In Cards

Oct 1, 2002 7:15 AM

   After six months of daily battles to get into position to play for the World Series title, the eight teams making postseason play are impressive. All eight won at least 94 games with three topping the century mark.

   The regular season played out almost as predicted last April in this column. Looking back, we picked Atlanta, St. Louis and Arizona to repeat as NL Division champions with Philadelphia edging Houston for the Wild Card.

   In the AL, we favored the New York Yankees, Minnesota and Oakland as Division champs with Anaheim edging both Seattle and Boston for the Wild Card. The World Series forecast was for Atlanta to defeat the New York Yankees in six games.

   Seven of eight isn’t too shabby. No reason to change our projections now with both the Yankees and Atlanta having the best records in each league and the deepest pitching staffs. So we’ll stick with Atlanta over the Yanks in six.

   The Braves are currently 4-1 to win the World Series, second behind Arizona’s 7-2 in the NL. The Yankees and Oakland are the co-favorites to win it all at 5-2. San Francisco is a fashionable long-shot at 15-1 Minnesota is the highest shot on the board at 20-1at some books. Anaheim is priced at 8-1 and St Louis is 12-1.

   Individual honors will be awarded in the coming weeks. The AL most valuable player honor favors Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez on a stats basis, but a case can also be made for Alfonso Soriano. The Yanks second baseman came within one homer of being the first ever to hit 40 homers, steal 40 bases and hit 50 doubles in a season.

   Our choice is Oakland’s Miguel Tejada. The Oakland shortstop came up with so many clutch hits during the A’s drive to overtake Anaheim and Seattle. Tejeda has proven his ability in the clutch and filled the tremendous leadership gap left when last year’s MVP Jason Giambi exited for the Yankees.

   A look at Tejada’s stats also shows him worthy with 34 dingers, 131 RBI and a .308 average. Solid credentials indeed.

   The NL MVP should go to Barry Bonds. Arguably, the most feared hitter in the game, Bonds set a record with 198 walks, breaking his the mark set last year. Of that number, 68 were intentional passes.

   The MVP race could also include top closers John Smoltz (Atlanta) and Eric Gagne (Los Angeles). Both were converted from starting pitchers into perhaps the most pressure packed of all positions. But Bonds should be a clear winner.

   Next week, as the Divisional series wind down, we’ll share thoughts on the Cy Young Award and Manager of the Year. As for the opening round beginning Tuesday, each matchup is the best 3-of-5 games.

   Twins vs A’s: Oakland is a huge -260 favorite to win this series and may sweep. The A’s have a huge edge in starting pitching with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The big three are in their best form and Zito, the likely AL Cy Young winner, has been solid all season. Oakland’s recent postseason experience edge is huge as well.

   Minnesota’s most effective pitcher of late has been Rick Reed who would be worth backing as an underdog. Hudson opened as a -200 favorite in Tuesday’s Game 1 and that price looks cheap given the recent inconsistency of mound opponent Brad Radke. Reed is the only Twins pitcher worth backing and the UNDER is the preferred play at 8 or higher. Oakland in 4.

   Angels vs. Yanks: The Yanks have the most experience of the AL teams. The one weakness, middle relief, is likely to be a strength in the postseason depending upon the number of starts used by manager Joe Torre. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are likely to be used in this series which means Orlando Hernandez, David Wells and Jeff Weaver are available in the pen. The Yankees are -200 to win the series and it’s hard not to see them advancing, although the Angels are more likely to give New York a battle than in the other division series.

   Mussina, Wells, Pettitte and Weaver have been solid of late while Clemens and Hernandez have been hit in recent starts. Anaheim’s Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz have been Anaheim’s most effective starters. Their outings should be played UNDER the total. They are also each worth backing at a price of at least +150. Kevin Appier does have playoff experience but he’s not been in good form of late. His game might be the most likely to go OVER, especially at 8½ or lower. The Yankees are a solid play to advance.

   Cardinals vs D’backs: Kudos to the Cardinals and manager Tony LaRussa for overcoming not just the untimely death of pitching ace Darryl Kile but for dealing with the numerous injuries that wracked the pitching staff. The Cards used an incredible 14 different starting pitchers this season. That’s something rarely seen even among the also-rans, who play out the string in September. Arizona will rely on their big two of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. They combined for a 47-12 record, accounting for nearly half of the 94 wins. Arizona always has a chance in a short series with those two starting perhaps four of the five games.

   But, there are some problems. Arizona will be without Luis Gonzalez and his bat, which accounted for so much offense will be missed. Schilling has also been battered of late. St. Louis swept Arizona in a key series at Busch Stadium less than two weeks ago and took four of six this season. Both Andy Benes and Woody Williams are in fine form of late and St Louis is playing with great team chemistry. The Cards finished 21-4 down the stretch and are a live underdog worth backing at +175. Benes and Williams are also worth playing as underdogs, along with Johnson, at an UNDER of 7 or higher. Any other starting pitching combination, including Schilling, may be played OVER a total of 8 or lower. Look for St. Louis to advance in four or five.

   Giants vs Braves: Many observers think this is finally the season for Barry Bonds to have a productive postseason. His past playoff struggles have been well documented but we may be seeing a new Bonds, certainly one who is both more confident and more feared. Atlanta has been the best team in the NL since mid-May. The Giants enter the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak as they held off the Dodgers and nearly caught Arizona for the NL West title. Atlanta has the edge in starting pitching but not by much. The trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Kevin Millwood has been very steady for much of the season. But so have the Giants four main starters of Russ Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, Jason Schmidt and especially Kirk Rueter.

   This series has the greatest likelihood of going the full five games, but Atlanta’s experience and a better bullpen makes the difference. They have a well-balanced lineup with The Joneses (Chipper and Andruw), Gary Sheffield and the unheralded Rafael Furcal. Look for the Atlanta shortstop to be a major factor in this series. The UNDER is preferred at 7 or higher. The Giants are worth playing as underdogs in starts by Rueter and Schmidt. Atlanta is worth backing in any game as an underdog. The Braves should survive the Giants and advance to the NLCS, but at -180 have the least value of the three favored teams we pick to win opening round series.