Friday, July 23, 2004

Previewing the Weekend
Baseball is one enticing Yankee-Red Sox series short of having a stellar weekend on its hands. With the Yanks owning a nine game lead in the loss column, the division is done. Only Boston's jostling in the Wild Card chase gives this series any electricity. Even if the Sox swept (which is not out of the question; have you seen who New York is starting in this series?), they'd still have a minimum of two or three weeks of catching up to do.

So putting this mid-summer bummer to the side, there are other match-ups with a lot at stake.

Texas @ Oakland

The Rangers have opened up a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over 2nd place Oakland. The A's and White Sox are four percentage points behind Boston in the chase for the Wild Card.

The consensus seems to be that the Rangers are in this division to race to stay. However, they're pitching has to be better as the season winds its way into the final stretch. Last night's injury to Ricardo Rodriguez, who had given them a boost since last June, doesn't help matters.

The Rangers rank 7th in the AL in ERA (4.60); 9th in OPS Against (.766) and 12th in K/9 (6.05).

Of course if I look at some complementary offensive stats, the team ranks a bit differently:

Runs: 525 (2nd, traling by the Indians by one)
OPS: .816 (2nd, traling by the Red Sox by five points)
HR: 145 (T-1st with the Yankees)

If I have the time and the will and the energy, I'll go through teams that have made the post-season in recent history and see how many have been so offensive-heavy. I'm not sure there are many that would reflect numbers like this.

The Rangers are a great story to this point, no question. However, I'm still not convinced they're going to there at the end, either as division champion or Wild Card winner.

They have 14 games left against the A's (who lead the season series to this point 4-2). I'm going to venture a guess that in two-thirds of those games, the A's are going to have the advantage in the starting pitching match-up.

Tonight: Rogers vs. Mulder. I know Rogers has 12 wins to Mulder's 13, but I don't think we have to debate who has the advantage going to the mound tonight.

Saturday: Dickey vs. Saarloos. Granted it's a small body of work, but I have to take Saarloos over Dickey (5-6, 5.71). Saarloos hasn't done anything spectacular on the whole, but in three July starts he has a 2.35 ERA.

Sunday: Wasdin vs. Harden. The good news for John Wasdin is that he's carrying his best ERA since 2001. The bad news is that it's 6.82. After meandering his way through a mediocre stretch that carried through June and early July, Rich Harden has been excellent in his last two starts.

The combined numbers:

16.2 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 11 K

That work against the ChiSox and Blue Jays has brought his season ERA a tick under four at 3.99, but he's still under .500 for the season at 4-5. Harden's been a hard pitcher to read in the first year+ of his career. He came flying out of the minors with legendary hyperbole attached to his name, but has basically been a .500 pitcher to date. Some of his base statistics this year are very good (108.1 IP/95 H; 102K/52 BB), but for some reason he's never been able to sustain a high level performance for more than two or three starts in a row. 

In any case, I'll take Harden over a pitcher like Wasdin any day of the week.

So in the three games this weekend, I give the A's the starting pitching advantage in all three games. Certainly not impossible for the Rangers to overcome, but a challenge, especially considering they're playing outside the confines of their bandbox.

I'll give the A's 2 out of 3 this weekend, which would bring the series to A's: 6, Rangers: 2. And the lead in the division would be down to 2.5.

With another 11 games upcoming against the A's over the course of the rest of the season, the Rangers are going to be facing this predicament nearly every time they play Oakland. And that lead is going to be difficult to maintain.

Chicago @ Philadelphia

With the air out of the Yankees-Red Sox balloon, this might be the marquee match-up of the weekend. The Cubbies are fighting for their Wild Card lives, and the Phils are embroiled in a shifting-daily NL East.

Looking at the three pitching match-ups, it's easy to think the Cubs are primed for a big weekend; they have their three big guns lined up in Wood/Zambrano/Prior.

Add to that the fact that Cubs have been smacking the heck out of the ball lately, and the Phillies could be in for a long weekend. Despite the fact that the Cubs dropped those two games to the Cardinals earlier this week, sealing the division's fate in the process, I wonder if those slugfests (literally and figuratively) might have given them a kick in the pants. They hit three home runs on Wednesday against Cincinnati, and then followed that up with four in a 13-2 rout yesterday.

As a general statement, the Cubs and Phils are bunched fairly close in MLB offensive rankings. The Phils get the nod, but not by a huge margin. On the other hand, the Cubs have a sizable advantage in the pitching department. MLB rankings:

Cubs (2nd, 3.77)
Phils (14th, 4.36)

Hits Allowed
Cubs (1st, 776)
Phils (25th, 917)

Cubs (1st, 760)
Phils (12th, 619)

The Cubs' strikeout numbers deserve a quick mention. The only other team with more than 700Ks is Houston (755).

Last year the Cubs had 1404 Ks, which I believe set a single-season major league record. (Please correct me if I'm wrong on that...) No other team had 1300.

In 2002 they had 1333, lead the majors. 2001? 1344, lead the majors as the only team over 1300.

They're well on their way to leading the majors in strikeouts for the 4th year in a row. It's more than just about Wood and Prior b/c both have missed sizable chunks of time in this span. And they're not just eeking out the lead in strikeouts, they are blowing the competition away.

Other notable series:

San Francisco @ St. Louis, San Diego @ Los Angeles

The Cards are on cruise control, so I can't get too excited about this series with the Giants. However, from a Giants' perspective it's a chance to gain ground on the Padres and/or Dodgers who will be knocking each other off in L.A.

From a "Who's playing well?" perspective, you can't ask for more than the San Diego-L.A. match-up. In their last 10 games the two teams are 7-3 and 9-1 respectively.

On first glance I'd be willing to give San Diego the nod in the pitching department tonight with Lawrence (10-7, 4.05) going against Lima (9-3, 4.24). But Jose Lima has been pitching great of late: 3-0, 2.57 ERA in his last three starts. The good news for San Diego and San Francisco is that I don't expect this Lima-run to continue. Although it's safe to say that he has resurrected his career after losing his way from 2000-02, his numbers are very similar to when he pitched to a 4.96 ERA in K.C. last year.

In fact all of L.A.'s three starters this weekend have each been reclamation projects to some extent: Lima, Alvarez and Weaver.

I like San Diego this weekend to take 2 out of 3.

That's about it for now. Hopefully I'll check back in this weekend and see how some of these projections bear out.

Enjoy the games this weekend.

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