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Friday, August 30, 2002
Breaking down the contenders

By David Schoenfield and Matt Szefc
ESPN.com

OK, they tried to spit in our faces, but the season will go on. Here's where all the playoff contenders are sitting with just over four weeks left in the season:

New York Yankees
Where they're at: Cruising to their fifth straight American League East title and battling Oakland for home-field advantage in the playoffs. They're 8.5 games ahead of Boston and 1 game ahead of Oakland.

Who's hot: Bernie Williams is hitting .418 (46-for-110) in August; had a 19-game hitting streak snapped on Thursday during which time he raised his batting average from .319 to .344.

Who's not: Roger Clemens is 2-2 with a 7.13 ERA over his last four starts and during that time has allowed 34 hits in 24 innings pitched. Rondell White is hitting .139 (10-for-72) with no home runs and just two RBI in August.

Key injuries: Mariano Rivera will rest his shoulder for at least another week. Andy Pettitte, who had been on a roll before allowing 10 runs his past two starts, will miss a start with a bad back. Nick Johnson expected back this weekend from a wrist injury.

Boston Red Sox
Where they're at: Scuffling along in third place in the wild-card race, 4 games behind Anaheim and 3.5 games behind Seattle. The Red Sox are just 11-14 in August.

Who's hot: Manny Ramirez is hitting .391 (36-for-92) in August. Pedro Martinez continues to roll, with a 1.35 ERA since the All-Star break.

Who's not: John Burkett is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA over his last five starts. Trot Nixon hasn't had a hit in his last 16 at-bats and is just 2 for his last 27 (.074).

Key injuries: Besides Ugueth Urbina's psyche, you mean? Cliff Floyd missed the last two games with a left knee bruise.

Key question: Will their soft schedule allow a September surge? After playing the Yankees three games from Sept. 2-4, the Red Sox finish with 25 games against losing teams. But they need staunch union man Burkett to worry about his pitching instead of a strike and a mediocre bullpen (13-18, 4.40 ERA) to suddenly turn it around.

Minnesota Twins
Where they're at: Looking at their magic number, instead of contraction. With a 16-game lead over the White Sox, the Twins should be America's favorite underdog in the postseason.

Who's hot: Cristian Guzman is hitting .340 (36-for-106) in August. Jacque Jones has hit five home runs and has scored 11 runs over his last 10 games

Jacque Jones
Jacque Jones has been a catalyst for the Twins at the top of their batting order.

Who's not: Corey Koskie hasn't hit a home run in his last 32 games (125 at-bats).

Key injuries: Eric Milton (13-7, 4.60) had surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee in early August and is expected to get his first start since the injury sometime next week. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has said the lefty will be limited to five innings in his first start off the DL.

Key question: What are their flaws? They need one of their starters to get hot down the stretch. Their rotation has a 4.48 ERA compared to a bullpen ERA of 3.42. Keep an eye on Johan Santana (3.23 ERA in August). Also, they haven't left-handed pitching well: 64-32 vs. RHP, 16-23 vs. LHP.

Oakland Athletics
Where they're at: In the midst of a 15-game winning streak, tied for longest in the majors since the 1977 Royals won 16 in a row. They have surged to first in the AL West, leading Anaheim by 3.5 games.

Who's hot: Basically, everybody. Barry Zito is 4-0 with a 1.63 ERA his last four starts, all during Oakland's winning streak. Cory Lidle hasn't allowed an earned run in five starts (38 innings), during which time he's lowered his ERA from 5.15 to 3.86. Miguel Tejada is hitting .371 (23-for-62) with 17 runs scored over his last 15 games.

Who's not: Terrence Long is hitting .220 (22-for-100) in August and has just a .262 on-base percentage (five walks) during that time

Key injuries: Ted Lilly, who has been sidelined since mid-July with a strained shoulder (he has pitched in only two games for the A's since being acquired from the Yankees), is expected to return in September when the rosters expand. Lilly could be used as a fifth starter in September if he's healthy.

Key question: Are they a playoff lock? Looks like it. The A's are 22-4 in August and their top four starters (Zito, Lidle, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder) have combined for a 1.94 ERA in the month. Things can change, however, as they have eight games remaining against the Angels and six apiece against the Mariners and Twins.

Anaheim Angels
Where they're at: Leading Seattle in the wild-card race by half a game with a 16-11 record in August.

Who's hot: Garret Anderson is hitting .364 (39-for-107) in August and leads the majors with 49 doubles. Kevin Appier has won his last four starts (0.69 ERA).

Who's not: Jarrod Washburn is 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA over his last three starts. Darin Erstad hitting .255 with a .281 OBP since the All-Star break.

Key injuries: Tim Salmon, out with a bruised left hand, isn't expected to be activated from the DL until next week at the earliest. Aaron Sele may be out for the year.

Key question: Can they avoid the franchise history of c------? They blew a big lead to Seattle in 1995 and playoffs leads in 1986 and 1982. Did fans ruin the good karma when they tossed the beloved Rally Monkey onto the field on Thursday night?

Seattle Mariners
Where they're at: Mediocre August (13-13) has dropped them behind the A's and Angels in the division and wild-card races.

Who's hot: Bret Boone is hitting .359 with six homers and 20 RBI in August.

Who's not: Freddy Garcia is 2-2. 6.48 over his last four starts. Jeff Cirillo is batting .184 (7-for-38) with no RBI over his last 10 games.

Key injuries: Lou Piniella has been suffering from a lot of headaches of late.

Key question: Who needs to turn it around? They've gone 24-22 since the All-Star break and the pitching has been the biggest culprit. The staff ERA was 3.67 before the break and is 4.61 after the break. Unless Garcia starts pitching like an ace again, the M's could be in trouble.

Atlanta Braves
Where they're at: Printing playoff tickets for their 11th straight division title since 1991. They're a half-game behind Arizona for best record in the National League.

Who's hot: Kevin Millwood is 5-0 with a 2.04 ERA over his last six starts. Chipper Jones has been tearing it up in August, with a .356 average, 9 HRs and a .504 OBP.

Who's not: Rafael Furcal is hitting .091 (2-for-22) over his last five games. Vinny Castilla (.194 in August, no HRs since June 11) may be benched at third base.

Key injuries: Gary Sheffield is out a week with a thumb injury.

Key question: Can they generate enough offense for the postseason? The Braves rank ninth in the NL in runs scored. Marcus Giles is going to be given some time at third base, but it looks like they'll have to ride need big Octobers from guys like Matt Franco and Javy Lopez.

St. Louis Cardinals
Where they're at: Injuries continue to riddle the pitching staff, but the Cardinals still hold a 2.5-game lead over the Astros in the NL Central.

Chuck Finley
Chuck Finley, who remains unsigned, has 200 career wins, including 11 last season with Cleveland and St. Louis.

Who's hot: Chuck Finley is 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA over his last four starts.

Who's not: J.D. Drew has no home runs in his last 81 at-bats and has just three homers since the All-Star break.

Key injuries: Matt Morris is on the DL with a strained hamstring. It's believed he will return and start in one of the Cardinals games against the Brewers (Sept. 9-11).

Key question: Can they hold on? They have seven games left against Houston that could decide the division title. To win, they need Morris to return and Woody Williams, just activated from the DL, to pitch lights-out down the stretch.

Houston Astros
Where they're at: Playing their best ball of the season, they've gone 17-10 in August to climb a season-high nine games over .500 and get close to St. Louis.

Who's hot: Roy Oswalt is 7-0 with a 1.03 ERA over his last seven starts and Wade Miller is 8-0 with a 2.08 ERA over his last 10 starts.

Who's not: Daryle Ward's power numbers remain down with just one homer in August (78 at-bats). Craig Biggio is hitting .260 (27-for-104) with only two doubles and has just a .322 on-base percentage in August. His OBP in July was .376.

Key injuries: Richard Hidalgo was placed on the DL on Aug. 24 with a right hip strain. It's hopeful he'll be able to return by the second week of September. Julio Lugo is out for the year with a broken arm.

Key question: Will Oswalt and Miller be enough? No, you can't expect them to win every start. They'll need a third guy to pitch well down the stretch, like Peter Munro has in August (3-2, 2.93).

Arizona Diamondbacks
Where they're at: Looking to defend their World Series title with a comfortable 7-game lead over the Dodgers.

Who's hot: Randy Johnson is 6-0 with a 0.95 ERA over his last seven starts.

Who's not: Luis Gonzalez is hitting .222 (14-for-63) with three homers in August. Junior Spivey continues to mostly hit in the third spot of the batting order despite a signifcant drop in his slugging percentage in the second half (.552 slugging percentage prior to the All-Star break; .409 since the break).

Key injuries: Super-utililty guy Craig Counsell could miss the rest season because of a neck injury; needs offseason surgery and isn't sure if he'll play again this season. Danny Bautista remains on the DL and has an outside chance of returning this season. Greg Swindell is out with a lower back strain.

Key question: Do they have a weakness? They're first in the NL in runs and second in pitching, but how good is their pitching after Johnson and Curt Schilling? Rick Helling (1-1, 1.54) and Miguel Batista (2-1, 2.84) have stepped up in the rotation in August, but remain question marks, as does the bullpen.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Where they're at: They lost 10 of their 12 games after the All-Star break but have bounced back with a 17-9 mark in August to lead the wild-card race by 2 games.

Who's hot: Andy Ashby is 2-0 with 1.54 ERA over his last five starts. He also hasn't allowed a home run during that span. Adrian Beltre is hitting .317 with nine homers and 29 RBI since the All-Star break.

Who's not: After beginning the year 11-2, Kazuhisa Ishii is 2-7 since June 24.

Key injuries: Kevin Brown remains in the bullpen as he returns from the DL. Brian Jordan is battling a bad back..

Key question: Will they be able to score enough runs to hold down the wild-card lead? The Dodgers are 11th in the NL in runs scored (577), fewest among playoff contenders. A big September from Shawn Green (.279-38-101) would definitely be a big help to a sometimes stagnant Dodgers offense.

San Francisco Giants
Where they're at: Riding the one-two punch of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, they trail the Dodgers by 2 games in the wild-card race.

Who's hot: Bonds is hitting .444 in August with 11 HRs and 22 RBI, while Kent is hitting .330 with 14 HRs and 34 RBI ... that's a combined .376 with 56 RBI.

Who's not: Livan Hernandez has allowed 10 earned runs over his last two starts (1-1, 7.72).

Key injuries: None.

Key question: Can the Giants ride the hot bats of Bonds and Kent to the postseason? They're likely going to need more than that if they're going to squeeze past the Dodgers in the wild-card race. A solid final month from Jason Schmidt (2-0, 1.23 over his last three starts) and Russ Ortiz (1-2, 3.18 over his last three starts) could put the Giants over the top.

David Schoenfield and Matt Szefc are baseball editors at ESPN.com.