Cards showing best hand

Jul 27, 2004 5:50 AM

By this weekend, several prominent players are likely to have been traded to contending teams looking to make a late run for the playoffs. For now, the record shows St. Louis is the best team in baseball.

The Cardinals offense was considered perhaps the best balanced in the majors entering the season. There were questions concerned the starting rotation but no more. The five-man rotation averages at least six innings per start with an ERA between 3.70 and 4.35.

At 62-36 beginning the week, St. Louis has the best record in baseball by a half game over the Yankees. The Cards 10-game lead in the NL Central is the largest of any division leader. The division may be baseball’s best, with last place Pittsburgh just 4½ games behind the second place Cubs and just two below .500.

Atlanta leads the NL East by a half game over Philadelphia but has the lowest winning percentage of any division leader. The Braves have a consecutive division title streak dating back to 1991 when they were in the NL West. Florida and the Mets are just 4½ and five games respectively behind the Braves.

Los Angeles has played outstanding baseball over the past month and begins the week with a 3½ game lead over San Diego and San Francisco. At the other end of the spectrum, Arizona lost its 14th straight game on Sunday despite a brilliant effort from Randy Johnson in what might have been his last home start. Johnson pitched eight shutout innings, walking none and fanning 14.

In the AL, the Yankees are 7½ games clear of Boston despite dropping two of three in Fenway this past weekend. No other AL East team is in contention for the wild card. The Central Division remains a two-team race between Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox. The Twins start the week a half game ahead entering their two game series in Chicago. Cleveland remains just 4½ out. With a three game series during the week hosting Detroit, the Indians could be more of a factor come this weekend.

Texas leads the West by 2½ over Oakland and four over Anaheim. The surprising Rangers have even played better on the road over the past month. The top contenders for AL Manager of the Year would have to be Texas’ Buck Showalter and Detroit’s Alan Trammell. The Tigers have already exceeded their 43 wins of last season and are within six games of .500.

The wild card is currently controlled by Boston with both Oakland and the White Sox just a half game back. Anaheim is 1½ behind that duo. Cleveland, at one game above .500, is just 4½ back.

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

Mets at Braves: Atlanta took both games of the rain-shortened series in New York last weekend and the Mets may have played themselves out of contention with their 3-7 homestand that followed the All Star break. Atlanta is getting better overall pitching with guys such as Mike Hampton and Jaret Wright pitching much more consistently over the past month.

Atlanta should be favored and worth backing if favored by -140 or less against any Mets pitcher other than Al Leiter or ex-Brave Tom Glavine. In those games the Mets may be played if underdogs of at least +150. The Braves are playable if favored by no more than -125. Play the "under" throughout the series, especially at 9 or higher, but 8 is acceptable.

Astros at Reds: Houston has gotten the good starting pitching they expected but the offense has been way below projections. Age has taken its toll on guys like Jeff Bagwell and the Astros have not been able to hit with consistency. The teams have not met in over two months and six of the eight earlier meetings went "over" the total. The home team has won seven of eight with the Reds holding the only win by a visitor.

Cincinnati has also slumped following the All Star break and it is clear that Houston is the better team. Houston is playable as an underdog in any game. The Reds would be playable as a dog only in starts by Paul Wilson or Aaron Harang. Series history suggests the "over" is preferred at 9.

Red Sox at Twins: The teams began the week with identical records. The best play in the series would be Minnesota if Johan Santana is an underdog against either Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez. In fact, Santana could be played against either even if favored up to -120. Minnesota would be playable as an underdog against Schilling or Martinez if at least +150 if anyone other than Santana starts. Otherwise play Minnesota as underdogs against any other Boston starter.

Similarly, Boston is playable as a dog against any starter besides Santana. The "under" will be preferred in matchups of Schilling, Martinez or Arroyo against Minnesota’s Santana, Brad Radke or Carlos Silva. Otherwise, "over" 10 or less is playable.

Mariners at Angels: While Texas and Oakland oppose each other, Anaheim has a chance to make up ground. The Angels took two of three in Seattle last weekend. Anaheim has won seven of nine from Seattle this season with six going "over" the total. Seattle has been betrayed by a lack of offense and poor starting pitching. Other than veteran lefty Ron Villone (who has made only four starts) no Seattle pitcher has an ERA below Jamie Moyer’s 4.42.

Joel Pineiro has pitched better over the past month. Both he and Moyer would be the only Seattle starters worth backing at +140. Play Anaheim up to -150 against any other Seattle hurler. The "over" is preferred with the teams averaging 11 runs per game. In each of the three series, two of the three games have gone "under." Use 9 or lower for playing "over."