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Playoff berths wide open with 3 weeks left

Sep 9, 2003 5:41 AM

Just three weeks remain in the regular season and half of the teams in the both the American and National League remain in legitimate contention for the playoffs.

Only Atlanta and San Francisco are all but mathematically certain to make the postseason as winners of the NL East and West Divisions respectively. There remains a three-team race the Central Division of both leagues.

Chicago’s Cubs have a half game lead over Houston and a 1½-game margign over St. Louis in the NL Central. The city’s other team, the White Sox, are tied with Minnesota, three games ahead of Kansas City.

Boston or the New York Yankees will win the AL East while Oakland or Seattle will emerge as AL West champion. One of the second-place teams in the division races will win the wild card. Starting this week Boston has a 1½ game lead over Seattle in the wild card race while trailing the Yankees by 2½ in the divisional race. Seattle is just two games behind Oakland in the AL West.

The NL wild card chase remains tight. Since last week only Montreal has pretty much been eliminated, now 7½ back. Arizona is on the brink of realistic elimination, trailing by six. Beginning the week Philadelphia is one game ahead of Florida with the Los Angeles Dodgers three back. Houston is a half game further back and St Louis trails the Phillies by 4½.

With most teams having no more than 20 games remaining there will be very few meaningless series down the stretch. Here’s a look at four to be played this weekend involving contending teams.

Braves at Marlins: The teams have split a dozen games this season. Atlanta is battling San Francisco for the best record in the NL while the Marlins are seeking to overtake Philadelphia in the wild card race. Florida has benefited from solid starting pitching all season. Of the five regulars in the rotation only Brad Penny and Carl Pavano have ERA’s barely above 4.00.

The Marlins are worth backing as Underdogs throughout this series. Shane Reynolds is the only Atlanta starter with an ERA much above 4.00. If he starts, that game is the most likely to go OVER the total. Otherwise, look to play UNDER any total above 8.

Cards at Astros: This NL Central matchup works to the advantage of the Cubs who host Cincinnati while the Astros and Cardinals face off. Neither team can afford to be swept if they want to remain in realistic contention for both the division title and the NL Wild Card. Houston has won 7 of 12 meetings this season but the teams have not met since late May. Both teams have similar records over the past month and are stronger in hitting than in pitching. Houston’s bullpen rates the edge over the St Louis relievers.

No starter for either team has been outstanding this season so the OVER would be the first way to look, especially at totals of 9 or less. If either team is made an Underdog of at least +125, that would also be the way to play.

White Sox at Red Sox: This is a huge series for both teams and a sweep by either team will hurt the chances of the loser. Boston has won four of the six meetings this season, all of which were played in Chicago. Five of the six games also went UNDER the total. We should see more offense in this series and the first look will be to the OVER in any matchup not involving Boston’s Pedro Martinez or Chicago’s Esteban Loaiza. Our choice is Loaiza for the AL Cy Young Award.

Chicago is worth playing in any game as the Underdog. The White Sox have score at least four runs in 19 of their last 21 games starting the week. Boston has scored four or more in 15 of their last 17 games.

A’s at Rangers: Although Texas has long been out of contention for the playoffs and Oakland has had its usual strong second half, the teams have almost identical records over the past month. Texas is playing its best ball of the season with improved pitching and timely hitting, especially from Alex Rodriguez. Oakland has won nine of 13 meetings but the teams have not met since late June.

The A’s should be favored throughout the series. Texas is worth backing as an Underdog when John Thomson or R A Dickey starts. The OVER is worth a play when any other pitcher starts for Texas, provided the total is no higher than 10.