Baseball is a game whose appeal is wrapped in the lore and mystery of its numbers. Big-league managers and fantasy fanatics alike pore through the averages and percentages as if they were tea leaves that can divine the future and make sense of the past.

And that goes double for anyone who thinks he or she can make a buck betting on the Grand Old Game.

The major-league season opens April 4, marking the return of those odd-looking odds in the sports pages, the ones that go something like this: Phillies -120, Nationals +110 (called the dime line) or maybe, Phillies 51/2-61/2 Nationals (the more old-timey nickel line).

Unlike football wagering - where much of the betting revolves around the fairly simple-to-understand point spread - baseball odds require some figuring.

In the above example of the mighty Phillies playing the lowly Nationals, the odds on the dime line mean this:

If you want to bet on the favorite, the Phillies in the above example, at -120, it means you have to wager \$1.20 for every \$1 you hope to win. Conversely, if you want the Nationals, you have to bet just \$1 to win \$1.10. Once the odds on the favorite reach -200, the spread between the two teams usually widens.

In the more complicated, and seldom-used, nickel line it works thusly:

First, assume a "5" for the hyphen and associate the team on which you want to wager with the number farthest from that team. So in the above example, if you want to bet on the Phillies, you are risking \$6.50 to win \$5; when you wager on the Nationals, you're betting \$5 to win \$5.50.

But here's the good news, all you need to have happen to win the wager is that your team wins the game outright. No messy point spreads to foul you up.

"For that reason, if I were doing this on the other side of the cage [as a customer]," said Caesars Palace oddsmaker Mark Tutino, "I would just bet baseball."

OK, so once you get a handle on reading the odds, how do you pick winners? It's just like the game itself, said Tutino, who has been at CP's legendary sports book for 23 years. It all hinges on pitching.

For instance, any time Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay walks to the mound, the Phillies will be prohibitive favorites where a Phils backer probably will be putting up \$2 or more for every \$1 in anticipated winnings. And even with the immensely talented Halladay pitching, that's a tough way to make a living.

Tutino said the most attractive wagers are on underdogs where the favorite is at -120 or more and the pitcher is of the so-so caliber.

"If you've got a starting pitcher [for the favorite] who you think is only going to make it six innings, then you're going to up against their bullpen - and today, everybody's bullpen stinks," Tutino said.

Even when a star pitcher is on the mound, if a bettor takes the long odds on the 'dog, he may catch lightning in a bottle, Tutino pointed out.

"Say, CC Sabathia is pitching," said Tutino, who's a Yankees fan, "and he takes one back up the middle in the first inning. All of a sudden, you've got Chad Gaudin in there."

Tutino says the novice baseball bettor should concentrate on pitching stats, such as ERA, past performance against the opposing team, road-home tendencies and a newer baseball metric, the WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). The lower a pitcher's WHIP, the better.

A simpler way to bet on baseball is futures wagers where the bettor predicts which teams will capture league pennants and the World Series, along with the over-under on total wins. For instance, at Caesars Palace, the Phillies were 5-1 to win the Series and 5-2 to win the National League pennant as of this week. At MGM Mirage casinos, the Phils are 8-1 to win the Series and 14-5 to win the pennant. The over-under on Phillies total wins is 921/2 at both Caesars Palace and MGM Mirage casinos.

Caesars Palace also offers a futures prop bet on the major-league home-run champion, and Phils first baseman Ryan Howard is the favorite at 3-1, followed by Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder at 4-1. Other Phils in the HR betting field are: Jayson Werth (50-1), Chase Utley (80-1) and Raul Ibanez (100-1).

Murky Derby picture. Several weeks ago, we brought up the Kentucky Derby Futures parimutuel pool, in which bettors can wager in advance on the winner of the Run for the Roses on May 1.

The pools, which are operated by Churchill Downs, are open for wagering over three weekends. The final one begins today at noon and continues through 6 p.m. on Sunday. Bettors have a choice of 23 horses and the field, which is all other colts. Exacta betting is also available.

The betting so far reflects the wide-open nature of this year's Kentucky Derby, with the field bet remaining a short-odds wager at 8-1. With key Derby preps still ahead, the favorites so far are Eskendereya, with a pool morning line of 5-1, and Lookin at Lucky at 6-1. After the first weekend of pool betting (Feb. 12-14), Eskendereya, trained by Todd Pletcher, finished at nearly 23-1. But after winning the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in late February, Eskendereya plummeted to just under 7-1 in the second pool (March 5-7).

In the first two pools, the field finished as the favorite at 5-2 and 4-1, respectively.

Racing enthusiasts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware can make Derby futures pool bets at most local racetracks and OTB parlors and through advance deposit wagering systems, such as twinspires.com and racing cable-TV outlet TVG, either online or by telephone.

Contact Bill Ordine at 215-854-2939 or at wordine@phillynews.com.