On tap: This is it! Week 26 is the finale as far as the 2009 regular season is concerned. While 2008 featured two bonus days of baseball, chances are that's unlikely to happen this year. The American League Central battle between the Detroit Tigers (82-70) and Minnesota Twins (79-73) is the closest, and those teams are separated by a healthy three games in the standings. Heck, I probably wouldn't even be discussing the possibility of a tiebreaker game if not for the fact that those teams play head-to-head four times at Detroit to begin Week 26. Barring a big early week by the Tigers, expect those two teams to roll their "A" teams right up until season's end, especially the Twins they'll be closing out the Metrodome with a three-game series versus the Kansas City Royals during the weekend.
Besides the Tigers-Twins division race, there aren't a lot of captivating battles remaining, meaning the final week might mean a lot of teams rest regulars, audition rookies and/or set up their rotations and rosters for the playoffs. The National League wild-card-leading Colorado Rockies have a 3½-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, but other than that, there isn't a race within five games. Every single one of them, in fact, could be settled by the first pitch of Week 26, or in the first day or two, especially the NL Central (St. Louis Cardinals, 9½-game lead, magic number 1), AL wild card (Boston Red Sox, 8 and 3), AL West (Los Angeles Angels, 7 and 4), NL East (Philadelphia Phillies, 7 and 4) and NL West (Los Angeles Dodgers, 6 and 4).
Finally, both the Yankees' CC Sabathia and Cardinals' Adam Wainwright have an outside chance at 20 wins -- they're the only pitchers with enough remaining starts to do it -- so expect each of them to get a chance to go the minimum five innings for a "W" in their final regular-season starts Friday (barring losses/no-decisions in the weekend leading into Week 26, of course).
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Team advantages | Weather report | Load up: Hitters
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The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' number of games scheduled ("Gm"), home games ("Hm"), games versus right- and left-handed pitchers ("vs. RHP" and "vs. LHP") and games at either hitter- or pitcher-friendly ballparks.
Remember that in the final week of the regular season, there is precious little time for make-up games, so teams will wait out the elements or schedule doubleheaders for the very next day to avoid being forced to play on Monday, Oct. 5. (That is, if the teams involved have any prayer at the playoffs. Otherwise, the teams don't reschedule them at all.) In other words, only the most threatened games are the ones that should catch your eye, and they are: Los Angeles Dodgers-Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox-Cleveland Indians on Monday (40 percent chance of rain in each city) and Milwaukee Brewers-Colorado Rockies on Thursday (40). Those Monday ones shouldn't even be a big problem; they're series-opening games, easy to reschedule.
Weatherproof games: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners (3, Tue-Thu); Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners (3, Fri-Sun); Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays (4, Mon-Thu); New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays (3, Fri-Sun); Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins (3, Fri-Sun).
The teams listed below have the most favorable overall hitting matchups, accounting for recent performance, strength of opponents and ballpark factors.
Cubs (PIT-4, ARI-3): Who needs Milton Bradley, anyway? The Cubs have respectable numbers in terms of runs per game (4.4) and team OPS (.737) since Bradley's last appearance for them on Sept. 17, numbers that are decent, at least, if you consider that they all came in road games and the Cubs rarely ever hit well on the road (4.0 runs per game, .712 team OPS for the season). Back home, where their season numbers in those categories are 5.0 and .777, and against two staffs that are a combined 9-33 with a 5.36 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in September, the Cubs should finish strong even in meaningless games. Micah Hoffpauir (.914 OPS in September) has been the primary benefactor of Bradley's suspension/departure, while Jeff Baker (.347 BA, .804 OPS in the month) has been seeing increased playing time.
Rays (BAL-4, NYY-3): Anyone who faces the Orioles' sorry pitching staff (major league worst 5.15 ERA) for four games in a given week is an effective must-start in my book. Yes, the Rays are the opponent for what might be CC Sabathia's chance at a 20-win season. But let's look at the flip side to that argument; he might not have a chance at 20 if he hasn't beaten the Red Sox in the weekend heading into Week 26, in which case there's almost no chance he's going past five innings or tossing even 100 pitches in this outing. In fact, the Yankees might not use any of their premium playoff pitchers for more than a couple of innings in that series, so brace for a lot of Ian Kennedy, Sergio Mitre and Josh Towers. Ah, meaningless games, so nice for an opposing offense like that of the Rays, who, by the way, sport baseball's fourth-best team OPS in home games this season (.816).
Twins (@DET-4, KC-3): Call it a hunch, but that Tigers series just doesn't scare me. With the Tigers set to throw both Eddie Bonine and Nate Robertson in two of the games, I think the Twins are good for at least a split, and regardless of the game results, you'll be pleased with this team's offensive output. Consider that in five past games at Comerica Park this season, the Twins have totaled 33 runs (6.6 per contest), batted .328 and managed an .882 OPS, and versus the Tigers overall this year, the Twins have scored 89 runs in 14 games (6.4 average) with a .308 batting average and .853 OPS. That season-ending Royals series, meanwhile, should be a breeze after such high-octane affairs, and all the energy should come from the Twins' side in those games, too, considering they might well be the final contests at the Metrodome (if the team falls short in its playoff chase).
Phillies (HOU-4, FLA-3): The games might wind up meaningless, yes, but don't underrate the value of home-field advantage, or at least avoiding three road games in a five-game Division Series, which is what would happen if the Phillies finished with the third-best record in the NL and the Rockies won the wild card. Dodging a first-round Dodgers series (pun intended) is a smart move for the Phillies, and even if they want to store some bullets this week, the matchups are so favorable for them that they can afford to do so. This is a seven-game week played entirely at home, with six right-handed starters on the docket. The Phillies have an .801 team OPS at home, eighth-best in baseball, and a .780 team OPS versus right-handers, sixth-best.
Chris Coghlan, 3B/OF, Marlins: .381 BA, .923 OPS in 22 games in September; .458 BA, 1.218 OPS in six career games at Citizens Bank Park
Ryan Doumit, C, Pirates: .311 BA, .948 OPS in 15 career games at Wrigley Field; .326 BA, .871 OPS in 11 games at Great American Ball Park in 2008-09
Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Mariners: .272 BA, .909 OPS in 49 home games in 2009; call it a hunch, being that it might be his final week before retiring
Garrett Jones, OF, Pirates: .305 BA, .925 OPS in 34 road games in 2009; .349 BA, 1.094 OPS versus right-handers in 2009
Felipe Lopez, 2B, Brewers: .293 BA, .807 OPS in 20 career games at Coors Field; .309 BA, .810 OPS versus right-handers in 2009
Mike Lowell 3B, Red Sox: .306 BA, .894 OPS versus left-handers in 2009; .307 BA, .942 OPS in 51 home games in 2009
Casey McGehee, 2B/3B, Brewers: .303 BA, .869 OPS versus right-handers in 2009; .343 BA, .949 OPS in 54 road games in 2009
Lyle Overbay, 1B, Blue Jays: .287 BA, .911 OPS versus right-handers in 2009; .305 BA, .882 OPS in 28 career games at Camden Yards
Favorable matchups listed below are selected based upon opponents' catchers allowing a high rate of steals attempts and/or having low caught-stealing percentages.
Cubs (PIT-4, ARI-3): In addition to matching up well with the bats, the Cubs match up nicely on the base paths, with games versus two catchers known more for offense than for throwing out opposing baserunners, the Pirates' Ryan Doumit and the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero. Ryan Theriot might be the most notable base stealer on the Cubs' roster (five steals in 19 games in September), but Aramis Ramirez's two steals this month demonstrate that this team has matchups ability. Tyler Colvin and Mike Fontenot could each be good for a cheap steal in the final week.
Indians (CHW-3, @BOS-4): I've beaten this dead horse many a time this season -- the White Sox's A.J. Pierzynski and Red Sox's Jason Varitek stink throwing out opposing baserunners, period. Even if Varitek takes some time off during that four-game series, neither Victor Martinez nor George Kottaras is strong in that department; they've combined to allow 80 steals in 94 attempts (85.1 percent success rate) in 293 2/3 innings (one steal per 3.12 innings) this season. Michael Brantley's (four steals in 21 big-league games) owners must be drooling. Those who have Asdrubal Cabrera, Jamey Carroll and Shin-Soo Choo must be happy, too.
Rays (BAL-4, NYY-3): This team runs, runs, runs, especially versus these two opponents. For the season, the Rays have swiped 27 bags successfully in 29 games combined against these division rivals. Incidentally, the Rays have 105 steals just in home games; that's more than 20 other teams have overall this season. B.J. Upton might not be doing much of anything with the bat, but he's still AL-only worthy for his speed (three steals in his past 14 games), and Jason Bartlett, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are all more than capable of capitalizing upon these matchups.
The teams listed below have the most favorable overall pitching matchups, accounting for recent performance, strength of opponents and ballpark factors.
Cubs (PIT-4, ARI-3): Might as well go for the trifecta, right? Seriously, that's how strong this set of matchups is. The Pirates rank dead-last in baseball in runs per game (3.5) and team OPS (.656) in road games, as well as at the bottom in both categories in September (3.0 and .646). The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, rank in the bottom 10 in all of those departments -- and remember that they're a team with a hitter-friendly home ballpark now making a distant road trip. Ted Lilly is your final-week standout; he's 8-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in eight starts at home this season.
Red Sox (TOR-3, CLE-4): Though the Red Sox will almost assuredly have their AL wild-card spot locked up early in the week (if not before the week begins), putting their emphasis this week on lining up their starters for the division series, their matchups are fantasy-friendly enough that you shouldn't sit Red Sox pitchers just because the games are meaningless. Among starters, Josh Beckett, and among relievers, Jonathan Papelbon, are about the only "sure things" from this staff; everyone else could use at least one solid effort in Week 26 to ease the Nation's nerves heading into October. Clay Buchholz could stand to extend his streak of six consecutive quality starts -- and I believe he will with two starts at home -- and Daisuke Matsuzaka could use another strong outing versus the Indians on Friday to eliminate any worry about his health or his terrible start to the season -- and I think he'll have one.
Athletics (@SEA-3, LAA-3): This has been one heck of a pitching staff of late; can you believe that the Athletics, young and inexperienced as they seem on paper, are 15-7 with a 3.23 ERA (sixth best in baseball) and 1.24 WHIP (fourth-best) in September? During this month this team's theme should be "Upset Central," as the A's are 5-2 versus the Rangers, including a three-game sweep at Texas, and 2-1 versus the Twins, that series played in Minnesota. While that final-weekend series might look threatening, what with the Angels ranked second in baseball in runs per game (5.4) and third in team OPS (.793), those games are completely meaningless to the Angels, who will be most focused on having their roster rested and ready for the division series. You might not think pitchers like Brett Anderson (4-0, 2.28 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in four September starts) and Trevor Cahill (3-0, 3.05 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in four) are good plays, but they are.
Braves (FLA-3, WAS-4): Incredibly, this team has an outside chance at catching the Rockies for the NL wild card, and really, there are two reasons I'll give them a chance. One is that the Rockies play three road games at the Dodgers to conclude the regular season, meaning their schedule is tougher. The other is that the Braves' rotation ranks among the best in baseball over the past four months. It's no coincidence that since June 7, the date of Tommy Hanson's big league debut, this team is 56-42 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 98 games. Hanson has meant so much to the Braves that they can't afford to shut him down now, not with the team still able to sniff October. All five current Braves starters are must-starts; they've combined for a 3.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 59 starts at Turner Field this season.
The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' schedules and projected starting pitchers. Those pitchers scheduled to pitch twice this week are color-coded.
Recommended cut-off point for elite one-starts: No. 13 (Pineiro)
Recommended cut-off point for "under-50" bargains: No. 20 (Norris)
One must-start: Justin Verlander.
2. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Tue-PIT (Hart), Sun-ARI (Buckner): 20-6, 3.33 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in 32 home starts in 2008-09
3. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Mon-FLA (Sanchez), Sat-WAS (Detwiler): 6-6, 2.66 ERA, 1.20 WHIP in 16 home starts in 2009
4. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Mon-HOU (Bazardo), Sat-FLA (Johnson): 7-3, 3.29 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in 15 home starts in 2009; keep in mind he might be on a limited pitch count in his second start (if he makes it)
5. John Danks (CHW) -- Mon-@CLE (Laffey), Sun-@DET (Verlander)
6. Scott Kazmir (LAA) -- Tue-TEX (Feldman), Sun-@OAK (E. Gonzalez): 6-1, 2.05 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in 10 career starts versus Rangers
7. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Mon-TOR (Richmond), Sat-CLE (Carmona): 9-1, 3.42 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 15 home starts in 2009; keep in mind he might be on a limited pitch count in his second start (if he makes it)
8. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Mon-TEX (Hunter), Sat-@OAK (Eveland): 5-0, 1.44 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in eight career games (seven starts) at McAfee Coliseum
9. Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Tue-ARI (Buckner), Sun-@SD (Mujica): 2-1, 2.10 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in five games (four starts) versus Diamondbacks in 2009
10. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Tue-FLA (VandenHurk), Sun-WAS (Martin): 8-2, 2.68 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 14 career starts versus Marlins
11. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Tue-TOR (Romero), Sun-CLE (Laffey): 2-1, 2.72 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in six home starts in 2009
12. Scott Feldman (TEX) -- Tue-@LAA (Kazmir), Sun-@SEA (Morrow): 12-2, 3.16 ERA, 1.26 WHIP in 16 road games (15 starts) in 2009
13. Joel Pineiro (STL) -- Tue-@CIN (Bailey), Sun-MIL (Narveson): 3-0, 3.06 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in five career starts versus Brewers
14. Rick Porcello (DET) -- Mon-MIN (Blackburn), Sat-CHW (Hudson): 8-3, 4.07 ERA, 1.33 WHIP in 14 home starts in 2009
15. Jason Marquis (COL) -- Tue-MIL (Narveson), Sun-@LAD (Kershaw): 3-0, 1.27 ERA, 0.65 WHIP in five career starts at Dodger Stadium
16. Homer Bailey (CIN) -- Tue-STL (Pineiro), Sun-PIT (Hart): 3-0, 2.79 ERA, 1.29 WHIP in three career starts versus Pirates
17. Tommy Hunter (TEX) -- Mon-@LAA (Santana), Sat-@SEA (Rowland-Smith)
18. Nick Blackburn (MIN) -- Mon-@DET (Porcello), Sat-KC (Greinke)
19. J.A. Happ (PHI) -- Tue-HOU (Norris), Sun-FLA (Sanchez)
20. Bud Norris (HOU) -- Tue-@PHI (Happ), Sun-@NYM (Pelfrey)
21. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Mon-BAL (Hendrickson), Sat-NYY (Pettitte): 5-2, 2.63 ERA, 1.16 WHIP in 10 home starts in 2009
22. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Mon-@ATL (Jurrjens), Sun-@PHI (Happ)
23. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Tue-@WAS (Martin), Sun-HOU (Norris)
24. Brandon Morrow (SEA) -- Tue-OAK (Cahill), Sun-TEX (Feldman)
25. Wade Davis (TB) -- Tue-BAL (Guthrie), Sun-NYY (Gaudin)
26. Aaron Laffey (CLE) -- Mon-CHW (Danks), @BOS (Buchholz)
27. Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Tue-@DET (Verlander), Sun-KC (Hochevar)
28. Chad Gaudin (NYY) -- Mon-KC (Hochevar), Sun-@TB (Davis)
Twelve "no thank yous": Yorman Bazardo, Billy Buckner, Ross Detwiler, Zach Duke, Nelson Figueroa, Jeremy Guthrie, Kevin Hart, Mark Hendrickson, Luke Hochevar, J.D. Martin, Chris Narveson, Scott Richmond.
The 50-to-90 group (owned in 50 to 90 percent of ESPN.com leagues)
Scott Baker (MIN) -- Thu-@DET (Robertson): 2-1, 4.32 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in five career starts at Comerica Park
Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Sat-PIT (Duke): 5-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.30 WHIP in seven career starts versus Pirates
Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Thu-WAS (Mock): 1-0, 1.32 ERA, 0.80 WHIP in two starts versus Nationals in 2009
Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Fri-@LAD (Garland): Has 12 quality starts in 13 starts since All-Star break; 8-2, 3.02 ERA, 1.12 WHIP in those games
The under-50 group (available in at least 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues)
Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Thu-@SEA (Fister): 7 IP, 6 H's, 1 ER, 8 K's at Safeco Field 8/25/09
Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Wed-STL (Smoltz): Has 12 consecutive quality starts; 4-4, 2.16 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in those games
Joe Blanton (PHI) -- Fri-FLA (West): 2-1, 1.31 ERA, 0.97 WHIP in three starts versus Marlins in 2009
Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Tue-@SEA (Morrow): Has five quality starts in his past eight starts; 4-1, 2.64 ERA, 1.13 WHIP in those games
Vicente Padilla (LAD) -- Wed-@SD (Richard): 3-0, 3.62 ERA, 1.33 WHIP in six starts as member of Dodgers
Carl Pavano (MIN) -- Wed-@DET (Bonine): 3-0, 1.61 ERA, 0.76 WHIP in three starts at Comerica Park in 2009
Tim Redding (NYM) -- Wed-@WAS (Lannan): 1-0, 1.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP in two starts versus Nationals in 2009
Joe Saunders (LAA) -- Fri-@OAK (G. Gonzalez): 3-1, 2.73 ERA, 1.37 WHIP in four career starts at McAfee Coliseum
Randy Wells (CHC) -- Wed-PIT, Game 1 (Morton): 2-0, 2.08 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in two starts versus Pirates in 2009
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.