels: The Angels are minus closer Troy Percival who was placed on the DL over the weekend and are in the midst of an 11-game game stretch against the Mariners and Athletics. Seattle has been getting solid starting pitching from Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and All-Star Freddy Garcia. Anaheim has gotten steady starting pitching for most of the season with lefty Jarrod Washburn developing into the staff ace.

Seattle holds a commanding 6-1 edge in the series, including a 4-0 mark in Anaheim. Take Seattle as an underdog in any pitching matchup. Play the Angels if Washburn is an underdog. The UNDER is preferable even without Percival.