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Saturday, May 26, 2007
Updated: May 27, 6:44 PM ET
Challenge Week 9: Count on Kouzmanoff

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Each week, Tristan H. Cockcroft offers his strategies for the Baseball Challenge game. Look for his best bargains, busts and daily specials every Sunday.

Bargains

CATCHER: The Angels' Mike Napoli (3.7 price tag) has hit safely in 11 straight games (through Thursday), batting .359 (14-for-39) with four home runs in that span. He's a much more productive hitter in his home games, batting .257 with an .865 OPS for his career, .289/.866 this season alone, and he'll play seven home contests this week. Also consider: Russell Martin (5.7), John Buck (4.0), Josh Bard (3.3).

FIRST BASE: Always use the Rockies' Todd Helton (6.2) when he's scheduled to play an entire week at home, as he is in Week 9, and especially go for him when he's facing a heavy slate of right-handers, as he is in six of seven contests. He's a .361/1.023 hitter at Coors and .394/1.124 hitter against righties this year, .370/1.138 at Coors and .344/1.074 against righties for his career. Also consider: Albert Pujols (5.7).

SECOND BASE: Although he'll kick off the week with three games at cavernous RFK Stadium in Washington, the Dodgers' Jeff Kent (5.5) should benefit from facing the weak staffs of the Nationals and Pirates in his six contests total. Four of his scheduled opponents are left-handers, and since the start of last season, he's a .349/1.033 hitter against lefties. Also consider: Brian Roberts (6.1), Marcus Giles (4.9).

THIRD BASE: It's time to get the Padres' Kevin Kouzmanoff (3.0) back into your starting lineup, as he has hit safely in 10 of his past 11 games (through Thursday), batting .455 (15-for-33) with two home runs and 10 RBIs. On May 22-23, he homered in back-to-back games, both against left-handers, and in Week 9, he'll face three lefties in six games. Also consider: Miguel Cabrera (6.1), Mike Lowell (5.9), Brandon Inge (5.1).

SHORTSTOP: You can't get much hotter than the Dodgers' Rafael Furcal (5.4). He's in the midst of an 11-game hitting streak (through Thursday) in which he has seven multihit efforts, three four-hit efforts and a .511 batting average (24-for-47) overall. That week-opening trip to RFK Stadium shouldn't bother him; he has .342/.804 career rates there. Also consider: Edgar Renteria (6.0), Orlando Cabrera (5.4).

LEFT FIELD: The Cardinals' Chris Duncan (5.1) cooled somewhat in early May, but he's heating back up in his past eight games, hitting .333 (10-for-30) with four home runs. He'll get four games at Colorado's Coors Field and three at Houston's Minute Maid Park this week, battling six right-handers. Keep in mind he has .308/.994 career rates against righties. Also consider: Manny Ramirez (5.9), Craig Monroe (5.0).

CENTER FIELD: Now there is the Willy Taveras (4.2) we had all come to expect when he was traded to the Rockies during the winter; he's batting .340 (16-for-47) with four stolen bases in his past 14 games. This week, he'll get seven games at Coors, four against the Cardinals, three against the Reds. By the way, the Rockies avoid both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang in Week 9. Also consider: Darin Erstad (4.2).

RIGHT FIELD: Sticking with the Rockies theme, the same argument made for Helton can be made for Brad Hawpe (5.1). Seven games at Coors Field, where he's a .299/.929 hitter this season, six of them against right-handers, whom he hits at .309/.953 rates this year, is quite a friendly schedule for him. Hawpe is hitting .348 (8-for-23) in his past seven games. Also consider: Nick Markakis (5.5), Randy Winn (4.5).

DESIGNATED HITTER: Please, Braves, recognize that Matt Diaz (3.1) deserves to finally get a chance to play regularly in left field, even if it's only for one week. Well, Week 9 is an ideal time for it, considering Atlanta plays three of six games against left-handers and Diaz is a .349/.906 hitter against them this year. Also consider: Magglio Ordonez (6.4), Jim Thome (6.0), Hideki Matsui (5.5), Jose Vidro (4.2).

PITCHING STAFF: The Los Angeles Dodgers' staff (5.3) has surged to fifth in MLB in ERA (3.61), and three games apiece at Washington's RFK Stadium and Pittsburgh's PNC Park is quite the pitching-friendly schedule. Keep in mind that the Nationals' offense ranks dead last in runs per game (3.60) and the Pirates rank 28th (3.89). Also consider: San Diego Padres (6.1), Minnesota Twins (4.7).

Busts

CATCHER: The Orioles' Ramon Hernandez (5.0) is a .222/.614 hitter against right-handers this year, and he'll battle six of them in seven games in Week 9. Among them are the Angels' Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana, against whom he's a combined 9-for-39 (.231). Also avoid: Bengie Molina (4.4).

FIRST BASE: The Mariners' Richie Sexson (4.7) is off to quite a troubling start. He had only .145/.606 rates in April, then only slightly better numbers in May (.197/.644), and he's at .151/.611 against right-handers for the season. In Week 9, incidentally, he faces righties in six of seven games. Also avoid: Ryan Garko (4.6), Scott Thorman (4.4).

SECOND BASE: The Astros' Craig Biggio (5.0) is batting only .180 (9-for-50) with one RBI in his past 12 games, and he's at .215/.641 against right-handers this season. He'll see nothing but right-handers in his six games this week, likely extending his cold spell. Also avoid: Josh Barfield (4.3), Luis Castillo (4.3).

THIRD BASE: In Week 9, the Nationals face both the Dodgers' and Padres' pitching staffs at home, which isn't a good schedule at all considering both teams rank in the top five in MLB in ERA. Expect poor hitting totals for your Nationals, especially Ryan Zimmerman (5.3). Also avoid: Freddy Sanchez (4.3), Morgan Ensberg (4.2).

SHORTSTOP: It might seem an automatic to use the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki (4.7) in seven games at Coors. However, six of those games come against right-handers, whom he hits at only .230/.630 career rates, and Kazuo Matsui's return from the DL has bumped him down to seventh in the order. Also avoid: Omar Vizquel (4.2).

LEFT FIELD: The Brewers face three left-handers in seven games in Week 9, which doesn't play at all in Geoff Jenkins' (4.8) favor. He's at .160/.480 numbers against them this year, and he'll also have to battle tough right-handers Tim Hudson and John Smoltz. Also avoid: Jason Bay (6.2), Ryan Church (4.6), Jay Payton (4.1).

CENTER FIELD: The Tigers' Curtis Granderson (6.0) perfectly fits the description of a platoon player, killing right-handers (.327/1.043) and barely even touching left-handers (.071/.318) this year. In Week 9, the Tigers face more lefties than anyone but the Dodgers, four in seven games. Also avoid: Andruw Jones (6.0), Juan Pierre (5.1).

RIGHT FIELD: Like Zimmerman, the Nationals' Austin Kearns (4.7) should struggle facing such dominant pitching staffs. A bigger problem: He plays all six of his games at home, and in his career at Washington's RFK Stadium, he has ordinary .250/.753 rates. Also avoid: Jose Guillen (4.9), Jeremy Hermida (4.7).

DESIGNATED HITTER: The Pirates' Jose Bautista (4.0) hasn't done much to warrant retaining his starting role, and in May alone, he's batting only .226 (14-for-62) with two home runs in 19 games. He'll be facing those same Padres and Dodgers staffs, quite the challenging schedule. Also avoid: Mike Sweeney (4.4).

PITCHING STAFF: Doesn't it seem as if the Boston staff (5.7) faces a treacherous schedule every week? That makes what the team has accomplished on the mound all the more impressive, although it's still a schedule to avoid when a team faces both the Indians and Yankees. We're talking about two of the game's three most potent offenses. Also avoid: Arizona Diamondbacks (4.5), San Francisco Giants (3.9).

Daily Specials

MONDAY: Of all Rockies RF Hawpe's (5.1) strong matchups in Week 9, his one Monday might be the best of them all. The Cardinals' Kip Wells has .291/.828 rates against left-handed hitters since 2004, and he's off to a terrible start, with a 2-8 record and 6.10 ERA. Expect Hawpe to get to him, even though he's only 1-for-3 lifetime against Wells.

TUESDAY: It's prime time for Cardinals LF Duncan (5.1) to snap his hitless streak at Coors Field, now eight at-bats in his career. This is his first game of the week against a right-hander, and what a hittable right-hander it is: The Rockies' Taylor Buchholz. Opposing hitters have managed .326/.828 rates against him this season.

WEDNESDAY: The Pirates' Paul Maholm lacks an out pitch against right-handed hitters, with .322/.907 rates against them this season and .303/.851 for his career. That makes for some fine matchups for Padres right-handers. I'd go for 3B Kouzmanoff (3.0), who had .455/1.348 rates against lefties between the majors and minors in 2006.

THURSDAY: Giants 1B/OF Ryan Klesko (3.1) has started each of the team's past seven games against right-handers (through Thursday), and he should be in there again versus the Mets' Orlando Hernandez, who historically has struggled against left-handed hitters. Klesko is a perfect 5-for-5 in his career against "El Duque," with two home runs.

FRIDAY: Reds CF Ken Griffey Jr. (5.2) is on quite a tear in May, with a .325 batting average (27-for-83), nine home runs and 20 RBIs in 23 games (through Thursday). He's a lifetime .345/1.323 hitter in 18 games at Coors Field, and in his career against the Rockies' Josh Fogg, he's a .381 hitter (8-for-21) with two home runs.

SATURDAY: There aren't many more hittable pitchers in the game right now than the Blue Jays' Dustin McGowan, which makes for a nice matchup for White Sox 1B Paul Konerko (5.1). Konerko could be heating up, going 4-for-11 (.364) in three games since Thome's return from the DL, so get him now before that price tag increases!

SUNDAY: Devil Rays 1B Carlos Pena (4.1) has been quite a find this season, and if you know how to use him, he's an ideal matchups hitter. He tears up right-handed pitching, with .344/1.058 rates this season, making him a must-start against a pitcher like the Royals' Scott Elarton. He's 4-for-12 (.333) with one homer lifetime against the righty.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.