Divisions remaining tight through Memorial Day

May 27, 2003 5:42 AM

With most baseball teams having played 50 games, we have a pretty good gauge as to which teams are contenders, disappointments and enigmas.

By the end of May the fast or slow starts of April are often distant memories. Pitchers and batters both have found their rhythm as the hot weather approaches. The most true to form part of any baseball season is the 91-day period that makes up the months of June, July and August.

In the AL, eight of 14 teams are playing at least .500 baseball with all three divisions separated by no more than 2½ games. Boston, Minnesota and Seattle are the division leaders with Oakland beginning the week a half game ahead of the slumping New York Yankees for the wild card.

Similarly, no NL division leader has an edge of more than 2½ games. Eight of the 16 teams are playing at least break-even ball. The division leaders are Atlanta, the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco, with Montreal holding the wild card as the second place team with the best record.

The Expos have a better record than either the Cubs or Giants and, in fact, have the third best record in baseball. Montreal, owned by Major League Baseball, has the misfortune of playing in the same division as Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how the Expos are handled as the trading deadline approaches in July if they still contending.

Next week begins a short period of interleague play, so these weekend divisional games take on more importance.

Braves at Mets: The Mets were reasonably competitive in dropping two of three in Atlanta last weekend. Only ex-Brave Tom Glavine was roughed up in his return to the city where he toiled for a decade and a half. Atlanta has won 30 of 38 games since its 4-8 start to fashion baseball’s best record. The starting pitching has been just average with no member of the regular rotation having an ERA below 3.70. But John Smoltz has been virtually automatic in the closer’s role and the offense has been potent. Three players have at least a dozen homers and eight regulars are batting at least .280.

The Mets remain an enigma and now must do without their best player, Mike Piazza, for an extended period. Only one starter, Korean-born Jae Seo, has an ERA below 4.00 (2.81). Yet, the Mets have won just one of his nine starts. Veteran lefties Al Leiter and Tom Glavine have struggled and the offense has been inconsistent. That being said, the Mets have value in this series. Play Glavine, Leiter and Seo as underdogs. The OVER looks good. Two of last week’s games went above the posted total.

Brewers at Dodgers: Los Angeles swept the three game series last weekend to close within half a game of NL West leading San Francisco. Milwaukee remains the weakest team in the league outside of San Diego, mainly due to pitching. Matt Kinney is the only starter with an ERA below 4.50. Meanwhile, all five members of the regular LA rotation have ERAs of 3.30 or less.

The Dodgers will be too heavily favored to play as sides in any of the games but the UNDER should be considered throughout. The UNDER is 35-12-3 in the team’s first 50 games. If there is a spot to play Milwaukee, it would be when Kinney takes the mound getting at least +200.

Red Sox at Blue Jays: Following eight wins in their last 10 games, the Blue Jays begin the week just four games behind Boston, which began the week at Yankee Stadium. Both teams have relied more on offense than pitching, with Boston ace Pedro Martinez currently sidelined. Toronto has gotten better starting pitching of late and has won 15 of 22 games started by either Roy Halladay or Cory Lidle. Both should be played at -140 in this series.

Boston had hoped for more from its starters, especially Derek Lowe who enjoyed such a solid season in 2002. The play throughout this series is the OVER, especially at lines of 10 or less. Both teams are capable of big innings and each bullpen has major concerns.

Rangers at Orioles: The teams combined to score 44 runs in their three-game series last weekend in Texas. The scoring should continue in the rematch. Texas has a powerful lineup but no starting pitching. Alex Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro key one of the most potent offenses in the game. Baltimore is also seeing the ball very well, having scored at least six runs in all but one of the past seven games.

The Orioles weakness is also starting pitching. Both teams are well managed with Baltimore’s Mike Hargrove matching wits with Texas’ Buck Showalter. The OVER should be considered at 11 or less. Any underdog of at least +130 is worth taking in a series that should be decided by the bullpens