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Posted: Wednesday September 2, 2009 1:51PM; Updated: Wednesday September 2, 2009 4:45PM
Cliff Corcoran Cliff Corcoran >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Key players for the stretch run

Story Highlights

The Giants may allow the least amount of runs, but they desperately need offense

If Clay Buchholz can give Boston quality starts, the Sox should outrun Texas

The Rays may be toast without Scott Kazmir, unless Andy Sonnanstine steps up

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Aaron-Cook.jpg
Locked in a tight race for the NL Wild Card, the Rockies need Aaron Cook back from the DL.
Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI

As the season winds towards October, here are some key players to keep an eye on:

Aaron Cook, RHP, Rockies

The staff ace on a mediocre team a year ago, groundballing veteran Aaron Cook has been surpassed by new ace Ubaldo Jimenez and a fluky career year from All-Star Jason Marquis in 2009. He's nonetheless an essential part of the Colorado rotation. In 20 starts from April 24 to August 6, he went 10-3 with a 3.32 ERA. In the last start of that run, he hyper-extended the big toe on his push-off foot while backing up third base. After skipping a start to let it heal, he was lit up in his next turn, then left his next start early with a sore shoulder that has since landed him on the disabled list.

Cook's latest injury is why the Rockies decided to take a flier on Jose Contreras, who was 1-3 with a 7.36 ERA in his last five starts for the White Sox, and 1-6 with a 6.97 in his last nine starts. Contreras has a 5.51 career ERA in interleague play, which suggests he won't benefit much from switching leagues. Locked in a dog fight with the Giants for the NL wild card, the Rockies can't be taking chances with Contreras or spot-starters like Josh Fogg (3 IP, 6 R last Wednesday). They need Cook back and effective when he's eligible to come off the DL at the beginning of next week lest the second-half surges of Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and rookie Carlos Gonzalez go to waste.

A hitter, any hitter, Giants

The Giants allow the fewest runs per game in the majors, but have outscored just three of the other 29 teams. Attempts to upgrade their offense have blown up in their face as Freddy Sanchez is on the DL with a strained shoulder and Ryan Garko has been so weak at the plate that the team has reverted back to starting Travis Ishikawa at first base (for this they traded their second- and third-best starting pitching prospects). Now Bengie Molina has been out for a week with a tight quad, leaving the catching duties to minor league veteran Eli Whiteside (.226/.265/.323 on the season). Their pitching is keeping them in step with the Rockies, but someone is going to have to step up on offense if the Giants are going to reach the postseason.

As of now, the Giants' offense consists of Pablo Sandoval (.333/.383/.563 on the season, .355/.419/.591 in August) and a prayer. Aaron Rowand, a streaky hitter who batted a lame .276/.330/.437 in August, seems like a good candidate. Edgar Renteria showed signs of life in August, hitting .303/.374/.438. Garko and Ishikawa both have the power potential to inject some life into the batting order, and Molina's capable of a hot month if he's able to get back behind the plate (perhaps the rest will do him well). Giants fans don't care who does it, but someone needs to, or their Cinderella story will end before the ball.

Adam LaRoche, 1B, Braves

At the end of June, the Braves were 36-40 (.474) and had scored just 4.12 runs per game on the season. Since then, they've gone 33-22 (.600) and have scored 5.15 runs per game. What changed wasn't the addition of Nate McLouth, who joined the Braves on June 5 and hit .260/.344/.419 before landing on the DL with a strained hamstring. Rather, it was the addition by subtraction of dumping Jeff Francoeur (.250/.282/.352 as a Brave) on the Mets and "losing" Kelly Johnson (.216/.288/.362 on June 28) to the DL. Martin Prado has hit .322/.366/.477 since taking over second base for Johnson on June 30, forcing Kelly to the bench upon his return, and Matt Diaz has hit .345/.406/.559 since July 6, seizing the right field job in the wake of Francoeur's departure. Diaz and Prado now hit in the top two positions in the Braves' batting order, but they've since been joined by an even more potent bat who distressingly remains buried in the seven hole. Adam LaRoche is a notorious second-half hitter (career: .252/.325/.447 first half, .301/.363/.552 second half) and a former Braves draft pick who was dealt for Mike Gonzalez after the 2006 season only to be reacquired via the Red Sox at this year's deadline. Since rejoining the Braves, LaRoche has hit .365/.446/.646 with eight home runs in 112 plate appearances, doing so in place of Casey Kotchman's .282/.354/.409. LaRoche is sure to cool off a bit, but if he can settle in around his career second-half numbers and convince Bobby Cox to hit him closer to the middle of the order, the Braves just might score enough runs to catch the Rockies and Giants, the former of whom they trail by three games entering Wednesday's action.

Derek Holland, LHP, Rangers

In a radical break from tradition, the Rangers, historically a team that has had to bash its way up the standings, have been winning with pitching and defense this year. What's more, they've done it despite the fact that just two of their starting pitchers (Kevin Millwood and Scott Feldman) have made more than 20 starts on the season. That suggests a bit of defense-dependent smoke and mirrors, which means Texas likely will have to make some of those pitching gains tangible in order to properly threaten the Red Sox for the wild card. That appeared to be happening with impressive second-half performances from 22-year-olds Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland, but Holland, one of the team's top pitching prospects, has sprung a leak in his last two starts, giving up 16 runs and four home runs in nine innings against the Yankees and Blue Jays. The Yankees are abusing everyone, but the Jays aren't, and if Holland can't put his finger in the dike immediately, the Rangers are sunk.

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