On tap: It's a critical week for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sit nine games out in the National League West and 6½ games out of the wild-card race entering play Friday, as they face nothing but teams that are closer to playoff spots in the standings than they are. After concluding their wrap-around series in Atlanta on Monday, they return home to host the Colorado Rockies, who are a half-game ahead of them in the NL West, for three games, and then the Cincinnati Reds, one game behind in the NL Central race, for three games. But the Dodgers are set up well. Their rotation is at its strongest right now, six of their games are at home and that's a favorable pitching environment.
The American League Central is also in the spotlight, as the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins tangle again, this time for three games in Minnesota to begin the week. These teams have played ping-pong with the AL Central lead the past week, and they'll be throwing most of their big guns, names such as Scott Baker, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Francisco Liriano.
We'll also get a potential AL Division Series preview to begin the week, as the Texas Rangers visit the Tampa Bay Rays for three at Tropicana Field. Granted, if the standings entering Friday's games represented the playoff cutoff, the Rangers would be the ones with home-field advantage, but considering the Rays' advantage in the dome -- catwalk conundrums aside -- it'll be worth watching to see which team does a better job establishing itself in this key battle.
One final note on the topic of perfect-game/no-hitter fun: This is a week in which Dallas Braden, who threw a perfecto on May 9, and Armando Galarraga, who threw a should've-been-perfecto on June 2, each faces the team he tossed the gem against. Each of these games represents the first time either pitcher has faced the dominated opponent, and both games will be played in the same venue as the perfecto. Braden battles the Rays on Sunday, while Galarraga faces the Cleveland Indians on Friday. Could lightning strike twice? Check my rankings at column's end; you'll see how encouraged you should be.
The chart below lists each of the 30 MLB teams' schedules and projected starting pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for each day's starter. Pitchers scheduled to start twice this week are in color-coded boxes.
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 Rays, as hinted above, should have the advantage in their week-opening series versus the Rangers at Tropicana Field. The Rangers typically bring it offensively, but mostly in games at bandbox Rangers Ballpark. Would you believe they have a .699 team OPS on the road, 19th in the majors, a number that's 117 points lower than their number at home? The Rays will also be starting two of their three stronger "home boys" in the series; David Price (Monday) is 7-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 10 starts at the "Trop," while Matt Garza (Tuesday) is 6-2 with a 3.76 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 12 appearances (11 starts) there. A week-ending series at Oakland should also help ease things on the Rays pitchers afterward; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum ranks 24th in terms of runs scored and 28th in terms of home runs on our Park Factors page this season.
• The Rays shouldn't expect to make up significant ground on the AL East-leading New York Yankees, at least not if you invest in the Yankees' pitching matchups -- which you should this week. Yankee Stadium does present some problems, as the Yankees do have a 4.12 team ERA there (compared to a 3.60 ERA on the road), but they'll be facing the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners' offenses, which rank 14th (.740) and 30th (.630) in OPS. Fret all you want about Javier Vazquez's "dead-arm period" or Phil Hughes' innings cap, this staff has a fantastic chance at a huge week in seven games at home.
• The Yankees' subway-series rivals, the New York Mets, have a comparably favorable schedule despite playing all seven of their games on the road. They'll make stops in Houston (four games) and Pittsburgh (three) to face two of the three worst offenses in baseball in terms of OPS. Say what you want about the Houston Astros' major league-leading 63 runs scored in August, but 18 of those were scored in one game (Aug. 3 at St. Louis), the team's .737 OPS in the month ranks 13th and the team has hit the fewest homers in the majors (2). Now turn your attention to the Mets' rotation: Johan Santana has a 2.66 ERA since the All-Star break. R.A. Dickey's ERA during that same time is 2.43. Jonathon Niese has turned in quality starts in seven of his past nine outings. And Mike Pelfrey, who had been mired in a miserable funk for weeks, is coming off one of his best outings all year, a seven-shutout-inning, four-hit masterpiece versus the Rockies this past Tuesday. Plus, depending upon Francisco Rodriguez's availability, there could be some scattered saves for the desperate; Manny Acosta, Elmer Dessens, Bobby Parnell and Hisanori Takahashi could all be candidates to fill in at closer, if necessary.
• The Florida Marlins reap the benefits of an almost identical schedule to that of the Mets, except that they play the Pittsburgh Pirates four times and the Astros three, and their Astros series will be played at home. Ricky Nolasco is one of their two-start pitchers, and for all his early-season struggles, he has had only one truly "bad" outing in his past 10 (Aug. 6 versus the St. Louis Cardinals); he has eight wins, a 3.76 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 10.48 K's-per-nine ratio in those 10 turns. Anibal Sanchez, meanwhile, has four quality starts in five tries and a 2.25 ERA since the All-Star break. Even Sean West, who had a 3.12 ERA in 11 Triple-A starts before his recent recall, could be a useful spot starter at Pittsburgh.
For more insight into Week 19 pitching matchups, see my rankings for every scheduled starter at column's end.
The chart below lists each of the 30 teams' total number of scheduled games, home games and games versus right- and left-handed pitchers, and provides a matchup rating for the week's games in terms of overall offense, offense versus left- and right-handed pitchers and base stealing. Matchup ratings for each individual game are listed under the corresponding date.
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.
• AL matchups are surprisingly balanced this week -- only the Toronto Blue Jays have a hitter rating below 4 (they're a 2), and no team has one higher than 7 -- but if you're looking for the AL squad that leads the bunch, look no further than the Yankees and their seven-home-game week. Only the Rockies have a greater team OPS at home (.865) than the Yankees (.840), unsurprisingly, and this is an offense loaded with left-handed lumber bound to tee off against six projected right-handed pitching opponents. Lance Berkman, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher each gets a significant advantage, in what's a real turnaround from the past week, when the Yankees actually faced four consecutive left-handed starters.
• Among under-the-radar AL squads, matchups-wise, take a look at the Indians, whose .705 team OPS and 3.89 runs-per-game average since the All-Star break has been skewed by having to face a lot of playoff-hopeful competitors. Games, albeit road contests, versus the Kansas City Royals and Tigers suit this offense better, which is why this might be the week for owners in deeper formats to look to red-hot Michael Brantley, plus Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt LaPorta, as more useful back-of-your-lineup options.
• Over in the National League, there's a wider array of hitter ratings, but it's the Marlins' 9 rating that should most catch your eye. Besides simply the relative talent of their opponents, the fact that they face four left-handed starters benefits them, as they have a .774 team OPS against that side, fifth-best in baseball and 67 points higher than their numbers against right-handers. Three of those southpaw starters are significantly less successful versus righty hitters than lefties, and Marlins like Wes Helms (.963 OPS versus lefties), Ronny Paulino (.889), Cody Ross (.831), Gaby Sanchez (.945), Dan Uggla (1.035) all benefit as a result.
• Though the Atlanta Braves have their work cut out for them against the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley on Monday, the only other "tough cookie" they'll tangle with this week is the Chicago Cubs' Ryan Dempster (Friday). The Braves have the 11th-best team OPS since the All-Star break (.752), somewhat surprising if you account for some of their recent injuries. Speaking of injuries, in the best-case scenario, All-Star Martin Prado might be back in the lineup early in the week. He'd be a must-start if so. That'd shift Omar Infante -- an underrated batting-average contributor -- over to third base regularly, keeping him a worthwhile play in larger leagues.
Now let's take a look at some Week 19 sleepers:
Brennan Boesch, OF, Detroit Tigers: He has been mired in a bit of a cold spell lately, yes, but I'm playing these matchups, no question. Boesch is a fly-ball-hitting, good-power-to-right slugger who should capitalize upon the short porch at Yankee Stadium, then he gets three cozy matchups back at home versus three so-so Indians right-handers.
Russell Branyan, 1B, Seattle Mariners: Speaking of Yankee Stadium's short porch, Branyan has certainly capitalized upon it so far in his career, belting four home runs in nine games there while amassing .250/.324/.625 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates. He has also hit 10 of his 14 homers this year against right-handers, with .265/.355/.487 rates against them.
Johnny Damon, OF, Detroit Tigers: This week marks his first trip back to Yankee Stadium since departing the Yankees following last season, and remember, Damon was a .279/.382/.533 hitter who clubbed 17 of his 24 home runs at that venue in 2009. He's also hitting a bit more like his usual self since the All-Star break, with .293/.370/.415 numbers in 24 games during that span.
Chris Denorfia, OF, San Diego Padres: Heads up to those of you in NL-only or deep mixed leagues, Denorfia has been pretty darned good for a while now. Focusing on recent performance, he's a .360/.414/.720 hitter in nine games in August, and since this is a week where the Padres hit the road, be aware that six of his eight home runs have come in road contests.
Stephen Drew, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks: I'm as much on the "Stephen Drew is overrated" bandwagon as anyone, but the fact remains that he's typically a better hitter after the All-Star break than before it (.802 lifetime second-half OPS, .741 first half). He's also a much better hitter versus right-handers than left-handers and at home rather than on the road, both in his career and this season, which means that if you benched him recently, reactivate him, and if he was dropped in your shallow mixed league, scoop him up for the week.
Carlos Ruiz, C, Philadelphia Phillies: Speaking of second-half standouts, Ruiz is a .315/.344/.506 hitter in 26 games since the All-Star break, continuing what has been a career trend for the backstop. He's also a .289/.392/.397 hitter at home this season, and the Phillies do battle three lefty starters, which plays to his advantage.
Josh Willingham, OF, Washington Nationals: Though he has slumped lately, Willingham has historically thrived in games at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, where he has 10 home runs and .240/.304/.544 rates in 37 career contests. Don't worry about the fact that the Nationals face five righty starters, either; he has hit nine of his 15 homers versus right-handers.
Rain is seemingly becoming a problem in the forecast as we advance toward the season's final weeks, but as the days pass by, remember that the chance of immediately rescheduled doubleheaders increases. Still, every northeastern city bears watching: Baltimore, Boston, New York and Philadelphia all face a 40 percent chance of rain or greater for at least one game, and a 30 percent chance in every day of their week-opening series. Atlanta might be surprisingly problematic as well, while Pittsburgh also has four games of a 30 percent chance or greater.
Weatherproof games: Mets at Astros (4, Mon-Thu); Padres at Brewers (3, Fri-Sun); Reds at Diamondbacks (3, Tue-Thu); Rockies at Diamondbacks (3, Fri-Sun); Rangers at Rays (3, Mon-Wed).
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. Johan Santana (NYM) -- Tue-@HOU (Rodriguez), Sun-@PIT (Duke)
2. Clayton Kershaw (LAD) -- Tue-COL (Francis), Sun-CIN (Arroyo)
3. CC Sabathia (NYY) -- Tue-DET (Verlander), Sun-SEA (Fister)
4. Tommy Hanson (ATL) -- Mon-LAD (Billingsley), Sat-@CHC (Gorzelanny)
5. Cliff Lee (TEX) -- Mon-@TB (Price), Sat-@BAL (Bergesen)
6. John Danks (CHW) -- Tue-@MIN (Baker), Sun-@KC (Greinke)
7. Adam Wainwright (STL) -- Wed-MIL (Wolf)
8. Roy Halladay (PHI) -- Fri-WAS (Marquis)
9. Ricky Nolasco (FLA) -- Tue-@PIT (Duke), Sun-HOU (Rodriguez)
10. David Price (TB) -- Mon-TEX (Lee), Sat-@OAK (Anderson)
11. Josh Johnson (FLA) -- Wed-@PIT (Ohlendorf)
12. Chris Carpenter (STL) -- Sat-SF (Lincecum)
13. Clay Buchholz (BOS) -- Tue-LAA (Haren), Sun-TOR (Marcum)
14. Chad Billingsley (LAD) -- Mon-@ATL (Hanson), Sat-CIN (TBD)
15. Tim Hudson (ATL) -- Wed-WAS (Hernandez)
16. Roy Oswalt (PHI) -- Tue-SF (Zito), Sun-WAS (Olsen)
17. Jon Lester (BOS) -- Fri-TOR (Cecil)
18. Yovani Gallardo (MIL) -- Fri-SD (LeBlanc)
19. Brett Anderson (OAK) -- Mon-TOR (Marcum), Sat-TB (Price)
20. Tim Lincecum (SF) -- Sat-@STL (Carpenter)
21. Matt Garza (TB) -- Tue-TEX (Harden), Sun-@OAK (Braden)
22. Ubaldo Jimenez (COL) -- Sat-@ARI (Enright)
23. Justin Verlander (DET) -- Tue-@NYY (Sabathia), Sun-CLE (Tomlin)
24. Trevor Cahill (OAK) -- Thu-TB (Sonnanstine)
25. Felix Hernandez (SEA) -- Fri-@NYY (Burnett)
26. Mat Latos (SD) -- Thu-@CHC (Zambrano)
27. Colby Lewis (TEX) -- Thu-@BAL (Matusz)
28. Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) -- Tue-NYM (Santana), Sun-@FLA (Nolasco)
29. Brandon Morrow (TOR) -- Tue-@OAK (Braden)
30. Ted Lilly (LAD) -- Thu-COL (De La Rosa)
31. Francisco Liriano (MIN) -- Wed-CHW (Floyd)
32. Jonathon Niese (NYM) -- Mon-@HOU (Happ), Sat-@PIT (McDonald)
33. Zack Greinke (KC) -- Tue-CLE (Tomlin), Sun-CHW (Danks)
34. Javier Vazquez (NYY) -- Mon-DET (Scherzer), Sat-SEA (Vargas)
35. Jeremy Hellickson (TB) -- Fri-@OAK (Mazzaro)
36. Phil Hughes (NYY) -- Thu-DET (Porcello)
37. Anibal Sanchez (FLA) -- Fri-HOU (Norris)
38. Hiroki Kuroda (LAD) -- Wed-COL (Hammel)
39. Cole Hamels (PHI) -- Thu-SF (Sanchez)
40. Daniel Hudson (ARI) -- Tue-CIN (Arroyo), Sun-COL (Francis)
41. Jake Westbrook (STL) -- Fri-SF (Bumgarner)
42. C.J. Wilson (TEX) -- Fri-@BAL (Arrieta)
43. Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS) -- Sat-TOR (Romero)
44. Gavin Floyd (CHW) -- Wed-@MIN (Liriano)
45. Dan Haren (LAA) -- Tue-@BOS (Buchholz), Sun-@MIN (Baker)
46. Scott Baker (MIN) -- Tue-CHW (Danks), Sun-LAA (Haren)
47. A.J. Burnett (NYY) -- Fri-SEA (Hernandez)
48. Matt Cain (SF) -- Wed-@PHI (Blanton)
49. Jair Jurrjens (ATL) -- Fri-@CHC (Dempster)
50. Dallas Braden (OAK) -- Tue-TOR (Morrow), Sun-TB (Garza)
51. Derek Lowe (ATL) -- Thu-WAS (Lannan)
52. Brett Myers (HOU) -- Wed-NYM (Dickey)
53. Vicente Padilla (LAD) -- Fri-CIN (Cueto)
54. Jered Weaver (LAA) -- Wed-@BOS (Lackey)
55. Max Scherzer (DET) -- Mon-@NYY (Vazquez), Sat-CLE (Masterson)
56. Ryan Dempster (CHC) -- Fri-ATL (Jurrjens)
57. Bronson Arroyo (CIN) -- Tue-@ARI (Hudson), Sun-@LAD (Kershaw)
58. John Lackey (BOS) -- Wed-LAA (Weaver)
59. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- Fri-@PIT (Karstens)
60. Johnny Cueto (CIN) -- Fri-@LAD (Padilla)
61. Jason Hammel (COL) -- Wed-@LAD (Kuroda)
62. Josh Beckett (BOS) -- Thu-LAA (Kazmir)
63. Randy Wells (CHC) -- Tue-SD (Garland), Sun-ATL (Minor)
64. Jaime Garcia (STL) -- Tue-MIL (Bush)
65. Edinson Volquez (CIN) -- Wed-@ARI (Lopez)
66. James Shields (TB) -- Wed-TEX (Hunter)
67. Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -- Sat-@PHI (Kendrick)
68. Barry Zito (SF) -- Tue-@PHI (Oswalt), Sun-@STL (Lohse)
69. Carl Pavano (MIN) -- Thu-CHW (Buehrle)
70. Kevin Slowey (MIN) -- Sat-LAA (Santana)
71. Jorge De La Rosa (COL) -- Thu-@LAD (Lilly)
72. Edwin Jackson (CHW) -- Fri-@KC (O'Sullivan)
73. Fausto Carmona (CLE) -- Thu-@KC (Davies)
74. R.A. Dickey (NYM) -- Wed-@HOU (Myers)
75. Gio Gonzalez (OAK) -- Wed-TOR (Rzepczynski)
Two-start pitchers for deep leagues:
Brad Bergesen (BAL) -- Mon-SEA (Fister), Sat-TEX (Lee)
Jeff Francis (COL) -- Tue-@LAD (Kershaw), Sun-@ARI (Hudson)
Jon Garland (SD) -- Tue-@CHC (Wells), Sun-@MIL (Parra)
Tom Gorzelanny (CHC) -- Mon-SD (Correia), Sat-ATL (Hanson)
J.A. Happ (HOU) -- Mon-NYM (Niese), Sat-@FLA (Volstad)
Shaun Marcum (TOR) -- Mon-@OAK (Anderson), Sun-@BOS (Buchholz)
Kevin Millwood (BAL) -- Tue-SEA (French), Sun-TEX (Harden)
Mike Minor (ATL) -- Tue-WAS (Olsen), Sun-@CHC (Wells)
Josh Tomlin (CLE) -- Tue-@KC (Greinke), Sun-@DET (Verlander)
Chris Volstad (FLA) -- Mon-@PIT (McDonald), Sat-HOU (Happ)
Brian Duensing (MIN) -- Fri-LAA (Bell)
Armando Galarraga (DET) -- Fri-CLE (Talbot)
Jeanmar Gomez (CLE) -- Wed-@KC (Chen)
Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- Wed-SEA (Pauley)
Chris Narveson (MIL) -- Sat-SD (Correia)
Joe Saunders (ARI) -- Thu-CIN (Leake)
Sean West (FLA) -- Thu-@PIT (Maholm)
No-thank-yous, among two-starts:
Kevin Correia (SD) -- Mon-@CHC (Gorzelanny), Sat-@MIL (Narveson)
Zach Duke (PIT) -- Tue-FLA (Nolasco), Sun-NYM (Santana)
Doug Fister (SEA) -- Mon-@BAL (Bergesen), Sun-@NYY (Sabathia)
Rich Harden (TEX) -- Tue-@TB (Garza), Sun-@BAL (Millwood)
James McDonald (PIT) -- Mon-FLA (Volstad), Sat-NYM (Niese)
Scott Olsen (WAS) -- Tue-@ATL (Minor), Sun-@PHI (Oswalt)
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.