Less than a month ago all but four of the National League’s 16 teams had winning records. As play begins this week only seven teams are above break even as the long season takes its toll on a number of overachievers — and a notable underachiever.
As a result the competitive divisional races in the NL East and West are threatening to become runaways.
Experienced Atlanta has taken control of the East with a 5Â½ game lead over Philadelphia, the division’s only other winning team. Florida has fallen eight games back, while the Mets are now 11 behind and likely out of contention for the wild card.
Los Angeles has assumed control of the NL West and begins this week with a 6Â½ game lead over both San Diego and San Francisco. It looks more and more as though the Padres and Giants will be battling Chicago’s Cubs and possibly Florida and Houston for the NL wild card.
St. Louis has long since taken charge of the NL Central and with the best record in baseball has a hefty 11Â½ game edge over the Cubs. Houston, Cincinnati and Milwaukee have all joined Pittsburgh below .500.
Just three games separate third place Houston from last place Pittsburgh. Houston may be the largest underachiever in all of baseball.
With a record of one game below .500, the Astros are slipping further away from wild card contention.
The Cubs currently control the NL wild card with a two game edge over both the Padres and Giants. Philadelphia is just three back and both Houston and Florida remain within six games of the Cubs.
The Astros and Marlins would have to make up basically a game a week on the leaders to be in position in the season’s final week.
Baseball’s only divisional race may be in the AL West where Oakland begins the week 1Â½ games ahead of both Texas and Anaheim.
The Yankees continue to maintain a double digit lead over Boston in the East while Minnesota has opened up a six game lead over both Cleveland and Chicago in the AL Central.
The wild card race figures to be a hot race. Anaheim, Boston and Texas begin the week in a three way tie. Both Cleveland and the White Sox still have a shot but are each 4Â½ games behind the three leaders.
Oakland has a recent history of finishing well and definitely would be considered favorites to win the AL West. Boston should be able to hold off both Texas and Anaheim for the AL wild card while the Cubs seem to be the strongest of the NL wild card contenders.
Injuries over the final six weeks of the season are likely to have the major impact on which teams make the playoffs with the trading deadline having passed.
Making waiver deals are still permitted and the Cardinals used that vehicle to strengthen their already potent offense with last weekend’s acquisition of star Colorado outfielder Larry Walker. The strong get stronger.
Here’s a look at four series this weekend.
Dodgers at Cubs: Could be a preview of an opening round playoff series. Cubs seem to have the edge in starting pitching with the offenses even. Los Angeles took two of three at home in May with two going "over" the total. The Dodgers have a better record but could be underdogs throughout the series. Dodgers worth backing in starts by Jeff Weaver and Odalis Perez at +125.
In starts by other Dodgers, the Cubs are worth backing if no higher than -140. Totals are volatile at Wrigley depending on the wind currents but the fundamentals favor the "under." At 8 or higher, consider "under." At 10 or higher, the winds are influencing the line making "under" more hazardous.
Cardinals at Braves: Could also be a preview of an opening round series. These are the two hottest teams in baseball over the past month. Each has won 31-of-40 starting this week. The Cardinals took two of three at home back in May with two staying "under" the total. St Louis has the edge on offense and Atlanta’s advantage is on the mound.
St. Louis has gotten better than expected starting pitching but the bullpen is still a concern. Starting pitchers for both teams have performed similarly. Play the underdog regardless of the pitching matchups. Use a line of 9 as a guide for playing totals. Go "under" if more than 9, "over" if less.
White Sox at Red Sox: Surprisingly, these teams have not met this season. The White Sox clearly have been fading although Boston has pretty much the same record as Chicago going back 50 games. Chicago is without Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez and figure to be weak on offense.
Play "under" if 8 or higher for any games featuring a combination of Chicago’s Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle or Jose Contreras when facing Boston’s Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling or Bronson Arroyo.
The White Sox are only playable as +200. Boston would be playable if favored at —150 or less.
Twins at Indians: This is an opportunity for Cleveland to become a factor in the AL Central race or for Minnesota to deal the Indians perhaps a fatal divisional blow. The Twins have won four of the first six games in the series. Only one game has featured fewer than nine runs.
Cleveland is playable as +125 underdogs against all pitchers except Johan Santana whose turn is not scheduled for the series barring rainouts. The "over" is preferred at 10 or less with all but the talented lefty Santana. Play the Twins as a favored at —115.