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Cards, Braves, Yanks, L.A.

Aug 17, 2004 5:26 AM

With roughly 45 days left in baseball’s regular season, Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles and the New York Yankees have established themselves as legitimate contenders for winning the World Series.

Entering this week, Atlanta has won 22 of their last 30 games, Los Angeles 21 of 30 and St. Louis 22 of 30. Interestingly, the Dodgers and Cardinals have not yet met this season. We get a preview of that potential NLCS in early September with six games in a 10-day stretch beginning with a series in St. Louis over Labor Day weekend.

Just two Divisional races remain competitive. Minnesota clings to a two game lead over surprising Cleveland in the AL Central with the White Sox four back. And, a great three-team race remains in the AL West with Oakland one-half game ahead of both Anaheim and Texas.

Both Wild Card races are taking on a phenomenal look with three teams tied for the lead in both leagues. Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco share the NL Wild Card, while Anaheim, Boston and Texas were even in the AL.

In the AL, home teams giving at least -110 have shown a profit of more than 25 units this season. But in the NL, similarly priced home favorites have lost nearly 50 units.

Here’s a look at four interesting series on tap this weekend.

Cubs at Astros: Houston is clearly the biggest disappointment of the season at three games below .500 and nearly 20 behind St. Louis in the NL Central. The Astros are also six games out of the Wild Card. After winning four of the first five meetings, Houston has lost six of the last seven to the Cubs.

Chicago is worth playing as underdogs regardless of the pitching matchups. The "under" is also preferred. Seven of the previous dozen games have gone "under" the total with the teams combining to average just 7.3 total runs per game. Only twice have the teams combined for more than nine runs.

Braves at Dodgers: In May, the Braves took two of three at home from the Dodgers with both wins going "under" the Total. The Dodgers won the only "over" game. This shapes up as a low scoring series again with both teams having strong starting pitching and dominant closers in John Smoltz (Atlanta) and Eric Gagne (L.A.).

Both teams are hot, having won more than two of every three games dating back nearly two months. The "underdog" and "under" are the way to go in this series. Each is capable of cashing in at least twice when the series begins Thursday.

Angels at Yankees: These teams played six games over a 10-day stretch in mid-May with the Yanks winning two of three at each venue. The first three games in New York went "over" the total while a week later in Anaheim all three went "under." Fundamentally this shapes up as a high scoring series with both offenses the strongest unit on each team. At totals of 9 or less, the "over" is preferred except for one matchup. Bartolo Colon has pitched well over the past month for the Angels and is worth playing if made an underdog.

El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) has also pitched well for the Yankees and can be bet up to -130 unless he opposes Colon. In such a matchup, the "under" would be playable at 8. Anaheim is playable as an underdog against Kevin Brown at +150 and against Esteban Loaiza or Jon Lieber at +120. The Yanks may lay up to -150 against the extremely fortunate but barely average Aaron Sele. If Sele starts, play "over" at 10.

Indians at Twins: Cleveland took two of three last weekend at home from the Twins. Minnesota is likely to be favored in the rematch, with Cleveland a live underdog against all Twins hurlers except Johan Santana. Bet Santana if favored at —150.

The "over / under" is 4-4-1 in the nine meetings. The teams are averaging slightly over 10 total runs. All three of the games in Minnesota have gone "over." The "over" will again be preferred here at 9½. Santana’s start may be played "under" 8. Cleveland’s best shot may be against Kyle Lohse. Play Indians if favored at —120 against Lohse.