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HERE WE GO

Sep 2, 2003 9:45 AM

Rosters expanded to 40 players as of Monday, so many teams out of contention will look at these young players up from Triple A and Double A ball with an eyes towards the 2004 season.

Fortunately there are still more than half of baseball’s 30 teams still in contention for the playoffs so most of the games over the next few weeks will be meaningful. This is especially true in the National League where the wild card race remains extremely crowded and contentious.

Beginning the week Florida and Philadelphia remain tied for the wild card lead with a 1½-game lead over Los Angeles and two over Houston. Arizona and Montreal are just three back with the Chicago Cubs only a half game further back.

Over the next week these standings could completely reverse themselves should several of these teams go on even a modest three or four game winning or losing streak. St Louis is also in the mix but begin the week with a one game lead over Houston in the NL Central.

Atlanta and San Francisco continue to lead the East and West respectively and should clinch Division titles within the next two weeks.

There are still three competitive divisional races in the American League. The Yankees lead Boston by 5½ games in the East and meet this weekend at Yankee Stadium. In the Central Chicago’s White Sox begin the week with a 1½ lead over both Minnesota and Kansas City.

In the West, Oakland now leads Seattle by two games. The AL wild card chase shows Seattle with 1½-game edge over Boston, with just a one game margin in the all important loss column.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend involving teams in playoff contention.

Marlins vs Expos (San Juan): Florida had a chance to sweep their four game home series against the Expos with a win on Monday. This series may be Montreal’s last chance to remain a player in the NL wild card race. The first three games of last weekend’s series were all competitive and Montreal had early leads in two of them.

Expect more low-scoring totals between the two teams as both managers play each game very cautiously. The preference in this series will be for the UNDER and the DOG at least +120.

D’backs at Giants: The first three games of this past weekend’s series featured a total of just 16 runs scored as both teams got excellent starting pitching. Only the Giants Kirk Rueter struggled in his start and can be played against in the rematch if made a favorite.

The UNDER should again be prevalent as Arizona lacks offense but has the better overall starting pitching. San Francisco can be played as underdogs against either Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson provided Rueter is not the mound opponent.

Red Sox at Yankees: Boston dropped two of three at Fenway last weekend and this could be their final chance to catch New York in the AL East. Otherwise, the Red Sox will have to be content to challenge Seattle or Oakland for the wild card. The Yankees continue to have problems with their bullpen and that gives Boston -- and its powerful lineup -- a chance late in games.

The Yankees have generally not been hitting well in recent games and SS Derek Jeter was banged up over the weekend. RED SOX are the play as underdogs throughout the series as they are in excellent position to grab at least two of three games.

A’s at D’Rays: Tampa Bay, despite a winning percentage of under .400, has been a decent home team. Oakland has struggled on the road with a losing mark away from home. The A’s are the hottest team in baseball -- once again -- as they are putting together yet another outstanding second half of the season. They begin the week as winners of nine straight, including three last weekend over these Devil Rays. But none of the wins was a blowout.

If made a huge dog of at least +200, TAMPA BAY stands an excellent chance of gaining some revenge. Oakland has won five of six meetings this season but none by more than three runs. The UNDER is also worthy of play throughout the series at 9 or higher