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The Race is On

   by Scott Spreitzer - 07/16/2006

Even though the pennant races won't officially culminate until late September, handicappers have to realize that they're going on right now.

*The Boston Red Sox should be worried that they can't seem to shake the Yankees even though New York has been dealing with injuries.

*Both Detroit and Chicago are worried that any slowdown will allow an AL East team to catch them from behind for the Wildcard spot.

*Oakland and the LA Angels both have a history of closing the season well, but Texas seems to believe they have a real shot under this manager and with this lineup to avoid their traditional fade.

*The NL West is a madhouse, with all five teams still within striking distance.

*St. Louis knows they have to get serious now because Houston has a history of closing well, and the Reds just made a trade in an attempt to fix a glaring weakness.

Nobody is acting like the pennant races are something to prepare for because they'll be coming up in a couple of weeks or a month. The pennant races are going on now, except in the NL East where the Mets might be able to sleepwalk to the division crown if nobody else in that division can get its act together.

If the teams are playing for keeps right now, rather than experimenting with lineups or pacing themselves for later, we've got to handicap in that light. We have to determine which teams and pitchers are most likely to perform when the pressure is on and which are likely to fade because they can't handle those demands.

Here are some hints to help you discover these teams:

*Pay close attention to what's happening in the last three innings of close games. I've always found this to be a great indicator for isolating the teams who seem to find a way to win on a regular basis. You've got some extra insurance backing these teams because you might win a blowout early or you'll come through in the final innings when they work their magic.

Conversely, some challengers start to feel the noose tightening and they lose games they should be winning. I've made a lot of money going against the teams who are falling by the wayside at great money line prices. The public keeps betting them because they're considered contenders who need to win. All I see is an overpriced pretender. I'll submit that you'll make even more money going against pretenders than you will by backing contenders in the next three months.

*Pay close attention to how each team prioritizes its schedule. Some managers really go all out to win the games against other contenders. They want the players to be treating these as playoff-type games right now. Other managers focus on taking candy from the babies who aren't in the race anymore. If they can win all the games against teams just playing out the string, it doesn't really matter all that much what happens in the showdown games.

It's very hard for a team to prioritize ALL of their games to the same degree over three months. Try your best to determine the priorities of each manager, and the winning picks will literally make themselves.

*Start keeping your own two-week or monthly standings rather than looking at the newspaper every day. This will help you see which teams are picking up the pace because they think the season is on the line and it will help you see the chokers much more clearly. If a team is 55-45 for the year, but 3-8 the past week and a half, you must avoid the urge to treat them like a winner, and have the courage to consider them as a possible choker that isn't dealing with the pressure.

These kinds of recent form standings have great value to handicappers down the stretch. And, they'll make it easier for you to stay on top of developments in the first two areas we outlined.

Some years, the top teams surge in July and August leading to an anticlimactic September that disappoints the media and avid fans. In other seasons, the playoff spots aren't determined until the final week. Either way, you've got to be ready to make money backing the right teams at the right times.

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