The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A's sport the best record in the American League. Though the Angels may be the division favorite, it's the A's who have the advantage Thursday, thanks to the return of Justin Duchscherer. After missing three weeks with a biceps injury, Duchscherer made his return to the rotation Saturday, allowing two runs in five innings against Seattle. Moved from relief to the rotation to begin the 2008 season, Duchscherer has among the best numbers of the Oakland staff. He's owned in only a smattering of mixed leagues, but could be among the most valuable starters in the American League if he can replicate the elite command he showed in the bullpen in 2005 and 2006. Duchscherer is a solid play against the Angels on Thursday and should be owned in all formats.
Matchups for Thursday, May 1
All times are ET. Statistics are from the 2008 regular season.
Hank Blalock, 3B, Rangers (hamstring)
Sean Casey, 1B, Red Sox (hip)
Chad Cordero, RP, Nationals (shoulder)
Nomar Garciaparra, 3B, Dodgers (calf)
Jorge Posada, C, Yankees (shoulder)
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees (quad)
Brian Schneider, C, Mets (thumb)
Brad Thompson, SP, Cardinals (elbow)
J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox (thigh)
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Red Sox (groin)
Maicer Izturis, 2B, Angels (back)
Mike Jacobs, 1B, Marlins (finger)
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (quad)
Josh Willingham, OF, Marlins (back)
Start 'em, sit 'em
Hitters: Usually, of course, it's good for a pitcher to face backups, but Blue Jays starter A.J. Burnett must be glad that reserve Boston first baseman Sean Casey is on the disabled list. Casey is 13-for-23 versus Burnett, while starter Kevin Youkilis is only 1-for-10. Shortstop Julio Lugo (3-for-17) hasn't been very successful against Burnett either, but don't look for Alex Cora to spell him on Thursday. Cora is hitless in 14 at-bats versus the Jays' right-hander. Cleveland starter Paul Byrd has seen a lot of the Mariners and hasn't liked it, allowing a .331 batting average/.364 on-base percentage/.554 slugging line to current Seattle hitters in 175 at-bats. Outfielder Raul Ibanez (13-for-23, eight RBIs) is the player who needs to be in the lineup, while first baseman Richie Sexson (2-for-17) is the one who does not. Detroit's Nate Robertson is Thursday's beneficiary of Alex Rodriguez's quad injury, but the Tigers starter still has plenty of cause for concern within the Yankees' lineup. Johnny Damon (8-for-20) and Jason Giambi (7-for-13) have been his biggest problems. Damon is heating up, too, with hits in nine of his past 25 at-bats. The Dodgers' Matt Kemp was a popular breakout pick this year, but he's spent a lot of April on the bench as manager Joe Torre has relentlessly tinkered with his outfield combinations. Kemp hasn't been hitting that well, either. He's struck out once per game while drawing only three walks, and his .301 batting average is a mirage, fueled by a 40 percent hit rate. Kemp is heating up of late, however. He's been in the lineup every day recently, and has collected nine hits and eight RBIs in the past six games. Expect continued improvement, and get him in the lineup if he's been riding your bench. Milwaukee's Bill Hall leads the National League with a .500 average and .591 on-base percentage during the past week. It still may be wise to give this hot hitter a break on Thursday, as Hall is 6-for-36 with a whopping 17 strikeouts versus Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, who has been in a groove and has allowed more than two earned runs only once so far this year. Ryan Zimmerman has been ice-cold this year and is no longer owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues. His bat is coming around, though, as he has seven hits in his past 23 at-bats. This premier talent appears to be heating up, so get him active if he's been on the bench during his slump.
Pitchers: A.J. Burnett has been struggling this season, but the Red Sox are his slump-buster. Burnett sports a 2.51 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28.2 career innings against the Red Sox, including a complete-game three-hitter in his only career start at Fenway Park. The active Red Sox roster is hitting only .175 against Burnett. The Brewers' Yovani Gallardo has made only two starts since returning from injury, but they've been good ones. Gallardo has allowed only one run this season, and has become a must-start ace, regardless of the opponent. Randy Wolf and Adam Eaton are both facing their old teams Thursday. Eaton belongs nowhere near a mixed-league roster even though he owns Padres hitters, but Wolf isn't the best start on Thursday either, despite his solid April. Wolf has an extensive history in Philadelphia, but as an extreme flyballer he has fared considerably worse in Citizens Bank Ballpark than he did at the old Veterans Stadium. He's also allowed nine earned runs in his past two starts after opening the year with three gems.
Hitters: The Royals' David DeJesus has owned Rangers starter Sidney Ponson in his career. He's 10-for-17 with three walks and no strikeouts. Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt is on fire this week, going 9-for-22 and slugging .636. He also has three hits in 10 at-bats versus Indians starter Paul Byrd, who has struggled with most of the Seattle offense. Phillies third sacker Pedro Feliz has four hits in 11 at-bats versus Randy Wolf, and three of those hits have been home runs!
Pitchers: Justin Duchscherer may have been adequately touted above, but it's also worth mentioning that he's 5-0 with a 1.21 career ERA versus the Angels. Go get him. Baltimore's Brian Burres has tossed more than 13 consecutive scoreless innings and looks like an attractive pickup based on his 2008 surface stats. Don't be deceived. Burres' numbers are luck-driven, especially his 80 percent strand rate. The 27-year-old lacks even average skills, and is a good bet to end the year with an ERA near 6.00 despite the hot start.
Thursday will be wet all around the northern half of the U.S. Rain throughout the Midwest will definitely threaten the home dates for the Cubs and Indians. Contests at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and New York could see some showers as well.
Will Harris is a fantasy baseball and college football analyst for ESPN.com