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Center stage

Jun 17, 2003 7:28 AM

Now that San Antonio has defeated New Jersey for the NBA Title and New Jersey has beaten Anaheim to win hockey’s Stanley Cup the sports stage will largely be centered around major league baseball.

At least for the next couple of months, as we await the beginning of the NFL’s preseason.

The next six weeks or so will be the quietest time of the season in most sports books in Nevada as baseball draws the least amount of interest among casual bettors. But this time of the season often presents some of the best wagering opportunities of the season.

With just under 100 games left, there is enough data on each team to get a realistic impression of strengths, weaknesses, offense, starting pitching and bullpens. We know the contenders, pretenders and teams looking to the future by trading off expensive veterans and looking to develop younger players.

Of course, so do the lines makers.

The top contending teams often carry prohibitive favorites prices, while the lowly teams, while attractively priced, are extremely risky plays. That still leaves about 15-18 teams that fall into the classification of being short of World Series contenders but not cellar dwellers. Such teams are often priced as moderate favorites or underdogs.

Many bettors focus their attention on looking to play these teams as underdogs when facing other than the game’s elite teams. Look to include in this group teams that are winning between 45 and 55 percent of their games. When having a decent starting pitching advantage, these teams often win when priced at +125 or higher.

Atlanta and Seattle continue to have baseball’s best record at 45-22 starting the week. These teams played a well-pitched series last weekend in Seattle that saw the hosts take two of three games. Each contest went easily UNDER the total. For the series, each team scored a total of five runs.

Not surprisingly these teams have the largest leads of any division leader, both seven games up on their nearest rival. The Braves lead Montreal in the NL East while the Mariners have nice cushion on Oakland in the AL West.

The two most competitive divisions are the AL East and the NL Central. The Yankees lead the AL East by just a half game over Boston, with Toronto just two games back. There is a four-team race developing in the NL Central, where the Cubs lead Houston by one game, St Louis by two and Cincinnati by just three.

Minnesota has an ever-increasing four-game margin over Kansas City in the AL Central while San Francisco’s advantage over the Los Angeles Dodgers is just two in the NL West.

San Diego and Detroit remain the worst teams in baseball. Despite less than half the season having been played, both the Padres and Tigers are more than 20 games out of first in their respective divisions. In fact, all six division last place teams are more than 10 behind the front-runners.

Interleague play continues after a mid-week schedule that featured all games within each league. Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend. Each matchup will be played at National League venues with the exception of the AL West series between Oakland and Texas.

White Sox at Cubs: The battle for the Second City’s top team seems to point to the Cubs, who are contending in the NL Central. The White Sox have been one of the biggest disappointments thus far, currently third in the AL Central. Both teams have at least a trio of capable starting pitchers. For the Cubs, Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano have been having solid campaigns. For the White Sox Esteban Loaiza has been among the best starters in the AL, while Bartolo Colon has been steady but not dominant.

Any of these five listed pitchers are worth playing as an underdog. The matchups between these pitchers can be played UNDER at 9 or higher. Bet against any other starter as a favorite. A matchup of any two other pitchers can be played OVER 9 or less.

Red Sox at Phillies: Both teams are contenders in their respective divisions. Boston’s Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher who will see action, but Philly has the next best four starters with Kevin Millwood, Brett Myers, Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla. Any can be played as an underdog against Martinez.

Otherwise, these pitchers may be played if favored at no more than -140 against any other Boston hurler. The Red Sox have a better offense but, with no DH in this series, Boston might be hindered. The UNDER should be considered at 9 or less when any of the four listed Phillies pitchers takes the mound.

Yankees at Mets: This has become a very heated rivalry in the short history of interleague play. The much remembered incidents between the Mets’ Mike Piazza and the Yankees’ Roger Clemens still come up in talk radio debates. The rivalry became even more heated when the teams met in the 2000 World Series. Both teams’ fortunes have faded since then but the Mets have taken a dive while the Yankees have at least continued to make the post-season. Piazza is unavailable for the Mets and they continue to struggle.

Korean import Jae Seo, is the only Mets pitcher having a solidly consistent season. Seo, whose earned run average of 2.59 in among the league’s best, is the lone Mets starter below 4.50. Bettors should wager on Seo as an underdog against any Yankees hurler. Seo’s start may also be played UNDER. Bet all other games OVER 9 or lower. The Yanks are the play with any starter at no more than -130.

Giants at A’s: Both teams made the postseason in 2002 and are in contention again. Each squad relies more on solid starting pitching to go deep into games before turning the game over to capable bullpens in the late innings. For the Giants the two key pitchers worth backing as underdogs are Kurt Rueter and Jason Schmidt.

For Oakland, Mark Mulder, bet Barry Zito and Tim Hudson can against any other Giants starter if favored at no more than -120. Any matchup involving a combination of these five hurlers may be played UNDER 8 or higher. Games involving other pitchers should be viewed as potential OVER plays at 9 or lower.