Danger zones ahead

They are the pigeons chased by hawks, the easy late-season kill. But when teams like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays play the contenders in September, it is the contenders who play with anxiety.

The Devil Rays can feel the pressure start to build on the other side of the field in the early innings of games. A playoff berth is at stake, and the contender wants to put away Tampa Bay quickly. But if the score remains close, the possibility that the Devil Rays might do real damage to the contender's playoff hopes grow.

And there is no pressure on Tampa Bay, except maybe when manager Lou Piniella fumes. The Devil Rays can only gain from this. They get to play in front of large and intense crowds, even at home -- where transient Red Sox and Yankees fans fill their park -- and if they lose, well, it doesn't really impact their status in 2003. If they win, they might take down a contender or two along the way. They took two of three from both Seattle and Oakland in series earlier this month.

"It could determine their playoff future, how we play against them," Tampa Bay catcher Toby Hall said. "Do we try to change our approach? No. We try to go out and win the game. We're playing the best at the end, and it's a good test for the younger guys."

Hall said he could sense the extra urgency in the series against Seattle and Oakland. "Some of them run their mouth and say, 'These are the teams we've got to beat,' talking about us," said Hall.

But the pressure will be completely on the contenders in the last 12 days of the regular season. These are the spoilers, ranked from the toughest to the wimpiest:

1. Texas Rangers

Seattle is struggling to hang in the wild-card race, 2½ games behind the Red Sox, and the Mariners have already lost the first two of four games they are playing in Texas this week. The Rangers are a tough matchup for Seattle, a dangerous offensive team that will score runs, and the Mariners are not built to win slugfests these days. Seattle has won only two of its last 13 games when allowing five or more runs, and it's hard to contain the Rangers in Arlington. Oakland has three games at home against the Rangers next week, but the Athletics might have their playoff berth clinched by then.

2. Colorado Rockies

Every series in Coors Field can turn into a steel-cage match, and even if you go into the place and take a couple of games from the Rockies, your pitching staff might be licking its wounds for a week. Houston -- which embarrassed the Cardinals over the weekend and finally gained traction in the NL Central race -- opened a three-game series in Colorado on Tuesday with a 14-4 victory. The Rockies are 23-55 on the road, 45-28 at home.

3. New York Yankees

They could close out the AL East by the end of the upcoming weekend, and their series in Chicago next week could be mostly meaningless to the Yankees, other than settling home-field advantage. But of all the AL teams, the White Sox might present the worst possible matchup for the Yankees, because their tough right-handed lineup could wear on Mike Mussina, David Wells and Andy Pettitte. The Yankees would love to play the role of spoiler against the White Sox.

4. Anaheim Angels

Still playing with a measure of a champion's pride, and they've got one more game at home against Oakland (splitting the first two) and three games at home against Seattle on their calendar. The Angels are seven games over .500 at home, 15 games under .500 on the road.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates

Jumped up and bit the Phillies last weekend, taking two of three as Larry Bowa gnawed on his cap. Next up: the Cubs. The Pirates have six games left with Chicago, including three at home this weekend and then three in Wrigley.

6. Kansas City Royals

The Royals are still within range of first place and will stay in contention if they can beat up on Cleveland this week and the White Sox can take a couple of games from Minnesota in the big series that started Tuesday with a 5-2 Twins victory. But the Royals will probably fall out, and they have seven games left with the White Sox.

7. Tampa Bay Devil Rays

They have five games left with Boston, but the Red Sox caught a big break: It appears they won't have to face tough right-hander Doug Waechter, who looks like he could be a force in 2004.

8. St. Louis Cardinals

Three games at home this weekend against Houston, but they might be totally demoralized by then after being swept last week at Minute Maid Park.

9. Baltimore Orioles

They start the final week of the regular season with a four-game set at Fenway. In the season series, Baltimore is 8-7 against Boston, and manager Mike Hargrove will be manuevering to save his job.

10. Cleveland Indians

Play host to Boston for three games this weekend, and have two games in Minnesota next week -- plus games against K.C. The general feeling around the league is that the Indians could be a contender in '04, but they are finishing poorly, with three wins in 14 games this month.

11. Cincinnati Reds

The only thing that seems to matter in Cincinnati now is when Pete Rose gets back in the game, and whether he can be a manager. The Reds have three games in Philadelphia (which could be impacted by Hurricane Isabel), and three at home against the Cubs.

12. Milwaukee Brewers

They are the Cincinnati Bengals of their sport. No matter what they do, they always wind up as bottom-dwellers. The Brewers have won only two of their last 10 games, and they play host to Houston for the last four games of the season.

13. New York Mets

The promotion of Tom Glavine's brother might have sent the worst possible message throughout the organization: Even on a cruddy team, a star system exists. A group barely playing out the string. One more game in Chicago this week, then three games in Florida next week.

14. Detroit Tigers

Need we say more? Minnesota plays Detroit in seven of its last nine games. The Twins are 11-1 against the Tigers this season.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.