And down the stretch they come! On the day of writing, we were officially three weeks away from the conclusion of the marathon known as the Major League Baseball regular season. Not only does that mean we have the playoffs to look forward to around the corner, there’s also plenty of compelling races that will be decided in the next 21 days.

If the postseason were to begin today, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks would be on the outside looking in, but the Rockies, Cardinals and Brewers can’t feel that good about their footing in the National League playoff picture. Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners are running out of time to make a push for one of the wild card spots in the American League (despite a solid 79-64 record to begin the week, the M’s were 7.5 games out of the second wild card spot), but the surprising A’s are battling the Yanks for home field advantage in the wild-card game and also remain hot on the heels of Houston for first in the AL West.

All of that urgency means the oddsmakers will be shading the lines towards those teams, knowing that the betting public likes to bet on teams that need victories the most. That’s a mindset I’m looking to exploit this week with two of my three favorite MLB value picks, which you can read about below.

1. Pirates over Cardinals (Monday, 8 p.m. eastern)

Unless you’re an avid baseball fan, it would be easy to miss how sick of a run Trevor Williams has been on for the Pirates. Over his last nine starts, Williams has allowed just four runs in 54 2/3 innings, recording a 0.66 ERA over that stretch. He hasn’t allowed a run in six of those nine outings, including 6.2 scoreless frames in his last start Monday against Cincinnati. And just six weeks ago, Williams came into St. Louis and dealt the Cardinals a 2-0 loss, holding the Cards to just three hits in six shutout frames.

However, Williams’ excellence flies under the radar of most MLB bettors for a couple of reasons. First, he wasn’t having the best of seasons until his recent hot streak began, so while his 12-9 record and 3.15 ERA are solid, those full-season numbers don’t indicate how great he’s been. Second, his Pirates are just treading water at .500, realistically out of playoff contention for more than a month and seemingly without much “motivation” to finish strong down the stretch.

To many, the motivation factor might be enough to bet on the Cardinals Monday as they try to hold onto the second wild-card spot in the National League (not to mention continue chasing down Chicago for top spot in the Central, entering Monday’s action 4.5 games behind the Cubs). But the motivation angle simply doesn’t play in baseball, where swinging the bat harder and throwing pitches faster doesn’t give you an advantage the way that playing with more intensity does in basketball, football or hockey. It also won’t make things any easier Monday for veteran St. Louis warhorse Adam Wainwright, who makes his first start since May 13 as he returns from being sidelined by right elbow inflammation.

Wainwright’s been stellar in six rehabilitation outings (17 scoreless innings), but those were the minor leagues. His major league numbers have been on significant decline for several years, with Wainwright failing to post an ERA lower than 4.62 since 2014. I don’t expect the 37-year-old to suddenly find his form from 10 years ago in his first start in four months, and even if Wainwright does dip into the fountain of youth for a few solid innings in this contest, he’ll be on a pitch count that probably gets the St. Louis middle relievers involved earlier than usual.

Betting Prediction

Yes, the Pirates are banged up a bit with Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco among the regulars who are out of the lineup. But St. Louis isn’t at full strength either, playing without Jed Gyorko and possibly without ace catcher Yadier Molina (hamstring) Monday as well. The Pirates enter this game playing some of their best ball of the season, having won five straight, and they’ll enjoy a significant starting pitching advantage also.Add it all up, and the +120 underdog return we’re getting on Pittsburgh here might be the best value we’ll find on an MLB diamond this week.

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2. Giants over Braves (Monday, 10:15 p.m. eastern)

Here’s another classic case of September baseball betting lines, where each team’s urgency and motivation levels are factored into the odds. Based on the starting pitchers projected to start in this contest, there’s no way that the Braves should be a road favorite in San Francisco. But with Atlanta looking to lock up top spot in the NL East while the Giants scuffle along with just one win in their last 10 games, that’s the situation. And we’re going to try to take advantage of it.

Why should the Braves not be the short favorite Monday night? Because Sean Newcomb is on the mound. That probably seems a little harsh, given his 11-8 record and 3.92 ERA on the year, but when you take a closer look at Newcomb’s recent performance, you’ll understand why I’m looking to fade him. The young lefty has been pounded for 35 hits and 21 runs in his last 23.2 innings, a stretch that lasts over his last five starts. And I’m not convinced it’s just a cold run that all pitchers experience at some point. Newcomb’s FIP and xFIP are still both lower than his ERA is, suggesting that regression was going to set in at some point, and he simply walks too many guys to be able to continue getting away unscathed. When you’re walking 4.5 batters per 9 innings (essentially issuing one free pass every couple of frames), you better be able to get out of trouble with the strikeout, and Newcomb isn’t dominant enough (8.44 strikeouts per 9) to do that.

The Giants’ offense doesn’t really scare anyone these days, but I don’t think they’ll need to do that much damage in order to pull out a victory tonight. That’s because San Fran is sending arguably its best starter (in 2018, at least) to the mound in Dereck Rodriguez. The 26-year-old owns the fifth-best ERA among National League pitchers with at least 15 starts on the year, and having a 6-2 record pitching for this Giants squad sticks out like a beautiful flower in the middle of a garbage dump. And although he’s winless in his last three starts, it’s been no fault of his own, having limited just six runs in his last 17 innings of work. Opponents during that stretch included playoff contenders in Arizona and Colorado, so he won’t be fazed by taking on this hot-hitting Braves squad Monday night.

Betting Prediction

As disappointing of a year as the Giants have had in 2018, they’ve still got a solid record at AT&T Park, winning 39 of 69 games so far this year. At plus money, I’ll happily back them to move 10 games over .500 at home with a win over the Braves and their struggling young lefty.

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3. Royals over Twins (Thursday, 8:15 p.m. eastern)

Wins have been very few and far between this year in Kansas City, where it must feel like that 2015 World Series title was won in 1915. The Royals entered this week’s action with a horrific 47-95 record, a mark that put them nine games behind the Marlins and Padres for the third-worst record in all of baseball. However, when a team is that bad, it’s easy not to notice when they’re playing a bit better. And Kansas City has done exactly that in the second half of the season, going 20-27 since the All-Star Game. I’ll admit that’s still not quite setting the world on fire, but after a 27-68 first half of the year, it’s one of the biggest second-half improvements in MLB.

The Royals have also more than held their own against the Twins. Kansas City is 7-8 against Minnesota this season, and has won 5 of 6 matchups so far at Kauffman Stadium in K.C. Going back to last year, the Royals have won 7 of 8 home meetings versus their division rivals from the Twin Cities. Does it mean anything for Thursday’s clash with the Twins? Maybe not, but I do like the fact that the Royals will at least show up to the ballpark thinking they’ve got a good chance at a victory, which is never a guaranteed mindset when a bad team is playing out the final few weeks of a long season.

When the Royals see who’s on the mound for Minnesota, they’ll like their chances even more. Stephen Gonsalves has appeared to be in over his head since making his Major League debut last month for the Twinkies, entering this game with an 0-2 record and 11.68 ERA. And before you think that maybe he was just unfortunate to face some potent lineups, consider that only one of his first four opponents (Oakland) will make the playoffs this year. The Royals themselves knocked Gonsalves around in his last start, reaching the young lefty for 5 runs on 5 hits in just 2.1 innings. Gonsalves is regarded as a top-3 prospect in Minnesota’s farm system, but he can’t be feeling that confident in his abilities through four Major League starts. In fact, all of that hype about him is probably making him feel pressure to perform as he auditions for a spot on the 2019 roster.

Betting Prediction

K.C. will send Heath Fillmyer to the hill, and he’s no Cy Young candidate himself, posting a 4.75 ERA and 1.48 WHIP through 60.2 innings of work while barely striking out more hitters (37) than walking them (29). However, the youngster has been much better at Kauffman Stadium this year than on the road, working to a 2.54 ERA in 39 innings in front of the home fans. That dichotomy between home and road performance (he’s got an 8.72 ERA on the road) is enough to keep me off the Over here, but I’m convinced Gonsalves’ struggles will continue. Give me the Royals in a game in which I expect they’ll be small favorites on the moneyline, if they’re favorites at all.

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