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Memorial Day haslook of close races

May 20, 2003 11:27 PM

Memorial Day has historically been the point in the baseball season when pennant races begin and teams begin to give thought to what they must do to contend.

All six division races find the current leaders four games or less ahead of the nearest pursuers.

The widest margin is in the NL East where Atlanta leads Montreal by four games with Philadelphia six behind. In fact, all three NL races feature division leaders with larger margins than any AL frontrunner. Chicago’s Cubs lead the NL Central and San Francisco sets the pace in the NL West.

Boston and the New York Yankees start the week tied for the lead in the AL East while Minnesota has supplanted Kansas City in the AL Central by a half game. Seattle is one game in front of Oakland in the AL West.

Many baseball handicappers go beyond the normal statistics in looking to pick the winner of a baseball game. Although a team’s bullpen has become more and more of a factor in determining the outcome of games, the betting process still begins by evaluating the opposing starting pitchers.

Often simplistic handicapping looks to a win-loss record and ERA to gauge the differences between pitchers. One of the so-called secondary statistics that has gained acceptance in recent years has been the ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched (aka WHIP). This is a good measure of both a pitcher’s effectiveness and control. The lower the ratio, the better the pitcher.

A low ratio indicates a pitcher more likely to go deeper into a game and make the utilization of the bullpen less likely. Of the 113 starters who had pitched at least 40 innings though last Sunday, only four possessed a ratio of 1.00 or better. Their teams had won 24 of 33 games this season.

There are 14 pitchers with ratios of 1.10 or less and their teams have gone 81-42 this season, winning nearly 67 percent of starting efforts. Of the 15 starters with ratios of 1.60 or higher (those allowing a high number of baserunners per inning) their teams have won just 52 of 132 starts (less than 40 percent).

In using this tool in your own handicapping, look for competitively priced matchups involving a high ratio pitcher opposing a low ratio pitcher. There are often times when less heralded low ratio pitchers will be underdogs against more highly publicized pitchers who have been struggling.

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

Phillies at Expos: The Phillies have the better balance in starting pitching with Kevin Millwood, Brett Myers, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf. Javier Vazquez heads Montreal’s solid rotation. Both teams have competent offenses yet have had periods of offensive drought. Bet UNDER throughout the three game series at totals of 8 or higher. Any starting pitcher on either team as an underdog is worth a look in what should be a well-played competitive series.

Cubs at Astros: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have accounted for 14 Cubs victories in 18 starts. Both are plays if favored up to —120 against any Houston starter. Houston’s starting pitching has been a disappointment, especially Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt. None of the Astros starters have allowed fewer hits than innings pitched or displayed above average control. The Cubs are without Sammy Sosa but their bats have not been silenced. Bet OVER when other than Wood or Prior start for the Cubbies.

Blue Jays at Yanks: New York managed just eight runs in three games against Texas, all losses. Toronto is hot this month largely because of its offense. Staff ace Roy Halladay leads the rotation with an ERA just over 4.50. For the Yankees, only fifth starter Jeff Weaver has a higher ERA. The Yanks will be solid favorites throughout the series and actually might be considered bargains when laying less than 2-1 odds. The one Blue Jays starter worth consideration is lefty Mark Hendrickson, the former Washington State basketball player. At totals of 9 or less, bet OVER.

Twins at Mariners: Seattle’s five-man rotation has been solid with only Freddy Garcia sporting an ERA in excess of 4.00. Kyle Lohse is the only Minnesota starter with an ERA below that figure and worth playing as an underdog. Seattle’s offense has been underrated all season but begins this week having scored at least six runs in six of the prior seven games. At totals of 9 or less, play OVER. The exceptions will be when Seattle’s Gil Meche or Lohse get starts. If the two oppose each other, play UNDER at 8 or higher.