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Wednesday, August 15
Schedules could be key for contenders

By Sean McAdam
Special to

All schedules are not created equal. Not in this era of unbalanced schedules, cross-country flights and endless wild-card possibilites.

Some teams have it easier than others as baseball approaches the home stretch. Of course, looks can be deceiving -- sometimes, also-rans play loose and fresh in September and relish the spoiler role.

A look at the playoff contenders and their schedules from August 15 through the end of the season. Degree of difficulty is rated on a 1-10 basis, with 10 being the toughest.

New York Yankees
Record: 70-49, lead Red Sox by 4 games in AL East
Games remaining: 43
Home: 20 Away: 23
Games against winning teams: 12
Games against losing teams: 31
Toughest stretch: Aug.24-Sept. 10. A three-game series in Anaheim, followed by three at home with Toronto, three in Boston, three in Toronto and four at home with Boston.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 14-Sept. 30. Like the Red Sox, the Yankees get two series with Tampa and two with Baltimore in the final three weeks. There is also a series in Chicago thrown in.
Comment: The Yankees are well positioned to win their fourth straight AL East title as long as they don't stumble badly against the Red Sox.
Degree of difficulty: 4

Boston Red Sox
Record: 65-52, 4 games out in AL East, 2 games behind Oakland in wild card
Games remaining: 45
Home: 21 Away: 24
Games against winning teams: 19
Games against losing teams: 26
Toughest stretch: Aug. 28-Sept. 10. The Red Sox play three in Cleveland, host New York for three, host Cleveland for three, then go to New York for four.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 11-Sept. 30. The Red Sox finish with a steady diet of non-contenders: six with Tampa, eight with Baltimore and six with Detroit.
Comment: The good news for the Red Sox is that they'll likely have Pedro Martinez back in time for the two series against New York. But the hard part may be staying close in the next few weeks to make those games meaningful.
Degree of difficulty: 6

Cleveland Indians
Record: 66-52, 2.5 games up on Minnesota in AL Central
Games remaining: 44
Home: 21 Away: 23
Games against winning teams: 24
Games against losing teams: 20
Toughest stretch: Now. The Indians in the midst of stretch that has them hosting the Twins and Angels, going to Oakland and Seattle, then returning to host Boston -- a run of 15 tough games in a row.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 11-20, with series home and away with Kansas City, sandwiched around a three-game set in Toronto.
Comment: Cleveland is fortunate to be going through its most demanding stretch while the Twins are playing their worst baseall of the season.
Degree of difficulty: 5

Minnesota Twins
Record: 64-55, 2.5 games behind Cleveland, 4 games behind Oakland
Games remaining: 43
Home: 22 Away: 21
Games against winning teams: 14
Games against losing teams: 29
Toughest stretch: Sept. 4-13. A 10-game road trip right after Labor Day takes the Twins to Texas, Anaheim and Detroit, a test for a team which went into Wednesday with a 27-33 road record.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 17-30. The Twins play three of four series at home, all against losing teams. The one road series is against Kansas City, owners of the league's second-worst record.
Comment: The Twins might be able to get better at the expense of some lesser opponents. It's very likely that their fate will be determined in the final two weekends of the season.
Degree of difficulty: 5

Seattle Mariners
Record: 86-33, 18 games up on Oakland, on pace for 117 wins
Games remaining: 43
Home: 20 Away: 23
Games against winning teams: 20
Games against losing teams: 23
Toughest stretch: Sept. 18-Sept. 30. In the final two weeks, the Mariners have two series with Oakland and a home series with Anaheim.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 28-Sept. 9. Nothing but the Orioles and Devil Rays, home and away, as the Mariners chase history.
Comment: The rest of the season is only a playoff tuneup for the Mariners, as they chase the '98 Yankees' AL record of 114 wins. They need to avoid a September letdown to head into the postseason with some momentum and urgency.
Degree of difficulty: 3

Oakland Athletics
Record: 68-51, 2 games up on Boston for the wild-card lead
Games remaining: 43
Home: 22 Away: 21
Games against winning teams: 17
Games against losing teams: 26
Toughest stretch: Sept. 13-30. Of Oakland's last five series, three are on the road and the two at home are against winning teams (Anaheim and Seattle).
Easiest stretch: Sept. 3-12. A nine-game homestand against three of the league's lesser lights -- Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Texas.
Comment: The A's have to hope that the Mariners are disinterested in the final 10 days, since it won't be any fun playing the best team in the game six times down the stretch.
Degree of difficulty: 6

Anaheim Angels
Record: 63-56, 5 games behind Oakland for the wild card
Games remaining: 43
Home: 23 Away: 20
Games against winning teams: 29
Games against losing teams: 14
Toughest stretch: Sept. 10-27. In the span of five series, the Angels play home and away series with Seattle and Oakland, arguably the two best teams in the game right now, plus a three-game set in the Texas heat thrown in for good measure.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 28-Sept. 6. Two series against the lowly Royals represents the Angels' last respite on the schedule.
Comment: It's not bad enough that the Angels are bringing up the rear in the wild-card chase -- they have to get stuck with, hands down, the toughest schedule remaining of any playoff contender.
Degree of difficulty: 8

Philadelphia Phillies
Record: 66-52, 2 games up on Atlanta
Games remaining: 44
Home: 23 Away: 21
Games against winning teams: 23
Games against losing teams: 21
Toughest stretch: It's about to start. A rough road series in St. Louis is followed with a seven-game homestand against the Astros and Diamondbacks.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 28-Sept. 9. Twelve games, all against the Expos and Mets.
Comment: The Phils have a chance to win their first division crown since '93, with seven games remaining with the Braves -- four of them at home.
Degree of difficulty: 6

Atlanta Braves
Record: 64-54, 2 games behind Philadelphia in NL East, 2.5 games behind Houston and San Francisco for the wild card
Games remaining: 44
Home: 22 Away: 22
Games against winning teams: 25
Games against losing teams: 19
Toughest stretch: Aug. 31-Sept. 20. The Braves play the Cubs and Philllies twice, plus a series with Florida.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 21-30. Six games with the Mets in the final nine games gives the Braves a cushy finish.
Comment: Those Mets games in the final 10 days that everyone had circled on their calendar? Meaningless. Those Phillies game that everyone thought would be gimmes? Very important.
Degree of difficulty: 6

Chicago Cubs
Record: 67-51, half-game up in Houston in NL Central
Games remaining: 43
Home: 24 Away: 19
Games against winning teams: 26
Games against losing teams: 17
Toughest stretch: Aug. 28-Sept. 9. Two series each, home and away, with Florida and Atlanta.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 10-23. A 10-game respite against the Reds and Pirates before two showdown series with Houston on the final two weekends.
Comment: The Cubs have more games against winning teams in the final 6 1/2 weeks than any other NL contender. If they're going to hold off Houston -- or others for the wild-card -- they'll have to earn it.
Degree of difficulty: 7

Houston Astros
Record: 67-52, half-game behind Chicago, tied with San Francisco for wild-card lead
Games remaining: 43
Home: 21 Away: 22
Games against winning teams: 23
Games against losing teams: 20
Toughest stretch: Sept. 11-30. The Astros' last 19 games come against fellow contenders, and 10 of the last 16 are on the road.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 24-Sept. 9, a stretch that sees the Astros playing the NL Central flotsam and jetsam -- the Pirates, Reds and Brewers.
Comment: The Astros need to have a bit of a cushion in place when the last three weeks begin as the schedule offers them no breaks.
Degree of difficulty: 7

St. Louis Cardinals
Record: 63-55, 4 games behind Chicago, 3.5 games behind wild-card leaders
Games remaining: 44
Home: 20 Away: 24
Games against winning teams: 18
Games against losing teams: 26
Toughest stretch: Aug. 24-Sept. 9. The Cards begin in Chicago, come home for a three-game homestand, go to Southern California for six games, then come home for another three-game homestand.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 17-30. Of the last four series, the Cardinals have just one winning (Houston) opponent.
Comment: Travel will be the toughest part for the Cards, who have as many road games remaining as any other NL team. Even with their recent hot streak, the Cards have their work cut out for them. They'll have to survive the West Coast to take advantage of an easier finish.
Degree of difficulty: 8

Arizona Diamondbacks
Record: 68-51, 1 game up on San Francisco in NL West
Games remaining: 43
Home: 19 Away: 24
Games against winning teams: 20
Games against losing teams: 23
Toughest stretch: Aug. 24-Sept. 6. This portion of the schedule takes the D-Backs to the East Coast (Philadelphia), back home (Giants, Paders) and on to the West Coast (Giants, Padres).
Easiest stretch: Sept. 11-19. Nine straight against non-contenders Milwaukee and Colorado, though a visit to Coors Field is never a good thing for a pitching staff in September.
Comment: After Sept. 6, Arizona has just six games against winning teams, which should help.
Degree of difficulty: 5

San Francisco Giants
Record: 67-52, 1 game behind Arizona, tied with Houston for wild-card lead
Games remaining: 43
Home: 20 Away: 23
Games against winning teams: 23
Games against losing teams: 20
Toughest stretch: Sept. 4-20. A road trip to Colorado and Houston, in between home series with Arizona and Los Angeles.
Easiest stretch: Aug. 21-27. Seven games -- albeit on the road -- against the Mets and Expos.
Comment: If the Giants can take care of business through mid-September, they get six games with San Diego in the final 10 days -- while everyone else is slugging it out against one another.
Degree of difficulty: 7

Los Angeles Dodgers
Record: 65-54, 3 games out in NL West, 2 games out in wild card
Games remaining: 43
Home: 21 Away: 22
Games against winning teams: 26
Games against losing teams: 17
Toughest stretch: Sept. 4-Sept. 16. A four-city road trip to Colorado, St. Louis, San Diego and San Francisco will test the Dodgers mightily.
Easiest stretch: Sept. 11-19. Two series against the Padres, hardly a doormat -- but it's the best string the Dodgers have.
Comment: The Dodgers will get the chance to slug it out with their division rivals, with series against the Giants (home) and Diamondbacks (road) in the final six games.
Degree of difficulty: 8

Center Stage
The Red Sox do not have a fate circled in red. They're not sure when Pedro Martinez is coming back and the truly cynical aren't sure if he's coming back.

Pedro Martinez
Starting Pitcher
Boston Red Sox
15 7 2 0 150 2.26

But they can dream, and while they do, cross some games off the calendar.

Since Martinez went down on June 27, the Red Sox are below .500 (20-22), which should put to rest any questions about the viability of a starter as league MVP. After all, the Red Sox were well over .500 playing nearty the first 104 games without shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, but haven't dealt nearly as well with Martinez's absence.

The plan, for the time being, is for Martinez to throw a five-inning, 75-pitch simulated game Thursday at Fenway Park. If that goes well, it's conceivable Martinez could be sent out on a rehab assignment early next week and conceviably re-join the Red Sox rotation sometime during the latter half of a 10-game, three-city road trip that begins Monday in Anaheim.

That would make Martinez available for two series with the Yankees, the first of which takes place Labor Day weekend in Boston.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

"I'm feeling good," said Martinez, a day after throwing for approximately 10 minutes off a mound. "My fastball is fine, my changeup is coming along ... but my breaking ball is a little difficult."

Tuesday, for the first time, Martinez hinted that he would amenable to a rehab assignment. Martinez would prefer pitching for Pawtucket or Trenton sometime early next week rather than traveling to Anaheim, where he could pitch a second simulated game or live batting practice.

"It depends on how everything reacts," he said. "It's day-to-day. Right now, I don't know. If I don't feel comfortable, I'll probably go to rehab. But until my next test, I don't know."

Martinez has been in something of a verbal tug-of-war with the club on his rehab process, taking issue with GM Dan Duquette's timetable for his return and attempting to set the agenda for himself.

"I don't care what Jimy (Williams, manager) says, Dan says or Joe (Kerrigan, pitching coach) says -- I'm doing what's good for me," Martinez said.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal writes a major-league notebook each week during the baseball season for

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