Pitching encapsulates the story lines for Friday, with former A's rotation-mates to begin the season Joe Blanton and Rich Harden, now with the Phillies and Cubs, respectively, battling in a potential National League playoff-series preview. Harden, incredibly, has a 1.47 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 49 innings in eight starts for the Cubs since his escape from Oakland, certainly demonstrating his health.
Finally, the National League West showdown between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks begins, with Hiroki Kuroda and Doug Davis each making their fourth starts of the season against their respective opponent. Entering Wednesday's play, the Diamondbacks hold the advantage in the race, by three games over the Dodgers.
Matchups for Friday, Aug. 29
All times are ET.
Brian Barton, OF, Cardinals (oblique)
Josh Beckett, P, Red Sox (hand)
J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox (back)
Brian Fuentes, RP, Rockies (bereavement)
Austin Kearns, OF, Nationals (foot)
Mitch Maier, OF, Royals (face)
Vicente Padilla, SP, Rangers (neck, shoulders)
Renyel Pinto, RP, Marlins (hamstring)
Garret Anderson, OF, Angels (knee)
Erick Aybar, SS/2B, Angels (neck)
Sean Casey, 1B, Red Sox (neck)
Ramon Castro, C, Mets (quadriceps)
Francisco Cordero, RP, Reds (personal)
Ray Durham, 2B, Brewers (shoulder)
Mark Ellis, 2B, A's (shoulder)
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Angels (legs)
Carlos Guillen, 1B/3B/SS, Tigers (back)
Casey Kotchman, 1B, Braves (bereavement)
Dioner Navarro, C, Rays (hamstrings)
Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, White Sox (leg)
Start 'em, sit 'em
Hitters: Jeremy Sowers' greatest weakness is that right-handed sluggers handle him well, batting .304 with an .826 OPS against him for his career. That bodes well for Mariners right-handers Adrian Beltre, a .313 hitter with a .904 OPS against lefties, and Jose Lopez, a .322/.802 hitter against that side. The Royals' Kyle Davies has held his own against the Tigers, though he generally falls just beneath the quality-start cut-off against them, which stacks the deck toward the offense for fantasy. You already know to keep riding the big three of Miguel Cabrera, Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez, but be aware that Placido Polanco has been doing a more-than-adequate job of late, batting .327 with an .870 OPS in 34 games since the All-Star break, and Edgar Renteria isn't far behind, with .295/.820 rates in 35 second-half contests. Among Yankees hitters, there's precisely one with a stunning track record against the Blue Jays' A.J. Burnett: Bobby Abreu, 17-for-50 (.340 BA) with five doubles and a .960 OPS against the right-hander, thanks to the two of them almost always residing within the same division. Not that you should bench all Yankees, but Burnett does have their number. The Brewers have feasted on the Pirates' Tom Gorzelanny in each of his past two starts, one on July 4 before his demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis, and one in his first start back from Indianapolis on Aug. 23. Three's company, right? Count on another feast for those right-handed Brewers, since "Gorzy" has been hit to the tune of .300/.947 rates by righties this season. Ryan Braun is 7-for-14 (.500 BA) with two homers in his career against the left-hander, and J.J. Hardy is 8-for-19 (.421 BA) with a homer against Gorzelanny. Despite it being a lefty-versus-lefty matchup, Nick Markakis has no problems with the Rays' Scott Kazmir. Markakis is a lifetime .500 hitter (7-for-14) with a homer and a 1.248 OPS against the left-hander. Matt Kemp positively owns the Diamondbacks' Doug Davis, going 8-for-15 (.533 BA) with two triples and a 1.363 OPS against the left-hander. Manny Ramirez (7-for-16, .439 BA, .971 OPS) also handles Davis nicely. Load up on Angels hitters, knowing they'll be facing the struggling Dustin Nippert, a stand-in for the injured Vicente Padilla. As a team, the Rangers boast a combined .340 lifetime batting average and 1.003 OPS against the Angels' Ervin Santana. The most notable standouts: Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, who are a combined 21-for-51 (.412 BA) with three home runs against the right-hander.
Pitchers: Rich Harden tossed a masterful eight-shutout-inning, two-hit, 11-K game against these Phillies on June 26 in Oakland, and he has held key Phillies Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley to a combined 0-for-12 career performance. Harden has the clear advantage matchups-wise over former teammate Joe Blanton, who is probably staring at a seventh instance in eight starts for the Phillies without a win. Daisuke Matsuzaka mastered the White Sox on Aug. 9, allowing one run on four hits in eight innings, and he's a sparkling 8-2 with a 3.28 ERA in 12 starts at home this season, erasing any memory of his so-so performance at Fenway Park as a rookie. He's a much better choice for success than the nicked-up Josh Beckett would have been. Matsuzaka's opponent, Javier Vazquez, isn't a great choice. Current Red Sox are a combined 66-for-225 (.293 BA) with 11 home runs and an .842 OPS against him in their careers. Limit Vazquez's usage to AL-only and deep-mixed formats. A.J. Burnett has faced the Yankees three times this season and beaten them all three times, so why should battle No. 4 result any differently? In fact, he's 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in five starts against them between this and last season, which earns him must-start status. Edinson Volquez has strung together three consecutive quality starts, and the matchups weren't the easiest, either. He's 7-2 with a 3.40 ERA in 13 starts at Great American Ball Park this season and the Giants rate a bottom-five offense, so keep him in there. Oliver Perez has won each of his past three starts at Dolphin Stadium dating back to Sept. 22, 2007, and he has a 0.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and .222 BAA in those appearances. Considering he's 4-2 with a 2.50 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and .205 BAA in his past 11 starts, the left-hander is well worth using again here. Anytime the Rays play at Tropicana Field, it's advantage: Rays pitcher. Scott Kazmir, for instance, is 5-1 with a 2.51 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 10 home starts this season, so play that trend rather than his 4.70 ERA in 12 career starts against the Orioles. This is a tough matchup for Jeremy Guthrie from a pure wins perspective, but if you can live without that, the rest of his performance shouldn't be too bad. He has a 2.08 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in two starts at Tropicana Field this season, which sounds about right. Kyle Lohse has won all three of his starts against the Astros this season, with a 2.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in them, so don't fret too much about his home/road splits for the year. Not that he's an easy guy to sit, but those of you in those aforementioned protect-ratios or cap-crunch positions pitching-wise might want to be conservative with Ervin Santana against the Rangers. Sure, Santana has won both of his starts against Texas this season, but he has a 5.79 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in them. And as noted above, a good number of Rangers have strong histories against him. Aaron Cook might be 4-3 with a 5.08 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in his past nine starts, but does a matchup at the Padres really scare you? Be aware that Cook shut them out on July 1, right before that quoted time frame, and he's 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in six career starts at Petco Park. This should be a bounce-back opportunity for him.
Hitters: If his neck heals in time for him to return on Friday, Sean Casey is worth a look, thanks to his lifetime .394 batting average (13-for-33), eight RBIs and 1.048 OPS against the White Sox's Javier Vazquez. Matt Stairs has clubbed two home runs and has another hit in six career at-bats against the Yankees' Carl Pavano, who is, well, Carl Pavano. Don't be afraid to load up on Blue Jays hitters in a game that could quickly slip through the Yankees' fingers. Adam LaRoche is batting .265 (13-for-49) with three home runs and seven RBIs in 13 games since returning from the DL, which isn't bad at all. Accounting for his lifetime .417 batting average (5-for-12) and 1.167 OPS against the Brewers' Dave Bush, he's well worth slotting in for Friday. Bill Hall is a great spot-start candidate against a left-hander, in this case the Pirates' Tom Gorzelanny. Hall is a .336 hitter with a .995 OPS against left-handers this season, and 6-for-18 (.333 BA) with two doubles and a home run in his career against Gorzelanny. In addition to starting your usual Reds like Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips, scoop up scrappy utility type Jeff Keppinger, a .364 hitter with a .931 OPS against left-handers this season. Cody Ross and Josh Willingham are about the only Marlins with even a decent track record against the Mets' Oliver Perez. Ross is 8-for-22 (.364 BA) with three homers against the left-hander, while Willingham is 6-for-18 (.333 BA) with two homers versus Perez, and most of their successes have come in past seasons, not this one. Consider them both as spot-start candidates, though. Even in what has been a terrible season for Jeff Francoeur, there are spot-start opportunities, such as this one against the Nationals' Odalis Perez. Frenchy is 6-for-10 (.600 BA) with a double, triple and a home run in his career against the left-hander. Geoff Blum has batted a respectable .385 (5-for-13) with two doubles, a home run and a 1.236 OPS in his career against the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse. Take a look at Nomar Garciaparra, 7-for-25 (.280 BA) with three home runs in his career against the Dodgers' Doug Davis. Hank Blalock might be only 4-for-20 (.200 BA) without an extra-base hit in his first five games off the DL, but perhaps a matchup against the Angels' Ervin Santana allows him to heat up. He's a lifetime .391 hitter (9-for-23) with three home runs and a 1.457 OPS against the right-hander. Other than the obvious Adrian Gonzalez, the next-most threatening Padres hitter to Rockies starter Aaron Cook is Brian Giles, 15-for-43 (.349 BA) in his career against the right-hander.
Pitchers: I'll say this for Jeremy Sowers, he beat the Mariners at Safeco Field on July 19 with at least respectable numbers (6 IP, 5 H, 4 ER), and he has a respectable 4.32 ERA in seven home starts this year. It's not exciting, but could be useful enough for AL-only owners to exploit. In two starts against the Royals since the All-Star break, Zach Miner has totaled 13 shutout innings, six hits and two walks allowed, winning both. If that's not a spot-start candidate, I don't know what is. Dave Bush had been a start-at-home, bench-on-the-road matchups type earlier in the season, but he has three quality starts in his past four tries on the road, and each of them was a pretty decent outing. He has limited the Pirates to four runs on 11 hits in 15 innings combined in their past two meetings, so give him the go-ahead even in a road start. Jorge Campillo is 4-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in 16 road games (eight starts), and he'll be battling a pretty weak Nationals offense. He's even worthy of mixed-league consideration. Hiroki Kuroda was pummeled in his most recent start at Chase Field on July 18 (2 IP, 8 H, 5 ER), but he remains the better bet as a spot-start candidate of Friday's starters in the aforementioned NL West battle. That's because Doug Davis has a 9.28 ERA and 2.25 WHIP in three starts against the Dodgers, a team that can get to left-handers. Kevin Slowey struck out 12 A's as recently as Aug. 19 and he's 7-2 with a 3.08 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in his past 12 starts. Meanwhile, Oakland's offense is in shambles, sporting the game's worst team batting average (.210) and OPS (.622) in the month of August. Slowey is a standout start.
Three Friday games are weatherproof: Orioles-Rays, Cardinals-Astros and Dodgers-Diamondbacks. Interestingly, the game with the highest degree of risk for poor weather is Mets-Marlins, facing a 50-percent chance of showers and thunderstorms and winds of 16-24 mph. It's not too surprising; this is hurricane season in Florida, so nasty weather tends to be a problem for the team in August and September. Rain might also be an issue in Cleveland (30-percent chance), New York (30), Pittsburgh (40) and Washington (30).
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.