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Friday, August 4

   by Larry Ness - 08/04/2006

As I've so often said, "Fortunes change very quickly in MLB." Just the latest examples are the current fates of the LA Dodgers and the St Louis Cardinals. The Dodgers won last night 3-0 in Greg Maddux's team debut (six innings and no hits!) and enter the weekend with MLB's longest active winning streak (six straight).

My free play for Friday is on the Oak A's over the Sea Mariners at 10:05 ET. Tonight in MLB, I'm releasing one of my exclusive LEGEND Plays (4-0 in MLB 2006), as I look to break out of an UGLY nine-day run. Be sure to check back over the weekend for my play on this year's NFL Hall of Fame Game on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals were beaten 8-1 by the Phillies last night, as Chase Utley had three hits for the Phillies while extending his hitting streak to 35 games. The Cardinals have now lost seven consecutive games, MLB's longest active losing streak. Not long ago, things had been very different for these two teams.

The Dodgers opened the second half of the season by losing 13 of their first 14 games (were outscored 81-29) and had lost eight straight games heading into their three-game home series with the Nationals last Friday. The Dodgers won a week ago tonight by the score of 13-1 and have outscored opponents by a combined 42-16 in their winning streak.

The Cardinals were struggling before the break and had dropped 13 of 16 games after losing the first game of their four-game series with the Astros in Houston, on the final weekend of the season's first half. However, the Cards took the final three games of that series and then opened the second half by sweeping a four-game series in LA vs the then-slumping Dodgers.

Now the Cards are back struggling, allowing 34 hits and 24 runs in their last two games, while getting outscored 50-26 in their current slide. The Dodgers will try to extend their winning streak this weekend in Florida while the Cards attempt to end their slide against the Brewers at home. St Louis opened a minus-$1.85 favorite despite their losing streak, as Chris Carpenter gets the start and the early money already has them hovering around minus-$2.00.

Speaking of $2.00-favorites, Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs open Friday's 15-game schedule as a minus-$2.15 favorite when they host the Pirates at 2:20 ET. Zambrano (12-3, 3.26) has won his last nine decisions, last losing on May 31. He is 7-2 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 career starts and two relief appearances against Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh starts Tom Gorzelanny, coming off his first ML win in his last outing. However, at 13-40, the Pirates own MLB's worst road record.

Three AL teams opened as $2.00-favorites on Friday and all are playing on the road! Randy Johnson goes for the Yankees when they visit the Orioles tonight at 7:05 ET and is 11-9 with a 5.07 ERA. However, the Orioles send Bruce Chen to the mound, he of the 0-6 mark with a 7.07 ERA, if you are wondering why the Yankees are such a big favorite.

The Red Sox visit the Devil Rays in Tampa tonight at 7:15 ET and with Curt Schilling on the mound, opened as favorites of minus-$2.30. Boston dominated the series at Tropicana Field from 2001-2004, going 28-10 over that span. Since the start of last season though, the Red Sox have gone 6-10 at Tampa Bay and have lost their last three series there - including both this season.

Curt Schilling (13-4, 3.84 ERA) has also had his problems at Tropicana Field this season, dropping both of his starts there to account for half of his losses. Meanwhile, Boston's starting rotation has posted a 2-5 record, 7.47 ERA and .342 batting average against over their last 11 contests. So why are the Red Sox such big favorites? The answer is Tampa's rookie starter, James Shields. The right-hander is 0-5 with a 7.26 ERA in his last seven starts after going 4-0 in his first five career outings.

Minnesota's Johan Santana (12-5, 3.11 ERA) is 9-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 25 career appearances versus the Royals, including 14 starts. He'll try for his 10th career win against the Royals tonight at 8:10 ET, a team that owns MLB's worst overall record (38-70) and is just 8-22 against lefty starters this season. Mark Redman (7-6, 5.40) goes for KC and the Twins have had little trouble hitting Redman. He lasted just 1 2-3 innings in a 7-3 loss to Minnesota on April 27, allowing six hits and five runs. Redman is 0-3 with a 6.14 ERA in seven career starts versus the Twins.

NFL notes

The 2006 NFL preseason gets underway Sunday night from Canton, Ohio with the Hall of Fame Game between the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles (8:00 ET on NBC). The Eagles are favored by three points with the total hovering around 36 or 36 1/2. I've been 'teasing' the upcoming NFL season all week and will my countdown to the 2006 season in earnest next week.

It's important to point out that fortunes change quickly in the NFL, just like in MLB. Consider that since the NFL expanded to 32 teams and two four-division conferences, 21 of the 32 teams have won at least one divisional title (65.6 percent) and 26 teams (81.3 percent) have made at least one playoff appearance.

The six non-playoff participants these last four years are the Cardinals (last made the postseason in '98), the Bills and the Lions who last made the playoffs in '99, the Saints (last made the playoffs in '00) and the Dolphins and Texans. Miami, which incidentally ended the 2005 season with a six-game winning streak, last made the playoffs in '01, while the expansion Texans are 0-for-4 in their four years since becoming the NFL's 32nd franchise in 2002.

Speaking of the playoffs, last year's 12-team playoff field included seven teams which had not qualified for the postseason in 2004. The league adopted its current 12-team playoff field in the 1990 season and beginning in 1991, it's hardly unusual for a year's roster of playoff teams to be filled with teams that had not qualified for the postseason the previous year.

Last year's total of seven was high but was one short of the 2003 playoff season, when eight teams in that year's postseason field had not qualified for the previous year's playoffs. The average playoff season (over these last 15 years) has seen its playoff roster fiilled with an average of 5.67 teams per season that had not made the previous year's postseason. The 1994 season saw just four The 1994 season saw just four non-playoff participants from the previous year, as five of the six NFC representatives had also been in the 1993 playoffs.

The AFC West has been the league's most volatile division since 2002, as all four teams in that division have won division titles these last four years. The Raiders won in 2002, the Chiefs in 2003, the Chargers in 2004 and the Broncos last year. The most stable divisions have been the AFC East and South, where the Pats (East) and Colts (South) have each claimed three consecutive division titles.

The Packers had won three straight NFC North titles heading into the 2005 season as had the Eagles in the NFC East but both of those runs came to an end last year with the 11-5 Bears winning the North (GB was just 4-12) and the 11-5 Giants winning the East (Philly was just 6-10).

Ness Notes is available Monday through Friday by 1:00 ET.

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