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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 9:23 AM

Nobody would have imagined earlier this season…or, pretty much, at ANY point in ANY recent season…that a Wednesday Night meeting in August between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Philadelphia Phillies (nationally televised on ESPN) would carry this kind of importance.

The D-backs had become a doormat in recent seasons. Manager Kirk Gibson was an unproven quantity when he got the job. And, the baseball world is generally very skeptical about unproven quantities. The talent level didn’t seem to be there in terms of winning the NL West. And, that’s particularly true when the defending World Champions play in the NL West! Arizona wasn’t supposed to matter this year.

Here in mid-August, they DO matter. Arizona is in first place, ahead of the suddenly slumping Giants…

Last 10 Games: Arizona 7-3, San Francisco 4-6
Last 20 Games: Arizona 14-6, San Francisco 7-13
Last 30 Games: Arizona 17-13, San Francisco 14-16

That data is through the games of Monday Night. Arizona’s slight divisional lead was gained during that “last 20” hunk when they caught fire just as the Giants were sputtering.

We’ve been wrestling with the question all year about whether or not Arizona is “for real.” They have some things about them that are legit. Young players have contributed more than was expected. Some starting pitchers are getting the job done. But…is this really a PLAYOFF team? Or, are they just a decent 85-77 type team that’s fortunate enough to play in a weak division in the era of unbalanced schedules?

We’re about to get an answer to that question this week. Arizona has just started a 10-game road trip against the toughest division in the National League.

Here’s some context. Through Monday’s action, here’s how each division stacked up in terms of games over .500 in the Senior Circuit:

NL East: +30 games
NL Central: -31 games
NL West: -9 games

Even with Arizona and San Francisco having decent years, the NL West has a losing record overall this year. It’s not nearly as bad as the NL Central. It’s way behind the NL East though. That matters because:

Arizona: 22 games vs. NL East, 37 games vs. NL Central
San Francisco: 30 games vs. NL East, 32 games vs. NL Central

When you compare the D-backs to the Giants, they’ve played eight fewer games vs. the best division, and five more games vs. the worst. Given the small distance between the teams in the current standings, this is a very big deal. There’s a good chance that Arizona’s lead is temporary until the schedules even out again.

Check this out…

San Francisco: 28-17
Arizona: 23-21
LA Dodgers: 24-24
Colorado 21-26
San Diego 17-25

San Francisco has a 4.5 game lead within the division. Arizona is barely ahead of the mediocre LA Dodgers.

This gives us conflicting indicators. If you look at recent form, Arizona is definitely carrying itself like a playoff caliber team. Many contenders have surged forward since the All-Star Break. Arizona’s been right there with them bringing peak intensity every night. But, when you step back and look at a bigger picture, there are skeletons in the closet that could prove meaningful. This may just be a temporary illusion.

And, that’s why THIS week is so important for Arizona. “Great Recent Form” runs headfirst into “Hasn’t Played Much vs. the NL East.”

Arizona at Philadelphia (potential first round playoff series)
Arizona at Atlanta (visiting the probable Wildcard)
Arizona at Washington

Washington would seem to be a vacation compared to the first two series. Arizona better not take the Nats for granted:

Arizona on the Road: 32-27
Washington at Home: 32-23

If the D-backs struggle in Philly and Atlanta, they may be close to a .500 road team visiting a winning home team by first pitch of the finale on this travel itinerary.

How legit are the D-backs? THEY’RE ABOUT TO TELL US!

The burden will be on the shoulders of this pitching rotation:

Ian Kennedy: 3.12 ERA, 1.11 WHIP
Josh Collmenter: 3.51 ERA. 1.04 WHIP
Daniel Hudson: 3.76 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Joe Saunders: 3.76 ERA, 1.34 WHIP

Great. Big road trip and “Undecided” is in the rotation! That’s the spot that belonged to Jason Marquis before he suffered a fractured shin bone in his last outing. Various experiments have struggled in that spot. Arizona was able to dodge some bullets there because only a third of their schedule to this point has come against teams with winning records. Looks like the experimenting will have to continue. Terrible time for that Marquis injury to occur.

We’ve seen in earlier reports on the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers that pitchers who have to throw their home games in a good hitter’s park are often better than everyone realizes. We were wondering if that was the case with Arizona this year, and went to grab the road only numbers.

Joe Saunders: 2.77 ERA, 1.13 WHIP
Ian Kennedy: 3.21 ERA, 1.19 WHIP
Josh Collmenter: 4.10 ERA, 1.26 WHIP
Daniel Hudson: 4.26 ERA, 1.34 WHIP

Interestingly, three of the four are WORSE on the road…which is odd for this situation. It may just be a fluky thing that happens with numbers. Or, possibly, somebody has found a tip or two that’s greatly assisted Hudson and Collmenter when they pitch at home. Don’t put something like that past Kirk Gibson! What’s important to note here for handicappers is that Arizona is facing a brutal road trip with two guys that have ERA’s over 4.00 on the road despite not playing a killer schedule…and a big question mark in that fifth spot.

The contender/pretender question is starting to shade toward pretender. We’ll know more in a week than we do now. We’re looking forward to reading and reacting on the fly with our baseball picks here at JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK. Even though you’ll be reading about football the next several days in the NOTEBOOK, our BLUE RIBBON BASEBALL program will still be going strong.  Here are some of the games we’re looking at tonight besides Arizona/Philadelphia:

San Francisco at Atlanta
LA Dodgers at Milwaukee
St. Louis at Pittsburgh
Texas at the LA Angels
NY Yankees at Kansas City

Here’s the schedule for the next few days here in the NOTEBOOK:

Thursday: NFC East Preview (to get you ready for Philadelphia/Pittsburgh on FOX)
Friday: NFC South Preview (to get you ready for Atlanta/Jacksonville on FOX)
Saturday: MAC East Preview (as our mid major conference previews continue)
Sunday: MAC West Preview
Monday: NFC North Preview (to get you ready for Chicago/NYG on ESPN)

Our last two NFL divisional previews will run a week from Thursday and Friday, tying the AFC North and AFC South to TV games involving Baltimore and Indianapolis respectively. Our college previews wrap up that weekend with the Sun Belt and the Independents (including Notre Dame, BYU, and Navy).

It’s amazing how quickly the summer has gone. It’s amazing that we’re already halfway through August! Be sure you’re making “the dollars of August” with NETWORK football and baseball. Every dollar you make this month will roll over several times between now and the Super Bowl. That’s how bankrolls are built. Any size player in August will be a much bigger player later in the season if they play their units…and their picks correctly.

For advice on how to do this, call our office at 1-800-323-4453. BIG JUICY WINNERS are always available here at the website for credit card purchase. ARE YOU READY TO TAKE A BITE!


This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by and For more information on JIM HURLEY’S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.


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