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T for tough

May 4, 2004 7:13 AM

Through roughly 25 games, we have seen several winning and losing streaks of a half dozen games.

A week ago Boston was fresh off a sweep of New York at Yankee Stadium. The BoSox are 6-1 against the "evil empire" this season. Since then the Yankees have won six in a row following sweeps of Oakland and Kansas City.

The sweep over Oakland was especially impressive since the Yanks had to face the As’ big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Meanwhile the Red Sox ended the week being swept at Texas.

The Rangers may be the most pleasant surprise in baseball, owning a 16-9 record. Manager Buck Showalter must be given a great deal of credit after using last season as a learning experience to evaluate the talent he inherited.

The pitching staff has shown great improvement and there is a fine blend of youth and veteran leadership. Texas should eventually be overtaken by both Anaheim and Oakland but Showalter has a track record suggesting the improvement is real and the Rangers could battle with Seattle for third in the AL West.

Detroit continues to play respectable baseball after last season’s disastrous results. And keep an eye on Toronto. The Blue Jays opened 1-8 at home, but they’ve started to play better on the road the past week. With home series this week against Kansas City and the White Sox, the Blue Jays are poised to perform better at SkyDome.

The Royals are a major disappointment following their surprisingly strong start last season. The Royals have a decent offense but no pitching whatsoever and their mound woes have contributed to a league worst 7-16 start. Only Montreal has a poorer record.

San Diego has been the hottest team recently in the NL, winning seven of 10. This has enabled the Padres to tie the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the NL West. But once again let’s keep things in perspective. That 7-3 record came against Arizona, Montreal and the New York Mets, teams with the three worst records in the NL.

The early season award for the best division goes to the NL Central where Milwaukee is in last place but just one game below .500. Houston has moved into first place, a game ahead of the Chicago Cubs. Houston’s pitching is looking every bit as good as the Cubs’ and, when the bullpen is factored in the Astros are given the edge. Over the course of the season the Cubs and Astros should distance themselves from St. Louis whose bullpen has struggled early.

Defending World Series champion Florida is the only NL East team with a winning record starting the week. The Marlins and Philadelphia figure to battle one another all season in hopes of ending Atlanta’s stranglehold on the division title. The Braves are 12-12 and have slugger Chipper Jones sidelined. Atlanta should show a loss as a favorite over the course of the season and sharp handicappers will be looking to go against the Braves,

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

Astros at Braves: Roger Clemens has been sensation in his first several NL starts for Houston, while Andy Pettitte rebounded with a strong effort following a stint on the DL. Play both and Roy Oswalt at -140. Play Houston as an underdog in any pitching matchup. Atlanta no longer has a ”˜stopper’ or an ”˜ace’ and will not have its normal edge against a strong hitting team such as the Astros. Four of the five Atlanta starters are allowing a below average number of base runners per inning. Play "over" when Clemens and Oswalt don’t start. Regardless, look for Houston to win at least twice.

Padres at Marlins: Both teams are off to strong starts due in large part to deep starting rotations. This series should feature at least two "under" results. Play "under" in any matchup not involving pitchers Brian Lawrence (San Diego) or Darren Oliver (Florida) at 8 or higher. Bet the underdog except if Lawrence or Oliver are involved. San Diego is 5-5 on the road.

Royals at Red Sox: The Royals have used seven starting pitchers already this season and each has allowed more than a hit per inning. Their baserunners allowed per inning is, of course, even worse when walks are figured in. Kansas City has a potent offense, but scored just eight runs in dropping all three games to the Yankees. KC is a risky take against either Pedro Martinez or Curt Schilling. Against other Boston starters play Royals at +160 or more. Play "over" at 10 in starts other than Martinez and Schilling. With Pedro and Curt on the mound, play "over" at 8 or lower.

Twins at A’s: Oakland lost the bat of Miguel Tejada and is off to a 12-13 start. A main concern has been the last two efforts of starter Barry Zito, hit hard by both the Angels and Yankees. Oakland has played most of their games on the road during the first month and can be expected to perform better at home. Play "under" 9 or higher in pitcher friendly park. Oakland has scored three runs or less in more than half of their games. Minnesota has been more productive at the plate but will be facing the strongest set of starters this season. Play Oakland as a —130 favorite. Go with Minnesota at +160, although the Twins may be played at +125 when lefty Johan Santana starts.