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Nine players who need to step up

Bud Selig loves to talk about baseball's tight pennant races, but you won't find much suspense in the American League this season. With the exception of another name popping up on Signature Pharmacy's mailing list, the only drama revolves around how Boston, Cleveland, the Angels and Yankees are planning to set up their postseason rotations.

It's a different story in the National League, where eight teams are still scrambling for the right to join the Mets in the postseason. Maybe it's a function of parity or, in the case of the NL Central, ineptitude on parade. But the rules dictate that somebody has to make the playoffs.

Which players could be difference-makers for contending clubs down the stretch? We take a look at big leaguers who could play pivotal roles in this week's installment of "Starting 9."

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs

1 Zambrano went 5-1 with a 1.39 ERA in July to win the National League Pitcher of the Month Award. Then he sputtered to an 0-4, 7.06 August, dropped his first decision in September, ripped the Wrigley Field fans and subsequently apologized.

The Cubs hope Zambrano righted the course with a dominant performance against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Recent history shows that Zambrano responds well to crises; his extended tear earlier this season came after a dugout blowup with catcher Michael Barrett.

Zambrano has done a poor job of maintaining his composure amid the inevitable bad hops and broken-bat singles. When things go wrong, he can huff and puff, pace and stew with the best of them.

But if he's locked in, Zambrano can combine with fellow 15-game winner Ted Lilly to carry the Cubs across the finish line. Zambrano will pitch the opener of a four-game series in St. Louis on Friday and face Cincinnati next Tuesday on three days' rest. It's time for him to stop acting like a head case and start pitching like a staff ace.

Chris Young, Padres

1 The Padres seemed poised to take control of the NL West and make an extended run into October with Jake Peavy, Young and Greg Maddux at the top of the rotation. But Young hasn't been himself since rushing back from an oblique injury and hurting his back. He's 0-3 with an 8.35 ERA and 13 walks in 18 1/3 innings in his past four starts.

Young always pitches up in the zone, as evidenced by his 0.60 career groundball-to-flyball ratio. But his recent failure to command his fastball is evidence that something isn't right.

"I think the back is still bothering him," said a scout. "Either he's feeling discomfort or he anticipates it. You can tell by the way he's not finishing off his pitches."

As if Young's injury weren't worrisome enough, the Padres might not get much help from Milton Bradley down the stretch. He has a strained oblique muscle, which is likely to linger for a while. That means opponents will be seeing a lot of Terrmel Sledge and Brady Clark in left field for the Padres.

Rickie Weeks, Brewers

1 Weeks was limping along at .212 in late July when the Brewers sent him to Triple-A Nashville for some confidence restoration and a refresher course. Since his return 10 days later, he's moved back into the leadoff spot, hit .318 and been an on-base machine.

The Brewers lead the National League in homers and have five players (Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Geoff Jenkins) with more than 20. But they're an impatient lineup overall, ranking 15th in the National League in walks.

Weeks, who has drawn 23 walks in his past 25 games and routinely works deep into counts, sets a different tone at the top of the order for Ned Yost's team.

It's easy to jump the gun and label big prospects "failures" when they don't progress according to the designated timetable. Weeks will turn 25 on Thursday, and he's been tested by ongoing wrist problems. Time will tell whether he lives up to those early Gary Sheffield comparisons. But he just may be rising to the challenge.

Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks

1 Arizona's lineup, which wasn't very good to begin with, suffered a big loss when catalyst and clubhouse energizer Orlando Hudson went down for the season with a thumb injury. Is the Diamondbacks' broadcast team ready for a combination of Alberto Callaspo and Emilio Bonifacio at second base?

Eric Byrnes deserves to finish in the top 10 in the MVP balloting and Chris Young has 30 homers in his rookie season, but they could use some consistent help. Manager Bob Melvin shifted Drew to the leadoff spot last week, and Drew responded with a three-run homer in a 9-8 victory over St. Louis. By Monday, Drew was back in the sixth spot.

Drew hit .316 in 59 games in 2006, but he's been an underachieving puzzle this season. He's hitting .227 with a .303 on-base percentage, and teams have worn him out by pounding him inside with fastballs and feeding him breaking balls away.

For a while, the same scouts who criticized brother J.D. for lacking passion were content to cut Stephen some slack and call him "even-keeled." But it's been a trying year for both Drews.

"A lot of people are looking at [Stephen] and wondering whether he has a case of 'the brother,'" said an American League scout. "He's a far superior player to what he's done production-wise. I never thought I was looking at a .230 hitter. He's been a real noncontributor for them."

Jeff Kent, Dodgers

1 The Dodgers are the opposite of the Diamondbacks. While Arizona needs one of the kids to step forward and help Byrnes, Los Angeles needs a veteran to provide some aid and comfort to Matt Kemp, James Loney and Andre Ethier.

It might as well be Kent, who showed that old fire in the eyes with two homers in a loss to San Francisco on Sunday. Kent leads the punchless Dodgers with 19 home runs, and, even at age 39, he knows what it means to dig deep and summon his best for the stretch drive.

"He's such a good guess hitter," said a big league personnel man. "He went through a tough period in the middle part of the year, and you could tell he wasn't right. They kept it real quiet, but I'm sure he wasn't healthy. He looks healthy now."

The Dodgers could also use a quick turnaround from shortstop Rafael Furcal, who's hitting .227 since the start of August. Furcal sprained his ankle in spring training, and he says the injury has never completely healed.

Cole Hamels, Phillies

1 It speaks well for Charlie Manuel's Manager of the Year case that the Phillies are still in the hunt with a rotation of rookie Kyle Kendrick, career underachiever Kyle Lohse, Adam Eaton (6.31 ERA), Jamie Moyer (older than pine tar) and the peripatetic J.D. Durbin. But the uncertainty sure isn't helping Philadelphia's wild-card aspirations.

Hamels was part of the NL Cy Young Award conversation when he suffered a strained ligament in his elbow three weeks ago. He's scheduled to throw a 30-pitch bullpen session Wednesday and hopes to return to the rotation against St. Louis next week.

If Hamels is able to return for three starts, it's questionable what kind of impact he'll have. At this point, anything that might reduce Manuel's reliance on his bullpen would be a welcomed development.

Rick Ankiel, Cardinals

1 Ankiel's Roy Hobbs-ian fantasy and St. Louis' division title push both took an abrupt turn for the worse with the New York Daily News' bombshell last week.

Since the story broke that Ankiel reportedly received HGH shipments in 2004, he has one hit in 18 at-bats and the Cardinals have dropped five straight to fall four games behind Milwaukee in the Central. Can we expect a Tony La Russa "blame the media" crusade to begin any day now?

The Cardinals have allowed 38 runs in their five straight losses. With no Chris Duncan, no Scott Rolen, a slumping Ankiel and a .243-hitting Jim Edmonds providing the support for Albert Pujols, they're in no position to win a shootout with anyone.

Jeff Francis, Rockies

1 The Rockies are hanging around the fringe of the NL wild-card race despite season-ending injuries to starters Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez. And anytime you're handing the ball to Jorge Julio with a game on the line, that can't be considered a good thing.

Francis has become the Rocky Mountain version of Hamels -- a young lefty who's assumed the role of staff ace without an overpowering fastball. He has three starts remaining, and for the Rockies to have a prayer, they had better win them all.

"I like [Francis] a lot," said a West Coast scout. "He misses bats and he has a real feel for changing speeds. He looks like he's 12 years old, but he's very poised."

Gary Sheffield, Tigers

1 If Cleveland goes 9-8 the rest of the way, Detroit needs to finish 15-1 to force a first-place tie in the AL Central. If the Yankees play .500 ball down the stretch, the Tigers have to go 12-4 to tie for the wild card. In short, the math looks grim for Jim Leyland's team.

On the bright side, at least the Tigers are in better shape than Seattle.

How important is Sheffield to Detroit? The Tigers were 60-43 and leading the division when Sheffield received a cortisone shot in his right shoulder on July 28. Sheffield hit .185 with one homer in 54 at-bats in August, and when he returned from a stay on the disabled list last week, Detroit was 75-65 and six games behind Cleveland.

Even with an arthritic shoulder that prevents him from driving the ball with his usual authority, Sheffield changes the look and feel of Detroit's lineup with his presence. Case in point: His ninth-inning walk to load the bases and set up Magglio Ordonez's dramatic hit in a 5-4 comeback victory over Toronto on Monday.

Even better news: Sheffield broke an 0-for-25 slump with a single in a 4-1 win over Texas on Tuesday. But whatever boost he provides, it's almost surely too late for the Tigers.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.