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They're Back, Back, Back - Base(ball) Instincts - 2007...By Nelson Lardner

The team-wins totals have been massaged by the wise guys for weeks, the best futures outlet in the history of mankind (Pinnacle) is off-limits for the vast majority, and April largely mirrors September as an historical bookend reservoir harboring eccentric/erratic hardball form.

But ain't it great the diamond game's back?

No answer required.

My compadres know I long resisted getting involved in early hardball. Rushing the season was not for me. "See me on Flag Day" was my battle cry - And why not? The NBA Playoffs and the Triple Crown trail provide plenty for the sporting brain to evaluate.

But the light went on a few years ago, with the delay attributable to the usual reason: it was difficult to break the shackles of imbedded conventional wisdom.

I still don't find use for many early sides, but am much more interested in April over/unders than I once was.

But, first, a lengthy digression, in a more general overview-ish direction.

So long as you're not overly distressed at the thought of having your money in escrow for six months (not a concern for credit players, but their numbers have thinned . . . ), and can establish positions at quotes proffering fair value, baseball team over/unders are jolly-good sport. They're a dream, for the casual fan - a half-year of daily rooting interest! . . . and at odds far more fair than the typical divisional, league or World Series straight-odds ripoffs, especially if you're willing to shop around a bit.

The wise heads urge you to consider team "unders" first, last and always, when you're talking serious risk-taking. The rationale is that with "overs", you're typically only a critical injury or two away from staring at a very imposing hill to climb. And that's sound thinking . . . absolutely dead-on.

But most teams incur some measure of lousy luck in the injury department, thus leveling the playing field. And if you like an "over", and the bulk of your divisional opponents find themselves with beaucoup walking wounded . . . well, bully for you. If you can build a canny portfolio of "overs" ,it's unlikely you're going to be struck unlucky with all of them in the Ambulance League.

I look first at "unders", yes, but found precious few I could fancy this season, other than the woebegone, wait-'til-next-year-already Washington Nats, who are grossly unlikely to notch anything resembling seventy wins this season, given a starting pitching staff comprised of Question Mark and the Mysterians, with a lineup to match.

In the "established class" department, the Braves at over 83 looks legit. John Smoltz - and a slimmer, rededicated Tim Hudson - figure to pace that starting staff in the right way, though the division (barring Washington) does not figure to make this a walk in the park.

The Brewers were widely expected to make the Great Leap Forward in '06, and didn't quite get there. This appears a classic case of many people having been right, a year early. Given that most of the teams in the mosh pit known as the NL Central appear but a step or so away from the abyss, would look to give Milwaukee another upside chance, especially since anything over .500 would be good. Would need Ben Sheets to soldier on, and avoid the usual disabled-list sidetrackings.

The D-Backs over 77 1/2 seems a reasonable speculation within the NL West, where all involved appear as attached to the .500 mark - and each other - as toungues and frozen metal in 12-degree weather. Lineup's young, but hugely promising; one more garden-variety year from Randy Johnson would be a bonus.

But enough, already. Those opening-day odds are already out (see: Pinnacle, et al), and you're champing at the bit. But as uusual, what's most-obvious is often liable to be painfully wrong.

Don't put too much stock into that base canard about the pitchers being ahead of the hitters. Players keep themselves in far better offseason shape than they used to (the money's far too good for the rational to act in any other manner) but you've likely observed over the years how many great pitchers are more effective in a season's second half, than in the first. It's a question of pacing. A true pro wants to be sure he'll be there at the end, contributing, and the best way to assure that is to assume the "mentality" of pitchers of a century ago, and not bear down too hard, too often, too early. Is the Twins' Johan Santana an awe-inspiring pitcher? Surely. A career ERA of 3.20 for a starter in this day and age is golden. But are you aware he's pitched to a 4.91 ERA in his Aprils, to date? The paying customers may not be aware of it - or care - and the games do count, but for the pros, early-April baseball is an extension of spring training, in terms of preparing body and mind for the long and winding road.

For that reason, I'm far more interested in playing selected overs during the season's early weeks, rather than struggling in an attempt to isolate situations in which both sides' middle relief is most-likely to hold up. You shouldn't do this blindly and indiscriminately, and you have to watch wind and weather, but there are worse ways to go than seeking out games with both sides boasting productive bats and queasy middle relievers. You'll see pitchers working now who'll be back in the minors by Mother's Day, busily contributing to scoreboard-keepers' workloads. Take advantage, and . . .

Play ball.

Nelson Lardner

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