The second-to-last weekend of the MLB regular season begins tonight. The season is definitely a marathon, but it does seem like it flew by in some respects. Baseball has been tough to bet for a while because of the circumstances surrounding the majority of the league’s teams, but it will go up a couple notches over the last week of the regular season next week. Some teams will be striving for that .500 mark since that’s apparently nobler than finishing 78-84. Other teams are fighting for playoff spots or seeding. Others are looking to end the season. Here’s a look at Friday night’s card.

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Pittsburgh at Chicago (NL) (-120); Total: N/A

At time of writing, the total was not available for this game. The Pirates are in a tricky spot for this game I think. They’re coming off of a trip all the way out west, came back part of the way to Colorado, and now play a day game in Chicago. The Cubs, on the other hand, had yesterday off and can clinch a playoff berth today. The only thing keeping me off the Cubs is my unfettered love of Gerrit Cole. Cole is phenomenal and his peripherals are outstanding. He has a great K/BB rate, has improved on his home run rate, and has a 2.64 FIP to match his 2.64 ERA.

Sometimes young pitchers can wear down in the second half, but Cole is still a strikeout per inning guy with a very similar slash line against. A little bit of LOB regression has hit in the second half to drive his ERA up to 3.17, but his second half FIP is nearly half a run better than his first half FIP. A 13 percent drop in LOB% is the sole cause for the ERA increase. In most cases, there’s nothing a pitcher can do about that. It’s mostly just variance.

Then there’s Jon Lester, who has improved upon a solid first half. Lester has lowered his SLG by 60 points in the second half and his ERA has ticked down as well. He has more than a strikeout per inning and has also improved his walk rate. Everything about Lester is trending in the right direction. Perhaps it just took him some time to get acclimated to the NL and its hitters. Having to bat and (on very rare occasions for Lester) run the bases can be a tough adjustment for pitchers. Lester’s clearly more comfortable now and the Cubs are in great shape with him and Jake Arrieta at the front of the rotation.

Gerrit Cole adoration aside, the Cubs are the play in this one. They can clinch a playoff spot and the Pirates could be a little bit sluggish with their third time zone in a week. It’s late in the season and players are a little bit tired. The Pirates will pick up a second wind before the Wild Card Game against these same Cubs, but for Friday afternoon, I’ll take the home team.

Minnesota (-110) at Detroit; Total: 9

When you can break down Mike Pelfrey against Matt Boyd, you have to do it. Pelfrey and the Twins are still very much alive in the AL Wild Card hunt, though their loss against the Indians on Thursday night really hurt them. Pelfrey isn’t very good, with a 4.16 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and 4.51 xFIP. He also has one of the lowest qualified strikeout rates in the league. We have to gauge Detroit’s motivation. They need to go 10-0 to finish .500, though finishing .500 is an epic failure for a team that was supposed to win the division. Will they get excited for this series?

Will they get excited for this matchup in general? Pelfrey should be a hittable pitcher for the Tigers lineup, a group that had Thursday off to get away from the game for a day. Matt Boyd had a pretty decent start last time out against Kansas City with two earned over six with six strikeouts. It was his first start since September 8, so he’s back on a somewhat regular turn for this one. The Twins are a middle of the pack offense against left-handed pitching this season, so there’s no real edge for either side.

Since the Twins have something to play for, the lean would go to them, but it’s hardly a strong play.

Baltimore at Boston (-110); Total: 8.5

Kevin Gausman has been pretty serviceable in the second half with a 3.98 ERA over 72.1 innings, but his command is still a work in progress. He has allowed 13 home runs with a .462 SLG against. At that point, which do you believe more: his 4.44 FIP or his 3.80 xFIP? xFIP is a run prevention metric that assumes a league average home run rate, so Gausman’s HR rate is clearly well above average. His K/BB rates are pretty good, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s progressing to the point where he can get by with below average command or not. Personally, as somebody who liked Gausman entering the season, the fact that his secondary pitches haven’t developed much is a big red flag.

They have a lot of money to spend, but the Red Sox are also a very progressive team from a statistics standpoint. That’s why using Rich Hill as a starter is so fascinating. The Red Sox experimented with it in 2012 but ultimately used him as a reliever when he got back to the big leagues. He started in the mid-2000s, but teams found that his platoon splits were too much to ignore and he became a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY). He’s struck out 20 with one walk over his two starts for the Red Sox this season. I don’t really know how sustainable any of this is for a 35-year-old, but it’s fun to see no matter what.

It’s pretty stunning that the Orioles rank 25th in wOBA against lefties, but a horrible walk rate is a big reason why. Can we buy into Rich Hill for another start? Truthfully, I don’t know, but he dominated Toronto and Tampa Bay and those are two of the best in baseball at hitting lefties. The Orioles are playing really well right now, so I don’t know which side will win out. I think I’d have to side with the Orioles because of how they’re playing right now.

New York (NL) (-140) at Cincinnati; Total: 8

I’m not surprised at all by the overnight and morning line move on this game that took the Mets from -125 into the -140 range, but I am surprised that the line opened there to begin with. Is this a trap game? The opening line would certainly suggest that. The Reds have decided to bottom out. They’ve lost five straight and 34 of their last 51 games. Why would a team like the Mets, with a guy like Noah Syndergaard on the mound, open so low? Anthony DeSclafani is not Johnny Cueto or something. I like DeSclafani, but he’s not exactly an ace.

The opening line was very fishy to me. This is one of those examples of betting numbers and not teams. The market capitalized on what looked to be a bad number, but it appears to be a number that was purposely set to attract Mets money. I don’t have the stones to back the Reds, even as this number climbs, but this opening line should make you think twice.

Texas at Houston (-140); Total: 8

The market has spoken and it likes Scott Kazmir and the Astros tonight. I can’t argue with that opinion, at least on the surface. The Rangers are a much better offense against righties than they are against lefties. Kazmir owns a 3.31/4.75/4.64 pitcher slash in 11 starts since leaving the cozy confines of Coliseum for the less forgiving conditions of Minute Maid Park. The Houston native is 2-1 with a 3.55 over six starts at The Juice Box. It’s worth pointing out about Kazmir’s year-to-date numbers that he posted a 1.75 ERA in 11 starts in Oakland.

It’s interesting that Jeff Bannister pushed Yovani Gallardo’s start back to set him up for the first game of this series. Was it a fatigue issue to get him a couple extra days of rest? Gallardo hasn’t been pitching all that well, but he wants the veteran to take the ball. Gallardo has allowed eight runs on 15 hits over his last 9.1 innings, though he has been a feast or famine guy of late. He has allowed zero runs in four of his last eight starts and the other starts are all three or more earned in less than six innings.

The difference between Gallardo and somebody like Jered Weaver, who had the Astros eating out of his hand until his most recent start, is that Gallardo doesn’t have loopy breaking balls or an odd motion that creates deception.

I think the market is right here. I’d look to the Astros, who had a day off to catch their breath and reorganize some things in the bullpen. The Rangers do have a bullpen advantage if this is a close game in the middle and late innings, but I’m not sure that’s going to be the case. Kazmir should leave with a lead. The Astros will just need to maintain it. At this price, I’m a lot less excited about Houston than the opening number.

Other Games

Chicago (AL) at New York (AL)

Philadelphia at Washington

Tampa Bay at Toronto

Atlanta at Miami

Los Angeles (NL) at Colorado

Cleveland at Kansas City

Milwaukee at St. Louis

San Francisco at Oakland

Seattle at Los Angeles (AL)

Arizona at San Diego