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Key players for the stretch run

As the season winds towards October, here are some key players to keep an eye on:

The staff ace on a mediocre team a year ago, groundballing veteran Aaron Cook has been surpassed by new ace Ubaldo Jimenez and a fluky career year from All-Star Jason Marquis in 2009. He's nonetheless an essential part of the Colorado rotation. In 20 starts from April 24 to August 6, he went 10-3 with a 3.32 ERA. In the last start of that run, he hyper-extended the big toe on his push-off foot while backing up third base. After skipping a start to let it heal, he was lit up in his next turn, then left his next start early with a sore shoulder that has since landed him on the disabled list.

Cook's latest injury is why the Rockies decided to take a flier on Jose Contreras, who was 1-3 with a 7.36 ERA in his last five starts for the White Sox, and 1-6 with a 6.97 in his last nine starts. Contreras has a 5.51 career ERA in interleague play, which suggests he won't benefit much from switching leagues. Locked in a dog fight with the Giants for the NL wild card, the Rockies can't be taking chances with Contreras or spot-starters like Josh Fogg (3 IP, 6 R last Wednesday). They need Cook back and effective when he's eligible to come off the DL at the beginning of next week lest the second-half surges of Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and rookie Carlos Gonzalez go to waste.

The Giants allow the fewest runs per game in the majors, but have outscored just three of the other 29 teams. Attempts to upgrade their offense have blown up in their face as Freddy Sanchez is on the DL with a strained shoulder and Ryan Garko has been so weak at the plate that the team has reverted back to starting Travis Ishikawa at first base (for this they traded their second- and third-best starting pitching prospects). Now Bengie Molina has been out for a week with a tight quad, leaving the catching duties to minor league veteran Eli Whiteside (.226/.265/.323 on the season). Their pitching is keeping them in step with the Rockies, but someone is going to have to step up on offense if the Giants are going to reach the postseason.

As of now, the Giants' offense consists of Pablo Sandoval (.333/.383/.563 on the season, .355/.419/.591 in August) and a prayer. Aaron Rowand, a streaky hitter who batted a lame .276/.330/.437 in August, seems like a good candidate. Edgar Renteria showed signs of life in August, hitting .303/.374/.438. Garko and Ishikawa both have the power potential to inject some life into the batting order, and Molina's capable of a hot month if he's able to get back behind the plate (perhaps the rest will do him well). Giants fans don't care who does it, but someone needs to, or their Cinderella story will end before the ball.

At the end of June, the Braves were 36-40 (.474) and had scored just 4.12 runs per game on the season. Since then, they've gone 33-22 (.600) and have scored 5.15 runs per game. What changed wasn't the addition of Nate McLouth, who joined the Braves on June 5 and hit .260/.344/.419 before landing on the DL with a strained hamstring. Rather, it was the addition by subtraction of dumping Jeff Francoeur (.250/.282/.352 as a Brave) on the Mets and "losing" Kelly Johnson (.216/.288/.362 on June 28) to the DL. Martin Prado has hit .322/.366/.477 since taking over second base for Johnson on June 30, forcing Kelly to the bench upon his return, and Matt Diaz has hit .345/.406/.559 since July 6, seizing the right field job in the wake of Francoeur's departure. Diaz and Prado now hit in the top two positions in the Braves' batting order, but they've since been joined by an even more potent bat who distressingly remains buried in the seven hole. Adam LaRoche is a notorious second-half hitter (career: .252/.325/.447 first half, .301/.363/.552 second half) and a former Braves draft pick who was dealt for Mike Gonzalez after the 2006 season only to be reacquired via the Red Sox at this year's deadline. Since rejoining the Braves, LaRoche has hit .365/.446/.646 with eight home runs in 112 plate appearances, doing so in place of Casey Kotchman's .282/.354/.409. LaRoche is sure to cool off a bit, but if he can settle in around his career second-half numbers and convince Bobby Cox to hit him closer to the middle of the order, the Braves just might score enough runs to catch the Rockies and Giants, the former of whom they trail by three games entering Wednesday's action.

In a radical break from tradition, the Rangers, historically a team that has had to bash its way up the standings, have been winning with pitching and defense this year. What's more, they've done it despite the fact that just two of their starting pitchers (Kevin Millwood and Scott Feldman) have made more than 20 starts on the season. That suggests a bit of defense-dependent smoke and mirrors, which means Texas likely will have to make some of those pitching gains tangible in order to properly threaten the Red Sox for the wild card. That appeared to be happening with impressive second-half performances from 22-year-olds Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland, but Holland, one of the team's top pitching prospects, has sprung a leak in his last two starts, giving up 16 runs and four home runs in nine innings against the Yankees and Blue Jays. The Yankees are abusing everyone, but the Jays aren't, and if Holland can't put his finger in the dike immediately, the Rangers are sunk.

The Red Sox are going to score runs, and their bullpen, recently reinforced by the addition of Billy Wagner, is one of the best in baseball. The reason they're 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees is that their rotation fell apart mid-season. Tim Wakefield hurt his back, Brad Penny and John Smoltz got lit up and released, and Justin Masterson was flipped to Cleveland in the Victor Martinez deal -- all of that after getting nothing from Daisuke Matsuzaka all season.

Wakefield has just returned from the DL to give the Sox a solid No. 3 behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, and they'll take what they can get from the fifth spot, currently occupied by Paul Byrd with rookie Junichi Tazawa lurking in the bullpen. That brings it down to 24-year-old Clay Buchholz, who rejoined the big league rotation in mid July after again dominating in Triple-A. Buchholz has a 3.38 ERA in his last five starts, four of which have been quality. His 1.57 K/BB ratio in those games has been less than inspiring, but in his last start, he struck out nine Blue Jays while holding Toronto to one run on three hits and two walks in 8 1/3 innings. Buchholz doesn't need to be that good (though long term, he should be), but if he can give the Sox a handful of quality starts down the stretch, they shouldn't have much trouble holding off the Rangers.

The Tigers have been in first place in the Central since mid-May, which makes them feel like a lock to win the division despite the fact that their 3 1/2-game lead is the slimmest of the six division leaders. That their challenger is just two games over .500 (67-65) makes the threat seam all the more toothless. Still, the Tigers have just the sixth-best record in the American League. Despite their enduring lead, they are anything but a juggernaut.

What's most amazing about the Tigers' hold on first place is that it survived their .417 winning percentage in July (though barely, they slipped into a tie for one day after losing a game to, of all pitchers, Jarrod Washburn on July 23). The Tigers picked the pace back up in August, but in both June and August they posted winning records despite allowing more runs than they scored. For a clue as to how they've done that, just look at the games Washburn has pitched for them thus far. Despite his 6.81 ERA, the Tigers are 4-2 in Washburn's starts, having won four by a total of five runs and lost two by a total of ten runs. That suggests timely hitting and the ability to out-hit bad pitching. Sure, the Tigers are going to win most of the games pitched by Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson, but the other three days they're going to need some more thump, and the rejuvenation of Magglio Ordoñez (.348/.425/.536 in August with 10 walks against nine K's) could prove to be key to their ability to hold off the Twins and take the division.

Twins fans, don't look now. The Twins have a strong end-game with righty Matt Guerrier and rookie lefty Jose Mijares setting up Joe Nathan, and despite only having half a lineup, that half, led by Joe Mauer's historic MVP season, is so good that the Twins are in the top half of the league in runs scored. Their trouble has come from what was supposed to be the team's strength: its young, home-grown rotation. That sounds familiar to Blue Jays fans, and perhaps it can help spread the word about the fragility of young pitching to those who continue to rail against pitch counts and innings limits. Three-fifths of the Twins' Opening Day rotation is on the DL. Two rookies (lefty Brian Duensing and righty Jeff Manship) are helping to fill the space behind remaining incumbents Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn. And if Francisco Liriano or Glen Perkins are able to return before the end of the season, it will be one of those rookies who is likely to get bounced. Duensing and Manship are middling prospects anyway, and will simply be doing their best to keep the Twins in games.

Amazingly and sadly, the Twins are looking for real help from Carl Pavano. Pavano has made as many starts this year as he did in all four years of his $39.95 million contract with the Yankees. He's even had some encouraging runs along the way, particularly the eight starts from May 1 through June 5 in which he went 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA and a 4.0 K/BB. Things got a littly rocky after that, but he posted a 3.46 ERA and 3.5 K/BB in six August starts, five of them for the Minnesota. If the Twins are going to catch the Tigers by the tail, they'll need Pavano to do as well or better in September.

Despite the (utterly predictable) injury to deadline acquisition Nick Johnson, the Marlins are scoring enough runs. And with Opening Day closer Matt Lindstrom back off the DL and setting up for his replacement Leo Nuñez, they finally have a solid end-game in place. Where they've struggled all season, and continue to, is in the rotation. They're strong on top. Josh Johnson has returned to become not just Florida's ace, but one of the best pitchers in baseball. A midseason demotion straightened out last year's ace, Ricky Nolasco (2-5, 9.07 ERA before; 7-3, 3.69 ERA since). Six-foot-eight rookie lefty Sean West has excelled since returning to the rotation in August (3-1, 2.77 ERA). The last two spots, however, are big question marks. Sanchez returned from the DL to replace 24-year-old Dutchman Rick VandenHurk a couple of weeks ago, but by then Chris Volstad was already in the process of pitching his way off the team via a 9.61 August ERA. Volstad's demotion prompted VandenHurk's return to the rotation on Tuesday.

The Marlins will need solid performances from both VandenHurk and Anibal Sanchez to make up their five-game deficit in the wild-card race, but VandenHurk is at the very least likely to stay healthy. It's Sanchez's surgically repaired right shoulder, which has put him on the DL twice this year, that is the big variable in the Marlins' rotation, and thus their season.

In third place and six games out in the wild-card race on Wednesday morning, the Rays have no margin for error down the stretch, which is why some saw the trade of Scott Kazmir as a white flag. The reason it wasn't was that Kazmir was the team's fifth-best starter this year and headed west with a 5.92 ERA. True, Kazmir had shown signs of coming around over the last month (4-1, 4.38 ERA), but his strikeout rate has been in decline and he's been fragile and volatile throughout his young career.

Nonetheless, it is on Andy Sonnanstine, the team's fourth starter in last year's playoffs, to equal or surpass what Kazmir had given the Rays over the last month in order to keep them in the race. He was unable to do that Tuesday night, giving up eight hits and walking four in four innings as the Rays lost a crucial game to the wild card-leading Red Sox. A couple more like that and Tampa Bay is toast.

The Cubs enter Wednesday's action six games behind the Rockies in fifth place in the NL wild-card standings. Despite being the pennant favorites entering the season, they're now the longest shot of any of the 10 teams included here to make the playoffs. I addressed what has gone wrong for the Cubs earlier this season, but it boils down to a lack of offense. The NL leaders in runs scored a year ago, the Cubs have slumped to below-average 4.43 runs scored per game this year, better than just six other NL teams. Alfonso Soriano, who had made seven-straight All-Star teams through 2008, and 2008 Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto have gone from slumping to hitting their way out of the lineup. Second baseman Mike Fontenont has done the same, doing his best to make his .305/.395/.514 line in 243 at-bats last year look like a fluke. Aramis Ramirez has hit, but hasn't stayed healthy. Free agent addition Milton Bradley has started to come around, however, hitting .308/.427.484 in August, while Derrek Lee and Kosuke Fukudome have actually been considerably better this year than last.

With Ramirez finally healthy and hitting (.339/.373/.518 since returning from both lingering pain in his shoulder and a flu on August 15), the Cubs might be one comeback at the plate from making a comeback of their own. Don't hold your breath, though, or you might need to be rejuvenated as well.

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