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One half down, .500 ball may be way to go

Jul 1, 2003 5:54 AM

Baseball’s All Star break is still two weeks away but the 2003 season has reached the mathematical halfway point.

Most teams have demonstrated whether they are likely to be contenders for postseason play. Realistically any team playing at least .500 ball has to be considered a contender given the few outstanding clubs we’ve seen.

Only three teams are playing over .600 and, with both Atlanta and Seattle mediocre over the past week or so, there are no teams that are winning at least two of every three games.

Of the 18 teams playing better than .500, four are in the National League West. San Francisco has a three game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers but the team on the rise is Arizona. With aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling on the DL, the Baby Backs start the week with an 11-game winning streak and are now just four out of the lead.

Atlanta continues to set the pace in the NL East, holding a 6½ game margin over Philadelphia, with Montreal another half game back. The Phillies and Expos would have the lead in the NL Central but both figure to contend for the wild card as the Braves continue to have the best record.

The NL Central has a three-team race shaping up with St. Louis finally gaining the division lead. The Cardinals have a slim one game edge over the Chicago Cubs with Houston just a 1½ out.

In the American League West, Seattle has a six game lead over Oakland. The Mariners have the best record in the majors. Last season’s World Series champions, Anaheim, is a game over .500 but more than double-digit games behind Seattle.

Minnesota and Kansas City begin the week tied for the lead in the AL Central, baseball’s weakest division. New York’s Yankees continue to lead the AL East over both Boston and Toronto. The Red Sox are 3½ out with the Blue Jays 5½ behind.

Oakland, Boston and Toronto are the leading contenders for the AL wild card while Los Angeles, Arizona, Philadelphia and Montreal are tightly bunched for the NL wild card.

The NL enjoyed a solid edge over the AL in interleague play, which has just one game scheduled to be made up later this season. Whether this means anything is debatable since the AL representative has enjoyed greater success in the World Series over the past seven seasons.

Here’s a look at four series to be played over the holiday weekend.

Cards at Cubs: St. Louis is contending on the strength of their well-balanced offense while the Cubs have relied on solid starting pitching. Mark Prior anchors the rotation for the Cubs but Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement have each enjoyed periods of success. Even the "weakest link" Shawn Estes has had a few outstanding starts. St. Louis has been led on the mound by Woody Williams, with Matt Morris shaky of late and possibly pitching hurt.

Winds will be the key factor in setting totals throughout the series but the preference is OVER. St. Louis historically plays its best ball over the second half of the season and will be worth backing as an underdog. The best bet for an UNDER is if Williams and Prior face each other.

Expos at Braves: If the Expos are going to make a run at Atlanta, this would be a fine time to start. Montreal has gotten better than expected starting pitching and the offense is generally underrated even with Vladimir Guerrero out of the lineup. Atlanta has one of baseball’s most potent offenses, but its strength is still on the mound, especially with closer John Smoltz. For Montreal, Claudio Vargas has been a major surprise and worth backing as an underdog against any Braves starter.

Atlanta is likely favored in all games but should be an automatic play if an underdog. The best situations for the OVER would be in starts by Atlanta’s Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds or when Tomo Ohka and Livan Hernandez start for Montreal. In such games bet OVER at 9 or less.

Red Sox at Yankees: Both teams have been playing solid baseball. Boston has displayed its potent offense over the past week, while the Yankees have relied more on their starting pitching since being no hit by Houston a few weeks ago. Boston continues to be led by ace Pedro Martinez although Derek Lowe has pitched better of late. The Yankees have gotten strong pitching from all but Jeff Weaver.

The UNDER is the preferred play throughout this series, which should feature deliberate managerial decisions by both New York’s Joe Torre and Boston’s Grady Little. The underdog is always worth a look so bet the Yankees against Martinez and play Boston against Roger Clemens. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.

Angels at A’s: The Angels have to take advantage of a favorable schedule over the next few weeks. Perhaps they can ride the momentum of last weekend’s sweep of the Dodgers to begin a sustained stretch of winning baseball. Oakland will be its toughest foe over the next few weeks. Neither team has been hot on offense of late so the UNDER is recommended.

Use a total of 8 or higher to bet UNDER in starts by Oakland’s Barry Zito, Mark Mulder or Tim Hudson. The Angels have also gotten above average efforts of late from their entire rotation and can be played as a dog during the series.