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15 still fighting

Aug 19, 2003 6:53 AM

With less than 40 games remaining in the 2003 regular season, half of baseball’s 30 teams remain in legitimate contention for postseason play.

With four of six divisional races still being hotly contested and both wild card races extremely competitive, baseball’s final six weeks will give the NFL plenty of competition for the sports fan’s attention ”” and wagering dollar ”” as likely more games than ever before down the stretch will actually have a bearing on the teams that make it to the playoffs.

Atlanta continues to have baseball’s best record and the only double-digit division lead, with an 11-game bulge over Philadelphia in the NL East. San Francisco’s margin in the NL West has been trimmed to 8½ over Arizona following a five-game losing streak entering the week. The best divisional race in baseball remains in the NL Central where Houston has a half game lead over Chicago and a one game edge over St Louis.

The Yankees have extended their lead over Boston to five games in the AL East while Seattle’s edge over Oakland is four in the AL West. Once again the Central Division has both the closest race in the league and the only three-team battle with Kansas City leading both Chicago and Minnesota by three games.

Most likely only the AL Central winner will advance to the playoffs since both the White Sox and Twins are eight games out in the wild card race. As the week begins Boston and Oakland are tied for the wild card lead with identical 71-53 records.

Baseball’s best race remains the NL wild card. Colorado may have played itself out of contention with a four-game losing streak beginning the week to fall below .500. However that still leaves seven teams within just 5½ of one another. Philadelphia has a half game lead over Florida. St Louis and Montreal are the trailers in the race with Arizona, the Cubs and Los Angeles all tightly bunched in the middle.

Be wary of starting pitchers ”” especially the younger one ”” who may be reaching the limits of their arm capacity as the innings begin to approach 200 for the season. As baseball has changed over the last few decades, pitchers are less accustomed to throwing more than 200 innings. Thus, bullpens should take on added importance in the closing weeks.

Hence, pay attention to how managers of contending teams use both starters and relievers over the next few weeks. Here’s a look at four key series to be played this weekend.

Cubs at D’backs: These teams met just a few weeks ago in Chicago and played three one-run games, each going below the posted total. The Cubs won 2-of-3, but both teams mirror each other with strong pitching and struggling offense. The strongest preference for this series is UNDER at 7 or higher. The exception would be when Elmer Dessens starts for Arizona or Shawn Estes goes for the Cubs. Take ARIZONA as a —140 or less favorite except if Dessens gets the start.

Marlins at Giants: These teams met early in May when the Giants were surging and Florida was struggling. The Giants swept a three-game set in Miami with each contest going "under" the posted total. No game produced more than seven runs. Now the Marlins are in playoff contention, while SF returns home after a disappointing road trip. Look for more scoring. Florida’s offense has been clicking and the Giants should have Barry Bonds back. Play FLORIDA as +125 dog and OVER at 8 or lower.

M’s at Red Sox: The teams met last weekend in Seattle with Boston ace Pedro Martinez improving to 11-0 lifetime against the M’s for Boston’s only win. Seattle has the better-balanced starting rotation and can be played as underdogs throughout the series. Seattle looks good when facing Jeff Suppan, who has struggled in his three starts since returning to his initial major league team. There should be more runs scored. Play SEATTLE and OVER at 9 or less.

Royals at Twins: Minnesota took 2-of-3 at Kansas City last weekend with the "over" going 2-1. In fact, the "over" is 8-2 in the last 10 matchups. This four game series begins Thursday and runs should be plentiful. Neither team has a true ”˜ace’ or ”˜stopper’ and the KC bullpen is among the league’s worst. The top starter is Minnesota’s Johan Santana, whose game is most likely to go "under." Kansas City’s best chance for victory would be as underdogs with Darrel May getting the start. Kevin Appier might carry some momentum for a few more starts, but again we favor OVER.