Holy cow!

Jun 3, 2003 6:30 AM

Inter-league baseball has received mixed reviews since beginning several seasons ago in an attempt to boost baseball’s overall popularity.

The prospects of seeing NL and AL stars display their talents carries widespread appeal to fans. Watching Roger Clemens pitch and bat for the Yankees in National League stadiums has already had some unique sidelights. Hoping for Alex Rodriquez to reach the fences in NL parks has intrigue.

Over the past week, the pennant races have loosened up somewhat even though more than 100 games remain.

The Chicago Cubs have baseball’s smallest division lead. The Cubbies are just one game ahead of Houston in the NL Central. St Louis is just another game back and Cincinnati 3½ out and hanging around. The division is so competitive that even last place Milwaukee ”” a pretty bad team ”” is only 8½ out. The Brewers are the only cellar club less than 10 games behind the division leader.

Atlanta’s lead in the NL East has grown to 4½ games over Montreal. Philadelphia remains six back even after a weekend sweep of the Expos in the battle for second place. San Francisco similarly leads Los Angeles by 4½ in the NL West with no other team in the division at .500.

The Yankees have the smallest margin of any AL division lead. New York began the week with a 1½-game lead over Boston in the East. Surging Toronto is right on the heels of both the Yanks and Red Sox, just two back. Over the past 10 days, the Blue Jays swept a four game series at New York and a three game home series against Boston. And, the surging Baltimore Orioles are with 4½ games of New York.

Minnesota has opened up a 3½ game lead over struggling Kansas City in the AL Central, arguably baseball’s weakest Division. The Royals have dropped to .500 after leading the division since the season began two months ago.

Saving the best for last, the Seattle Mariners are baseball’s biggest surprise. Barely picked to contend for a wild card in the AL, Seattle has opened up a five game lead over Oakland in the West. Most impressively, the Mariners have the best record in all of baseball. Yet, few have taken notice.

Second place Oakland currently holds the AL wild card. At 10-1 to win the World Series, the Mariners may be an attractive ”˜long shot’ with their tremendous team balance and chemistry. Montreal currently controls the wild card in the NL.

Interleague play began Tuesday, but with 16 NL teams and 14 AL, one series will stand apart. This weekend Pittsburgh will be at Atlanta, while the other 28 teams are involved in Interleague play. Note that the designated hitter rule will be used for games played in AL stadiums, while AL pitchers will be required to bat at NL venues.

All games this weekend will be played at the home of NL teams. Here’s a look at four of the more interesting matchups.

Yankees at Cubs: Two of baseball’s most storied franchises hook up. The only thing that would be better would be if Sammy Sosa got a chance to swing at the fences in the House That Ruth Built. But we’ll have to settle for the Bronx Bombers shooting at the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field. Both teams are benefiting from solid starting pitching so far with the Yankee rotation perhaps the best 1-to-5 in the game.

Chicago has gotten expected strong results from Mark Prior and Kerry Wood but the surprise of the early season has been Carlos Zambrano. Although the Cubs have won just six of his eleven starts Zambrano’s 2.69 ERA a third of the way through the season is a primary reason why the Cubs have remained contenders in the NL Central. The Cubs will be worth playing throughout this series as underdogs except when lefty Shawn Estes starts. He has been very erratic and might be the best bet in the series for an OVER play. Winds will dictate the totals in this series but the UNDER has more appeal than the OVER. Use the lines maker and the winds as a guide, looking to play OVER totals of 7½ over less and UNDER totals of 10½ or higher.

A’s at Phillies: This very attractive matchup features a pair of teams expected to contend for the Playoffs. Both teams are similar with solid starting rotations and inconsistent offenses. Oakland has the overall edge in starting pitching but Philly is given the edge in overall offense. Four of Oakland’s starters have ERAs of 4.21 or less in the offensive oriented American League.

Four Philly starters have ERAs under 3.50 so the obvious way to look in this series will be at the UNDER, especially at totals of 8 or higher. The one exception would be when John Halama starts for Oakland or when Brandon Duckworth starts for the Phillies. If they oppose one another the OVER is worth playing, even at a total of 9 or higher. The side plays would favor Oakland as an underdog in starts by Barry Zito, Mark Mulder or Tim Hudson. Philadelphia is worthy of play as an underdog in starts by Kevin Millwood or Brent Myers.

Royals at Rockies: No team in baseball has a greater disparity in home and road records than Colorado. The Rockies have baseball’s best home mark at 21-8, but the worst road record at 6-22. Kansas City’s 16-3 start is a distant memory. The Royals are 11-24 since. The starting pitching has started to weaken which has put additional pressure on a fragile bullpen that had overachieved in the season’s first three weeks.

The play in this series will be on Kansas City and the OVER. The only exception would be when Colorado’s Shawn Chacon takes the mound. Chacon is having an excellent season and the Rockies have won 9 of his 11 starts. Takes Chacon if -140 or less.

White Sox at Dodgers: The Dodgers continue to be an UNDER machine, landing below the posted total in 38 of 56 games, including four pushes. The White Sox have also had more UNDER than OVER results, due largely to the effectiveness of starting pitchers Bartolo Colon and Esteban Loaiza. The pair has combined for a 17-4 UNDER mark when they pitch.

The White Sox are one of baseball’s most disappointing teams. Lefty Mark Buehrle, off a sensational 2002 season, is winless in his last 10 starts. Los Angeles will be favored throughout the series, but the White Sox are worth playing in starts by Colon, Loaiza and Buehrle. Totals will be tough to play because the books have caught up with the strong LA tendencies but go for it at 8 or higher. Should Kevin Brown get a start, bet UNDER at 7.