Royals could take AL Central by default

Jul 22, 2003 5:35 AM

There is a natural ebb and flow to every baseball season.

As we begin the first full week of action following the All Star break all six division leaders have opened up leads of at least three games. With approximately 60 games remaining, there is still plenty of time to make up ground. The leaders, however, have the edge and the opportunity to extend the margins and play much of September setting up pitching rotations for the playoffs.

In the American League, the New York Yankees, Kansas City and Seattle are on top. The surprising Royals are the only team above .500 in the AL Central, leading Minnesota by 6½ games starting the week. KC may win the division by default. It’s noteworthy that despite taking three of four last weekend against Seattle, the Royals are below .500 against the AL East and West.

As for West, it was a miserable return from the All Star break. The A’s, M’s, Angels and Rangers were a combined 3-13. The Mariners actually gained a game on both Anaheim and Oakland, who were swept in Baltimore and Minnesota respectively. Seattle started the week five up on Oakland.

The Yankees doubled their lead to four over Boston, while Toronto fell 11 back and might become talent providers as trading deadline nears. Already the Blue Jays have dealt leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart to Minnesota after losing 17 of their last 30 games.

Boston has the wild card lead by three over Oakland and seven over the Jays. Anaheim is one half game further back with no other AL team above .500. Watch the A’s, who have the starting pitching to make up those gaps against both Seattle and Boston.

The NL races are much more interesting. Ten of the 16 teams are above .500 with Colorado just one game below. Atlanta, carrying baseball’s best record, has a commanding 9½ game lead over Philadelphia in the East. Philadelphia is two games up on Arizona for the wild card and would own a two game edge in the Central. Both Montreal and Florida are very much in the wild card race.

Houston is starting to take control in the Central, opening a three game lead over St. Louis. The Cubs are 1½ behind the Cardinals. In the West, San Francisco extended its lead over Arizona to seven with Los Angeles 9½ out.

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

Cubs at Astros: The Cubs and Astros have split six games, although two of Chicago’s three wins have been one run games. The Cubs have the better and deeper starting rotation while Houston’s edge clearly is offense. The Astros also have an edge in the bullpen with Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner taking care of the eighth and ninth innings. The surprise value for Houston is Ron Villone as a starter, who is worth backing as a —125 favorite. Villone may be an underdog against Mark Prior or Kerry Wood.

The Cubs are worthy of a play as dogs against struggling Wade Miller or if Prior and Wood are not favored against Roy Oswalt. The "over" is 3-2-1 in the six meetings, so betting the total is hazardous.

Dodgers at D’backs: The Dodgers had won four of six meetings against the Snakes before Arizona took two of three in Los Angeles before the break. The Dodgers had the stronger start to the season but Arizona has been the hottest team in the league over the past month, winning 21 of 30 games. The Dodgers are just 12-18 over the same span. Arizona’s recent success has been without aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, both of whom are back from the DL. Kevin Brown also is back from injury and, along with Hideo Nomo, is worth backing against either Schilling or Johnson.

On the other side, Arizona’s Brandon Webb is worth backing as an underdog against Brown or Nomo. The most recent four games between the teams have gone UNDER, with the teams averaging just 6.2 runs in the nine meetings.

Yankees at Red Sox: This becomes an important series for Boston, which has lost two games in the standings since the break. The Yanks are 6-4 in the season series and have had much more consistent starting pitching over the past month. The offense has also picked up with Bernie Williams back from the DL and Jason Giambi finding his power stroke.

The intensity of this rivalry always makes the underdog an attractive play in any matchup. The OVER is 6-4 in the 10 games, with the teams averaging 10.6 runs. Note that only twice has the final score been fewer than eight runs.

A’s at Angels: This is an important series for the Angels if they are to retain a reasonable shot at the playoffs. Anaheim has won five of nine games between the teams this season, with the road team going 7-2. The OVER is also 7-2 in the matchups, with the teams averaging 9.7 total runs.

Oakland is worth a play as underdogs in starts by their big three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito or Mark Mulder. Anaheim is worth backing as dogs in starts by Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn or John Lackey. Take the OVER in any other matchup.