The Nationals and the Orioles surged into playoff contention in the first half thanks to key contributions from players such as Washington closer Chad Cordero and Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. Here is a quintet of players from other teams whose performances will be particularly crucial in the second half.
1 CURT SCHILLING, RHP, Red Sox He's the biggest second-half addition in baseball. Schilling's arm is fine. The Boston ace, recovering from a badly bruised right ankle, threw two simulated games last week and should be back shortly after the All-Star break. The Sox were 25--7 when Schilling started last year, postseason included.
2 MIKE LOWELL, 3B, Marlins Thirteenth in the NL in runs, Florida will need better production from Lowell to get to the postseason. After hitting .280 and averaging 25 homers and 95 RBIs over the past five seasons, Lowell (.219, 3, 29) has inexplicably been the worst-hitting third baseman in the big leagues with the exception of the Indians' Aaron Boone.
3 JASON SCHMIDT, RHP, Giants Assuming the Astros keep Roger Clemens and the A's hold on to Barry Zito, Schmidt could be the best pitcher available in July. San Francisco G.M. Brian Sabean says he's not trading his ace--not now, anyway. But if the Giants continue to founder for another month and Schmidt's velocity wavers, they may reconsider.
4 JIM THOME, 1B, Phillies A horrendous season for the 34-year-old (.219, including .171 versus lefties, 7 homers, 29 RBIs and a 20-day stint on the DL with a bad back) has been more difficult for Philly fans to stomach because of first base prospect Ryan Howard's monster year in Triple A (.380, 15, 51). Thome has hit one home run on the road this year.
5 JON GARLAND, RHP, White Sox No one is catching Chicago as long as Garland, who in only 14 starts tied his career high for wins (12), and Mark Buehrle keep pitching like Cy Young Award candidates. Only 25, Garland is no fluke journeyman but is blossoming into a premier pitcher with impeccable command. --Tom Verducci