On tap: With fewer than 60 days left in the 2010 season, one can legitimately make the case that only six teams in the American League have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Sure, the fans of the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels can hope for a complete collapse of Gene Mauch-like proportions from the Texas Rangers, but let's face the facts: At this stage of the season, a .500 record isn't going to cut it.
With so few contenders left standing, this week nevertheless provides us with multiple matchups to eagerly anticipate. The Chicago White Sox are at home for a three-game set with the Minnesota Twins (Tuesday through Thursday), with the winner likely leaving town with the AL Central lead. The Rangers may have only five games on tap this week, but they're all must-sees. New team owner Nolan Ryan gets front-row seats for two games against the AL East-leading New York Yankees, and then the Boston Red Sox come calling, hoping to keep their postseason dreams alive.
Meanwhile, the National League also has its share of critical confrontations. Week 18 begins with an NL Central battle for supremacy when the Cincinnati Reds host the St. Louis Cardinals, and ends with a weekend tilt in the Bay Area as the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres throw down for the West division lead.
With that's, let's preview Week 18:
P: The starting pitcher's matchup rating, which accounts for past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days), opponent and ballpark. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• The Cleveland Indians might have some obscure names in their rotation (including Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez), but they also have one of the easiest schedules of any staff this week. First they get a three-game set against the Baltimore Orioles, one of only three teams in baseball to have scored fewer than 400 runs through Thursday's action. Then they have the privilege of facing the Seattle Mariners, last in the majors in batting by a large margin (.235 average). Not only that, but all six games are at home.
• Oakland also gets the benefit of playing those weak Mariners (to begin the week), but the A's close out their week at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, with a trio of games against the best-hitting team in the majors, the Minnesota Twins (.282). Plus, the entire week is one long road trip. Brett Anderson, who looked far better in start No. 2 back from the disabled list than he did in start No. 1 back, is currently in line to pitch in Seattle, but if you can switch horses midstream, this is a staff to jump off of when Thursday arrives.
• Fear "The Phlood" in Philadelphia! By that I mean the trio of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, or H2O. They are good starts in any week, but when the schedule-makers give them the powerless East-West duo of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets in the same week, it's hardly fair. Only five teams in the National League have fewer than 90 home runs this season, and the Phillies get two of them this week.
• The Giants have home-field advantage working for them this week, with four games against the Chicago Cubs leading into that crucial series with the Padres. As a staff, they've performed far better in 2010 at the edge of McCovey Cove; they're 13 games above .500 with a 2.90 ERA at home, compared to only 29-27 on the road with an ERA a full run higher.
• True, the Washington Nationals are limiting Stephen Strasburg's workload, but he is expected to pitch twice this week -- both times at home -- and the team's rotation should get a boost with the expected return of Jason Marquis from the disabled list this Sunday against the Dodgers. Jordan Zimmermann's rehab is progressing nicely, but it'll probably be another few weeks before he rejoins the team. It's a slow build, to be sure, but every day the future looks a little bit brighter for the Nationals.
• The highest road BAA (batting average against) "honors" go to the Pittsburgh Pirates (.301). They'll be on the road the entire week, so expect the scoreboard to have a lot of crooked numbers on the bottom row.
For more insight into Week 18 pitching matchups, see my rankings for every scheduled starter at column's end.
H: Hitters' matchup rating, which accounts for the opposing starting pitcher's past history (three years' worth as well as past 21 days) as well as ballpark factors. L: Hitters' matchup rating accounting only for left-handed hitters. R: Hitters' matchup rating accounting for only right-handed hitters. S: Base stealing matchup rating, which accounts for the opponent's catchers' ability to gun down opposing base stealers. Ratings range from 1-10, with 10 representing the best possible matchup, statistically speaking, and 1 representing the worst.
• As a team, the Milwaukee Brewers hit .296 with seven home runs in three games against the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this season, with Ryan Braun (.417) and Rickie Weeks (.500) being the notable standouts. The Brewers start their week against the D-backs, then they head to the offensive haven of Coors Field, where they face the Colorado Rockies. Although they are expected to see Ubaldo Jimenez in that series, even the somewhat disappointing Prince Fielder has posted positive numbers against the Rockies this season, with a batting average of .318 in 22 at-bats.
• Let's give it up for the Indians. Not only does their schedule look favorable on the mound, but at the plate, as well. The Orioles not only have a league-worst 5.16 ERA, but both they and the Mariners have a K/9 rate of 6.1. The only team worse in the AL is the Tribe themselves, so this is about as good a week as the Indians could possibly hope for. Trevor Crowe and Matt LaPorta each homered against the Birds when the teams squared off back in May.
• Maybe you should avoid the Red Sox this week. Not only are they on the road for the entire week, where they hit 15 points lower as a team, but they've hit just .217 collectively against the Rangers this season. And that series comes after a trip to Toronto, where Mike Lowell (.091 versus the Blue Jays in 2010) continues his full-time replacement of Kevin Youkilis at first base following the news that a muscle tear in his thumb has ended Youk's season.
• The Dodgers are in trouble this week. First they'll get the Phillies, who have the benefit of an off day to shuffle their rotation if they so choose, to ensure at least two of their three best arms take the mound. Then they visit the Atlanta Braves and three pitchers with a combined .667 career winning percentage against them. With a .251 batting average away from Chavez Ravine, a good 16 points worse than at home, this is not the week to be sporting Dodger Blue.
Now let's take a look at some Week 18 sleepers:
Luke Scott, DH, Orioles: He's 10-for-21 lifetime against the Indians pitchers scheduled to face him this week and is hitting. 379 against the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010.
Jason Bartlett, SS, Rays: The .239 hitter for the season has done well against both of this week's opponents. He's hitting .294 against the Orioles and .300 versus the Tigers.
Rusty Ryal, OF, Diamondbacks: Ryal is hitting .305 on the road and .320 when not being used as a pinch hitter. And he has started six games since July 27.
Reggie Willits, OF, Angels: Looking for a super sleeper? Willits is hitting .313 at home, and has a lifetime batting average of .625 against Zack Greinke. Keep an eye on him this homestand. Heck, maybe he'll even hit his first ever home run! OK, maybe not.
Marcus Thames, OF, Yankees: Since 2006, Thames has hit .365 against the Rangers, and has hit more home runs against the Royals than he has against any team other than the Twins. Yes, the battle for playing time is a fierce one, but he has done well (.303 batting average) when given the chance.
Tyler Colvin, OF, Cubs: Don't be scared off by the series against the Cardinals. Colvin has three home runs against them this season, including one off Chris Carpenter. He has just one fewer home run on the road this season in nine fewer games.
Franklin Gutierrez, OF, Mariners: The Seattle center fielder is hitting .281 against the A's this season -- far better than his overall .247 -- and .282 lifetime against the Indians.
The early part of the week features the possibility for some wet weather in both Chicago and Detroit, with fans in both Cincinnati and New York joining the sky-watching set Wednesday. The Northeast continues to be a wet place for the start of the week's second series, with rainy stretches in Philadelphia, Washington and the Big Apple, though that system should clear out in time for the weekend. However, that's about the same time thunderstorms are forecast to rear their ugly heads in Minnesota, Missouri and on through Ohio.
Weatherproof games: Braves at Astros (3, Mon-Wed); Pirates at Astros (3, Fri-Sun); Red Sox at Blue Jays (3, Tue-Thu); Diamondbacks at Brewers (4, Mon-Thu); Athletics at Mariners (3, Mon-Wed); Orioles at Rays (3, Fri-Sun).
Rankings take into account several factors: The pitcher's raw talent, historical and recent performance; number of starts; strength of opponent(s); and ballpark factors. Be aware that different leagues might emphasize different pitching statistics that could change these rankings slightly. These are based upon a fairly standard Rotisserie scoring system, like ESPN's.
1. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Tue-CHC (Dempster), Sun-SD (LeBlanc)
2. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Mon-@CIN (Leake), Sun-CHC (Dempster)
3. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Tue-@HOU (Happ), Sun-LAD (Padilla)
4. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -- Tue-FLA (Sanchez), Sun-ARI (Enright)
5. Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Tue-@NYM (Pelfrey), Sun-MIL (Parra)
6. Justin Masterson (CLE) -- Tue-BAL (Arrieta), Sun-SEA (Fister)
7. David Price (TB) -- Mon-@DET (Galarraga), Sun-BAL (Arrieta)
8. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Mon-@NYY (Moseley), Sat-@TEX (Hunter)
9. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Tue-LAD (Padilla), Sun-@NYM (Pelfrey)
10. Ervin Santana (LAA) -- Mon-KC (Davies), Sat-TOR (Morrow)
11. Madison Bumgarner (SF) -- Mon-CHC (Zambrano), Sat-SD (Correia)
12. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Fri-@NYM (Dickey)
13. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Tue-@WAS (Strasburg), Sun-@CIN (Leake)
14. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Tue-OAK (Anderson)
15. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Fri-LAD (Kuroda)
16. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Thu-@WAS (Hernandez)
17. Carlos Zambrano (CHC) -- Mon-@SF (Bumgarner), Sat-@STL (Suppan)
18. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Tue-KC (O'Sullivan), Sun-TOR (Romero)
19. Doug Fister (SEA) -- Mon-OAK (Mazzaro), Sun-@CLE (Masterson)
20. Vicente Padilla (LAD) -- Tue-@PHI (Oswalt), Sun-@ATL (Jurrjens)
21. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Tue-@SF (Lincecum), Sun-@STL (Carpenter)
22. Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS) -- Tue-@TOR (Romero), Sun-@TEX (Lewis)
23. Cliff Lee (TEX) -- Wed-NYY (Vazquez)
24. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Wed-@HOU (Rodriguez)
25. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Fri-@ATL (Hudson)
26. Mat Latos (SD) -- Fri-@SF (Sanchez)
27. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Tue-@SEA (Hernandez)
28. Johan Santana (NYM) -- Thu-COL (De La Rosa)
29. Josh Tomlin (CLE) -- Sat-SEA (Vargas)
30. Travis Wood (CIN) -- Sat-FLA (Volstad)
31. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Fri-PIT (Maholm)
32. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Tue-@CHW (Garcia), Sun-OAK (Mazzaro)
33. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Thu-@KC (Chen)
34. Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Sat-OAK (Cahill)
35. Matt Cain (SF) -- Thu-CHC (Wells)
36. Zack Greinke (KC) -- Wed-@LAA (Weaver)
37. Clayton Richard (SD) -- Thu-PIT (Ohlendorf)
38. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Tue-NYY (Hughes)
39. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Wed-@CIN (Arroyo)
40. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Thu-@PHI (Hamels)
41. Ian Kennedy (ARI) -- Mon-@MIL (Narveson), Sat-@WAS (Marquis)
42. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Thu-LAD (Kershaw)
43. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Wed-TB (Garza)
44. Bud Norris (HOU) -- Mon-ATL (Minor), Sun-PIT (Karstens)
45. Barry Enright (ARI) -- Tue-@MIL (Parra), Sun-@WAS (Strasburg)
46. Ricky Romero (TOR) -- Tue-BOS (Matsuzaka), Sun-@LAA (Haren)
47. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Thu-@SF (Cain)
48. Jon Garland (SD) -- Wed-PIT (Duke)
49. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Wed-KC (Greinke)
50. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Fri-PHI (Halladay)
51. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Tue-@TEX (Wilson), Sun-@KC (O'Sullivan)
52. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Wed-@WAS (Lannan)
53. Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Sat-@MIN (Duensing)
54. Barry Zito (SF) -- Wed-CHC (Gorzelanny)
55. John Danks (CHW) -- Wed-MIN (Liriano)
56. Dallas Braden (OAK) -- Wed-@SEA (French)
57. Jake Westbrook (STL) -- Fri-CHC (Diamond)
58. Jeff Niemann (TB) -- Sat-BAL (Matusz)
59. Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Thu-BAL (Millwood)
60. Jeanmar Gomez (CLE) -- Wed-BAL (Bergesen)
61. J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Tue-ATL (Jurrjens)
62. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Thu-MIN (Pavano)
63. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Wed-@PHI (Blanton)
64. Mike Leake (CIN) -- Mon-STL (Carpenter), Sun-FLA (Sanchez)
65. James Shields (TB) -- Fri-BAL (Guthrie)
66. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Sat-@ATL (Lowe)
67. Jonathan Sanchez (SF) -- Fri-SD (Latos)
68. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Wed-ATL (Hanson)
69. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Sun-BOS (Matsuzaka)
70. Matt Garza (TB) -- Wed-@DET (Verlander)
71. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Tue-COL (Jimenez), Sun-PHI (Oswalt)
72. Carl Pavano (MIN) -- Thu-@CHW (Floyd)
73. Armando Galarraga (DET) -- Mon-TB (Price), Sun-@CHW (Garcia)
74. Rich Harden (TEX) -- Fri-BOS (Beckett)
75. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Tue-TB (Davis)
Two-start pitchers for deep leagues:
Edwin Jackson (CHW) -- Mon-@BAL (Matusz), Sat-DET (Porcello)
Jeff Karstens (PIT) -- Tue-@SD (LeBlanc), Sun-@HOU (Norris)
Dustin Moseley (NYY) -- Mon-BOS (Lester), Sat-@KC (Davies)
Vin Mazzaro (OAK) -- Mon-@SEA (Fister), Sun-@MIN (Baker)
Wade LeBlanc (SD) -- Tue-PIT (Karstens), Sun-@SF (Lincecum)
Sean O'Sullivan (KC) -- Tue-@LAA (Haren), Sun-NYY (Hughes)
Jesse Litsch (TOR) -- Fri-@LAA (Kazmir)
James McDonald (PIT) -- Sat-@HOU (Wright)
Mike Minor (ATL) -- Mon-@HOU (Norris)
Jason Marquis (WAS) -- Sat-ARI (Kennedy)
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) -- Fri-MIL (Gallardo)
Edinson Volquez (CIN) -- Fri-FLA (West)
No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Manny Parra (MIL) -- Tue-ARI (Enright), Sun-@COL (Jimenez)
Brian Matusz (BAL) -- Mon-CHW (Jackson), Sat-@TB (Niemann)
Kyle Davies (KC) -- Mon-@LAA (Santana), Sat-NYY (Moseley)
Freddy Garcia (CHW) -- Tue-MIN (Baker), Sun-DET (Galarraga)
Jake Arrieta (BAL) -- Tue-@CLE (Masterson), Sun-@TB (Price)
Chris Narveson (MIL) -- Mon-ARI (Kennedy), Sat-@COL (Francis)