Birds becoming pests
in AL East race

May 11, 2004 6:16 AM

More than a month into the baseball season, things are beginning to take shape in each of the six divisions.

Boston and the Yankees are fighting for the lead in the AL East but Baltimore is right in the mix, 1½ games behind the first place Red Sox. The Orioles spent heavily during the offseason adding lots of pop to the offense by acquiring Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Miguel Tejada.

The O’s are above .500 despite poor starting pitching. Toronto has also played better of late but, as the season wears on, the Yankees and Red Sox should distance themselves from the others.

Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox were expected to be the top two teams in the AL Central. Both were tied for the lead as the week began. Detroit has faded following a fast start but, with a much-improved offense, should avoid finishing last. The Tigers have a real chance to improve as much as 35 wins from last season’s meager 43.

Anaheim has the best record in baseball, beginning the week at 22-10. The Angels have gotten better than expected starting pitching to support a very potent offense that has enabled them to overcome several key injuries. Texas continues to surprise as well and remains 2½ behind Anaheim.

The Rangers success has been mainly due to their outstanding play at home, especially in terms of run production. Texas has the greatest differential (3.9) in runs scored at home vs. on the road. The Cubs are second at 2.3 runs.

Florida leads the NL East with Philadelphia finally starting to play up to its potential. Following a three game road sweep in Arizona, the Phillies are above .500 and within two of the Marlins. Atlanta has battled injuries that sidelined Chipper Jones (now back) and Rafael Furcal and is battling the Mets for third.

Houston has opened a two game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central. The Astros look like the best balanced team in the division. The top starting four of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller is every bit as formidable as the Cubs and Houston has the deeper offense. St. Louis is an early disappointment due largely to a slumping offense and winning just 6 of its first 17 games at Busch Stadium.

The Dodgers have the second best record in baseball, tied with Anaheim for the fewest losses. Los Angeles leads the NL West by a pair of games over another early season surprise, San Diego. San Francisco and Colorado are five games out of second. Pitching has been the key for both the Dodgers and Padres. The LA offense is riding the improved production from Adrian Beltre and Paul Lo Duca.

It should come as no surprise that Los Angeles, Anaheim and Texas have been the most profitable teams thus far, each up more than 10 units on the season. Kansas City has been the most unprofitable team in 2004, down nearly 11 units. The most profitable home team has been Texas, up over seven units.

Toronto had been rivaling St Louis for the most unprofitable home team prior to reeling off five straight home wins over the past week. On the road the Dodgers have been best, up over 9 units. Anaheim, Detroit and St. Louis are each up between five and six units. On the down side Kansas City and Tampa Bay have lost their backers nearly 10 units on the road. Montreal, Seattle and Cleveland have dropped more than five away from home.

Overall, home teams have won just over 54 percent of all games, close to the historical norm over the past five seasons. The breakdown is "over" 227, "under" 218 with 12 "pushes." Two games had no totals results because those games were rain shortened.

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

Marlins at Cards: Florida’s pitchers are appealing as "underdogs." Carl Pavano, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett each have excellent secondary stats including outstanding control. Pavano has been very solid, averaging over seven innings per start. Last year’s rookie sensation, Dontrelle Willis, got off to a blazing start but has been hit hard of late.

The one Cardinals starter who has been most ineffective and would be a ”˜go against’ as a favorite is Woody Williams. Play UNDER in at least two of the three games at 9 or higher.

Cubs at Padres: San Diego has the better bullpen with closer Trevor Hoffman seemingly fully recovered from the injury that caused him to miss most of 2003. This shapes up as a low scoring series. Play UNDER in any matchup of San Diego’s Jake Peavy (1.94 ERA) or David Wells against Chicago’s Matt Clement, Kerry Wood or Carlos Zambrano at totals as low as 7.

In such matchups the dog would be the most attractive play. Other matchups, especially when Padres righty Brian Lawrence starts, can be played "over" at 9 or less. Lawrence has been one of this season’s most fortunate starters. Despite an ERA above 5, five of his seven starts have resulted in wins.

Mariners at Yanks: New York took two of three last week in Seattle with two games staying below the total. Seattle saw the Yanks’ fourth and fifth starters and was able to get to both Jon Lieber and Donovan Osborne. The M’s were unable to handle Mike Mussina, who had his best outing of the season. The Yankees should be at least -200 in each game.

The only Mariners starter worth backing would be Freddy Garcia. Others, including Jamie Moyer, present opportunities for OVER if the total is no higher than 9. Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown have been the most consistent Yankee starters. If either is matched up against Garcia, play UNDER at 8 or higher.

Twins at White Sox: Of the 10 pitchers who have started for both teams only Chicago’s Scott Schoeneweis has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched. Minnesota starters have displayed above average control with both Carlos Silva and Brad Radke having the best overall stats. Both may be played as Underdogs,

The Twins have won five of Silva’s six starts. Play OVER throughout the series at 10 or lower except in starts by Radke and Silva. Then, the total should be no higher than 9.