Sixty Feet, Six Inches: Five underowned starters for the stretch

September roster expansion is just a few days away, and there's no question that if you need a starting pitcher, guys like Max Scherzer, Jon Niese and Brandon Morrow should be on your radar screen. (David Price probably will earn a call-up but is unlikely to see starts unless Edwin Jackson and/or Andy Sonnanstine spit the bit.) But my friend and colleague Jason Grey already did a tremendous job breaking down likely September call-ups, so I won't repeat his fine work. Instead, let's look at my favorite starters who are owned in less than 50 percent of ESPN.com leagues and figure out which ones can help you down the stretch. (And for heaven's sake: Rich Hill is still owned in 12 percent of leagues. I'm going to say there's room for improvement on some teams out there.)

1. Kevin Slowey, Twins: I sell this guy hard nearly every week in our online fantasy show, and his ownership is all the way up to about 50 percent. Yes, those of you who need a bracing jolt of strikeouts might have to look elsewhere, though I'm pleasantly surprised to say that in the past month, Slowey has a respectable 27 K's in 31 innings. But this is a guy who has more than 10 wins, and in the American League, an ERA of 3.74 and a WHIP of 1.07 is nothing to sneeze at. He's allowed only 17 walks in 127 2/3 innings. Add him.

2. Josh Johnson, Marlins: Johnson threw the first complete game of his career Wednesday, a four-hit effort against the Braves. With all the Tommy John returnees this year (Francisco Liriano, Chris Carpenter, B.J. Ryan, Carl Pavano, et al), Johnson got lost in the shuffle, but Liriano's late-coming heroics notwithstanding, Johnson may have been the best of the bunch this year: four wins, 48 K's in 57 2/3 innings, a 3.12 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP so far. He's owned in less than 40 percent of ESPN leagues.

3. Dave Bush, Brewers: Bush is more like Slowey than Johnson, but even though he doesn't strike out the ballpark, he's eminently ownable in more than a mere 23.9 percent of leagues. (Tim Hudson is still owned in 32.6 percent!) If you forget Bush's terrible four starts in April, here's what his numbers look like: 3.77 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 76 K's in 124 innings. The silly experiment in which he split rotation time with Seth McClung is long behind him, and Bush really should be owned in most leagues.

4. Paul Maholm, Pirates: Maholm has been studly since the end of May: 2.90 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and a 72/24 K/BB ratio in 105 2/3 innings. Granted, he's a Pirate, so his wins are extremely limited (he has eight all season), and because he's nearing his career high in innings pitched, there's a chance the team will shut him down toward the end of next month. But until then, you can expect at least four or five more starts out of him, beginning Saturday against the Brewers.

5. Gil Meche, Royals. Though he's still owned in only about 30 percent of leagues, Meche's high strikeouts have easily made him one of the 30 most valuable starters in fantasy the past month. Throw away his five bad starts in April, and Meche's season line looks like this: 3.37 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 119 K's in 138 2/3 IP. Unlike Slowey, Bush and Maholm, Meche is a legit strikeout producer, so although his WHIP isn't as impressive as that of those other pitchers, he can help you make up a spot or two in whiffs before September ends.

Comings and goings

The Mets placed John Maine on the disabled list because of a bone spur in his pitching shoulder. Maine needs surgery, according to the New York Daily News, but hasn't decided yet whether to have the procedure. He's still hopeful he could come back and help the team out of the bullpen in September, but his time as a starting pitcher in '08 appears to be over. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Chris Carpenter, who's been sidelined since Aug. 10 with a shoulder strain, might not return until well into September. Adam Wainwright replaced Carpenter in the St. Louis rotation on Friday and pitched quite well. On Wednesday, in his second start since returning, Wainwright allowed eight hits and two runs (but no walks) in a six-inning no-decision against the Brewers. Tim Wakefield returned from the DL on Tuesday to defeat the Yankees. He took Josh Beckett's place in Boston's rotation; Beckett will start Friday against the White Sox after throwing a successful bullpen session. Clay Buchholz has been sent to the minors and won't be back in the Red Sox's rotation this season. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Erik Bedard threw from flat ground Monday, but that "no timetable has been set" for his return. It remains unclear whether the lefty hurler will pitch again in the majors this year. Johnny Cueto came out of Sunday's game complaining of a strained right elbow and will miss his scheduled start Saturday. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that a trip to the DL is possible. The Reds haven't announced who'll pitch this weekend in Cueto's place; the Enquirer reports it could be Bronson Arroyo on short rest, or it could be Adam Pettyjohn or Matt Maloney. Dusty Baker seemed to indicate he was leaning toward Pettyjohn. The Blue Jays optioned Shaun Marcum to Triple-A last weekend and replaced him in their rotation with John Parrish. Marcum had a 6.19 ERA since his return from the DL and obviously wasn't the same guy he was before the All-Star break. Jonathan Sanchez, who's been on the DL with a sore left shoulder, will come off the list Monday and face the Rockies at Coors. He had a sore rotator cuff and is already above his career high in innings pitched, but the Giants are likely to give him another try before considering shutting him down for the season. The Padres report that Chris Young's injured forearm felt good after he threw to hitters Tuesday, and that Young could come off the DL as soon as Sunday against Colorado. The Miami Herald expects Andrew Miller to come off the DL next week for the Marlins. Miller has battled a sore knee and hasn't made a big league start since July 13. The Pirates recalled Tom Gorzelanny from the minors Saturday, and the lefty made his first big league start since July 4, giving up six runs, seven hits and three walks in 4 2/3 innings against the Brewers. He'll face Milwaukee again Friday. Brandon McCarthy, who's battled a sore forearm for quite a while, came off the DL this weekend and pitched in the majors for the first time in nearly a year, allowing one run in four innings against the Indians. McCarthy struggled with his control but emerged healthy from the start and pitches Thursday against the Angels. Dana Eveland returned to Oakland's rotation Saturday after a stint at Triple-A and allowed one run in seven innings against the Mariners. He starts Thursday against the Twins. How about that Carl Pavano? Winding up one of the worst free-agent contracts in the history of sports, Pavano unexpectedly returned to the majors Saturday for the Yankees and allowed three runs in five innings against the Orioles. It was the first time Pavano pitched in the bigs in about 17 months. He'll pitch Friday against the Blue Jays. Indians manager Eric Wedge told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he's considering using a six-man rotation in September that would include Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, Anthony Reyes, Zach Jackson and Aaron Laffey. Incidentally, four of those pitchers are lefties. The mercurial Daniel Cabrera may miss his start Saturday because of a sore forearm, according to the Baltimore Sun. An MRI came back negative, but the Orioles reportedly are considering pushing Cabrera back. Vicente Padilla will miss his turn in Texas' rotation Friday because of a sore neck; Dustin Nippert probably will take his start. Padilla is expected to avoid the DL and pitch Wednesday, though that's obviously subject to change.

On the Farm

The Mets will promote Jon Niese from Triple-A, and he's likely to start Tuesday against the Brewers. He'll make his major league debut and replace John Maine in New York's rotation. Brandon Morrow is likely to come up and make a major league start against the Yankees sometime between Sept. 5 and Sept. 7, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Boston Herald reports that Bartolo Colon is scheduled to throw between 65 and 75 pitches Sunday for Triple-A Pawtucket, and if the outing goes well, it could be his last in the minors. Bryan Morris, whom the Pirates acquired from the Dodgers in the Manny Ramirez and Jason Bay trade, has been shut down for the rest of the season at Class-A Hickory because of pain in his biceps. It's not considered a serious injury, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (and only one week remained in Hickory's season). The Tigers recalled Chris Lambert, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, to make his major league debut Tuesday. The Indians lit him up, and Detroit sent Lambert back down to Triple-A, but Jim Leyland told reporters he expects to recall Lambert to make a start Tuesday against the Royals. Homer Bailey was diagnosed with a "mild sprain" of the MCL in his right knee, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, and will miss his scheduled start for Triple-A Louisville on Thursday. Dontrelle Willis made just 15 pitches in his Triple-A start Monday before having to leave the game with forearm tightness.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.