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Majors shaping up for huge September

Aug 12, 2003 6:28 AM

With more than two thirds of the year complete, baseball fans are in store for a treat. More than half of the teams are still in serious contention for reaching postseason play.

Although two divisional races are runaways (Atlanta in the NL East, San Francisco in the West), the other four divisions feature leads of four games or less. Add to that a pair of compelling wild card races and we may be on the verge of the most exciting September in baseball history.

Divisional races in the AL Central and NL Central have three teams each within 2½ games of the lead. Houston has a slim edge over St Louis and the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. Kansas City continues to lead the surging Chicago White Sox and once-again hot Minnesota in the AL Central.

The New York Yankees have a three game lead over Boston in the AL East with no other team in contention. Seattle maintains its four game margin over Oakland in the West.

The AL wild card is looking like a two team race between Boston and Oakland. They meet in a four game series in Oakland this week. The Red Sox began the week with a one-game lead over the A’s. The White Sox and Twins could benefit should Boston and Oakland split ”” or if Oakland takes 3-of-4. Chicago is six games behind Boston and Minnesota eight back.

The NL wild card race is looking like a crowded Kentucky Derby field entering the top of the stretch. Eight teams are very much in contention. Philadelphia and Florida begin the week tied, with Montreal and Colorado just 5½ back tied for seventh. In between are Arizona, St Louis, the Cubs and Los Angeles.

Much will be decided over the season’s final six weeks. Here’s a look at four series to be played this weekend all of which involve contenders.

Cards at Phils: Both teams are battling for the Wild Card although St Louis still is very much alive to win the NL Central, trailing Houston by just two games starting the week. Surprisingly these teams are meeting for the first time this season and will face each other six times in 10. Philadelphia has the edge in pitching. St Louis has the edge in offense.

The Phillies may be the better-balanced team and are worth playing in any game in which they are the underdog. Woody Williams would be the one St Louis pitcher to back as an underdog while the one Phillies pitcher to avoid is Brandon Duckworth. Use the number 9 as your guide for playing the Totals going UNDER if higher than 9, OVER if lower.

D’backs at Braves: Atlanta took two of three games when these teams met in the desert in early May with two games also going OVER the Total. Atlanta continues to possess baseball’s best record, a full 14 games superior to the Diamondbacks. Arizona has been hurt by a lack of offense all season. The return of aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson has resulted in solid though not overpowering pitching performances.

Atlanta is well balanced and worth backing an underdogs against either Arizona ace. Likewise, Arizona rookie Brandon Webb and the under-publicized Miguel Batista are worthy of backing against any Atlanta hurler. Bet UNDER only at 8½ or higher.

Twins at Royals: This is a key series for both teams. Minnesota has a chance to really get back into contention in the AL Central, while the Royals can put more distance between themselves and the Twins. The teams will meet again in Minnesota next weekend. The Royals have won 8-of-12 meetings this season with the Over / Under split evenly at 6-6.

Minnesota’s best chance would be when Johan Santana or Brad Radke get the start. Kansas City is best served should Runelvys Hernandez or Darrell May take the mound. A matchup involving two of these pitchers presents an opportunity for the UNDER. Otherwise favor OVER at 9 or lower.

Red Sox at M’s: These contenders meet for the first time this season and play four in Boston next weekend. Boston’s success is all about offense and ace Pedro Martinez. Seattle has had a better mixture of balanced offense and pitching. Seattle’s record is just three games better than Boston’s so the next 10 days will also have wild card implications.

Seattle has called upon just five starting pitchers all season and all but Freddie Garcia have been very effective. Boston may be played against Garcia at -125. Any of the other four starters ”” Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, Ryan Franklin or Jamie Moyer ”” may be played as underdogs against Martinez or as a -130 favorite against any other Boston starter. Take the OVER at 9 or less, UNDER at 9½ or higher.