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Updated: September 30, 2010, 1:02 AM ET

Answers to these questions will shape playoffs

Olney By Buster Olney
ESPN
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The biggest unresolved issues that could affect the playoffs:

1. Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his swing over the weekend? He has not played since Sept. 4 but told reporters that he felt good after his workout Wednesday and is aiming to get to play again Friday. If that timetable holds, that means he might get 10 to 15 at-bats to find his timing. Is that enough? We'll see.

2. Can the Atlanta Braves clinch without having to wear down their pitchers? If Atlanta can clinch a playoff spot before Sunday's season finale, Tim Hudson will be lined up, rested and ready to go for Game 1 of the playoffs, with Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson set to go behind him. And if the Braves can clinch Friday or Saturday, Bobby Cox can shut down the heavily used Peter Moylan, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel -- and the Atlanta bullpen will be well rested for the start of the division series.

3. Can A.J. Burnett get himself together before the start of the playoffs? He has been nothing less than awful in most of his recent decisions, but his start against the Orioles on Sept. 17, when he allowed three runs in a solid seven innings, offers some glimmer of hope. The Yankees are convinced Burnett is simply in a funk and struggling to concentrate in his bad starts, and they feel like if he can pitch with more confidence, he can get back to being as good as he was last postseason.

4. Will Evan Longoria be able to rebound after missing a week with a strained quad? The All-Star third baseman is the most feared hitter in the Tampa Bay lineup, and with so many high-strikeout guys in the middle of the Rays' attack, it's hard to imagine them succeeding in October without production from Longoria. He should be OK.

5. Can Jimmy Rollins rebound from injury again? The Phillies shortstop hurt his hamstring Sept. 8, and he's easing his way back into the lineup. Rollins has delivered many big hits for the Phillies in recent postseasons, but injuries have limited him to 84 games this season; he's had his worst year of production in his career, not surprisingly, posting an OPS of .693.

6. Can Frank Francisco and Mark Lowe come back and be factors for the Rangers in October? Francisco, working his way back from back trouble, has not made enough progress to be a consideration for the American League Division Series. But there is better news about Lowe: He went on the disabled list after pitching for the Mariners on May 4 and has slowly worked his way back -- and when he took the mound for his first outing for Texas on Wednesday, he stunned scouts with an electric 94-95 mph fastball. Lowe struck out two in a scoreless inning of work. "If he throws like that in the playoffs," one talent evaluator said, "he could really help them."

7. Can Pablo Sandoval find himself? As Jack Morris mentioned recently, the playoffs often come down to who's hot and who's healthy, and for much of this year, Sandoval has been part of the problem for the Giants, rather than part of the solution. But he blistered a couple of hits Tuesday night, and given his talent, Giants manager Bruce Bochy undoubtedly will keep running him out there if he hits in the last week.

8. Can Edinson Volquez keep shutting down hitters? Advance scouts believe the Reds' biggest potential problem in the postseason is a lack of power pitching -- pitching that's good enough to beat good teams. But Volquez, a little more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, is an X factor. He has had a great September, posting a 1.95 ERA in his past four starts, with 31 strikeouts in his past 27.2 innings.

9. Can Justin Morneau beat the clock? He has felt good the past four days as he recovers from a concussion, and the plan is for him to hit and to field ground balls Thursday. If he has any setbacks, that probably will end any chance of him coming back. But if he keeps on having good days, the Twins will find a way to get him a week's worth of games in instructional ball or in simulated games. He has no shot to come back for the AL Division Series, in all likelihood, and would be a long shot for the AL Championship Series. If the Twins made it to the World Series … who knows.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and an analyst for "Baseball Tonight." Read his daily ESPN.com blog here.

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