Be brave, guess who’s leading NL East?

May 13, 2003 7:06 AM

Atlanta, by playing outstanding baseball over the past few weeks, is in its customary place atop the NL East. Montreal and Philadelphia, the chief challengers thus far to the Braves, have benefited from solid starting pitching and should be contenders in what should be a race decided late in September.

The NL Central is tightly bunched with no team able to establish consistently good form. The Cubs have the early lead but are just four games over .500 and own just a two-game cushion on fourth place Cincinnati. The Reds and Houston have played the best baseball in the division over the past couple of weeks. Chicago has the strongest starting pitching. Houston and St Louis possess the best-balanced offenses.

San Francisco remains clearly the top team in the NL West, having already opened up a six game lead over Los Angeles. The other three teams in the division have losing records with only Arizona likely to make much of a run once Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are fully healthy.

The New York Yankees continue to set the pace in the AL East. Boston is still playing well, but lack of depth in the starting rotation suggests the Yanks might win the division going away.

Kansas City still leads the AL Central but Minnesota’s fine play of late has enabled the Twins to close within 2½ games of the Royals. No other team is above .500, but woeful Detroit has managed to play .500 ball over its last 10 games.

Seattle continues to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the young season. Despite the departure of ex-manager Lou Piniella, the Mariners are tied with Oakland atop the AL West. The M’s don’t have an outstanding starter, but their lineup is balanced. Oakland should win the division with its outstanding rotation which becomes even more of a factor deeper in the season.

Home teams are winning just under 55 percent of all games with NL parks providing a greater advantage than AL stadiums.

OVER/UNDER results are almost even with the OVER holding a slight 265-259 edge. There have been 28 pushes. Interestingly, though not necessarily surprisingly, there have been more OVER than UNDER results in the AL. The NL has had more UNDER totals. The absence of the DH in the NL would lead to lower scoring overall but that difference is reflected in the number established by the lines maker.

Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend.

Phils at Astros: The Phillies took 2-of-3 last weekend as both Randy Wolf and Brett Myers continue to pitch extremely well. Kevin Millwood has also pitched very well and any of the three may be played as underdogs in this series. Both Vincente Padilla and Brandon Duckworth are the ”˜go against’ pitchers for the Phils. Houston’s starting pitching has been largely ineffective, even ace Roy Oswalt. Every Astros starter has allowed more hits than innings pitched. Both teams have plenty of punch so play OVER.

Mets at Giants: San Francisco continues to be a surprise team with its outstanding 25-11 start. The Mets are baseball’s most underachieving team considering the offensive stars in their lineup and an above average starting rotation led by lefties Al Leiter and Tom Glavine. The Giants were dealt a blow last week with the announcement that closer Robb Nen will be lost for the season. The Mets are likely underdogs in the series and worth backing if either Leiter or Glavine start. Play UNDER if they face Damian Moss, Jason Schmidt or Kirk Rueter. The Giants are a combined 16-6 when those three pitch, with each owning an ERA under 2.75 in more than 40 innings of work. Any other pitching match up favors the OVER.

Angels at Red Sox: Boston had the third best record in the AL but trailed the Yankees by three games. Anaheim sits 5½ games behind both Oakland and Seattle in the West. Boston has won mostly with offense. The starting pitching has struggled with only ace Pedro Martinez having a solid season. The other four starters have ERAs above 4.25 and the bullpen has been a mess. Anaheim’s starters, except for Jarrod Washburn, have not fared any better. The Angels should have success in Fenway Park. Play OVER at lines of 10 or less, even when Martinez starts. Back Anaheim as an underdog against anyone but Pedro if getting at least +130.

White Sox at Twins: Minnesota was 8-2 in its last 10 games starting the week, while the Pale Hose have struggled and remain below .500. The White Sox have been disappointed in the pitching of both Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle. Instead, castoff Esteban Loaiza has been the early season ace. Any of the three can be backed as road underdogs. Minnesota’s best pitcher has been Kyle Lohse and not "supposed ace," Brad Radke. Take OVER at 10 or less. Beginning the week, the Twins had scored five runs or more in 11-of-12 previous games.