First to clinch: St. Louis

Sep 21, 2004 9:05 AM

With just over a dozen games to be played in the regular season, St. Louis became the first to clinch a division title, winning the National League Central by a huge margin.

Barring a slump over the final two weeks, the Cardinals will finish with over 100 wins and the best record in the major leagues. Minnesota is about to clinch the American League Central early this week.

By taking the final two games against Boston, the New York Yankees extended their lead over the Red Sox in the AL East to 4½ games and is assured of holding first place going into this weekend’s three game set at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox are in great position to make the postseason even if they can’t catch the Yankees. Boston begins the week with a 5½ game cushion over Anaheim in the wild card race.

The AL West remains a contest with Oakland holding a three game lead over Anaheim as the week begins. Texas is two games further back but time is dwindling for Buck Showalter’s club, which has clinched its first winning season since 1999. The four teams in the AL West will be playing one another the rest of the way so each of the top three teams control its destiny.

Atlanta is in position to clinch the NL East by the weekend, holding an 8½ game lead over Florida. Los Angeles leads San Francisco by 2½ in the NL West with San Diego 6½ back. But much like the Rangers, the Padres would need a huge run over the final two weeks to overtake both the Dodgers and Giants. San Diego does host both teams for three games series over these next two weeks.

The best race remains the NL wild card. The Giants begin the week with a half game lead over the Cubs, but with one more loss than Chicago. The Cubbies played a doubleheader at Florida on Monday. The Marlins are still in the race as well, trailing the Giants by 4½ games. Between the Marlins and the top two teams are Houston and San Diego.

Here’s a look at four key series this weekend.

Marlins at Braves: Although the Braves may have already clinched the NL East by the time these teams meet, there is still incentive for Atlanta to play well and secure the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and gain home field advantage over the NL West winner. The Braves took two of three in Florida last weekend. The Marlins managed just six total runs in winning one of three games.

Atlanta has won 11 of 16 meetings this season and might begin resting regulars. The "UNDER" is preferred throughout at lines of 8 or higher. Play FLORIDA as underdogs in starts by Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis. Should Ismael Valdez start for the Marlins, play ATLANTA if a —150 favorite.

Dodgers at Giants: The home team has won seven of the last eight meetings this season following road victories in four of the first five. The linesmaker has done an excellent job in setting totals, with the "over / under" at 5-5-3. LOS ANGELES is playable as underdogs in this series, especially against Jason Schmidt who has not been sharp for the last month.

Play SAN FRANCISCO if Noah Lowry starts and is favored by no more than -120. Otherwise the Giants are playable in any game in which they are dogs. The OVER is playable at 8 or lower. Play UNDER at 9 or higher.

Yankees at Red Sox: Boston has won nine of 16 meetings this season. Five of the seven April games went below the total, but the "over" is 6-2-1 since. This should be high scoring as well in Fenway Park. Play the OVER at lines of 10 or less. The Yankees got to Pedro Martinez early in Sunday’s start but did not face Curt Schilling in this past series. Look for a big effort out of Schilling.

If favored by no more than -150, Schilling is a play. The Yankees are playable in starts by Orlando Hernandez or Mike Mussina provided neither is paired against Schilling or favored by more than -130. Otherwise look to play the underdog.

A’s at Angels: The host has won five of the last seven meetings after the road team won five of six games in April. The "over / under" is 6-6-1 although the teams are combining to average barely eight total runs. Oakland has the pitching edge. The Angels have the hitting advantage.

Anaheim is playing with the greater sense of urgency. The teams are evenly matched which makes the underdog the attractive option. Play Oakland starter Mark Mulder if favored at no more than -130. Bet UNDER at 9 or higher.