Path of least resistance for Yankees

Which contenders have it easy (Yankees) and which ones don't (Giants) could decide who's playing this fall.

Originally Published: July 19, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Nobody could have imagined three months ago that teams might be thrilled to play the Houston Astros down the stretch, or that the Texas Rangers would become such a daunting force playing in their home park. There will be more shifts, slides and ascents in the last weeks of the regular season, particularly after the contenders tweak and twist their rosters.

But some teams will have distinct advantages -- or disadvantages -- with the way their schedule falls in the second half of the season. A ranking of the remaining major league schedules for the contenders, from easiest to toughest. And if you believe that all the Yankees have going for them is their Monopoly money, well, you are wrong.

1. New York Yankees
They played the toughest portion of their schedule early, and they will have it easy down the stretch. Only 24 of their last 72 games will come against teams with records of .500 or better (as of Sunday morning), the fewest in the majors. They will play their first of 19 games against the disappointing Blue Jays later this week. Even with their troubles in the rotation, they should hammer some of the AL's weaker teams; throw Randy Johnson into the mix, and it could get really ugly.

Home-road split: 36 games left at home, 36 on the road.

When their regular-season fate might be determined: From Aug. 23 to Sept. 15, the Yanks play Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland, Toronto and Tampa Bay.

Big Finish: After playing host to Minnesota for three games, they play three in Toronto.

2. Chicago White Sox
Twenty-six of their last 74 games are against sub-.500 teams, and eight of their last 11 games are against the Royals -- a chance for a late-season feast.

Home-road split: 36-38.

When their fate might be determined: Sept. 6-16, the White Sox have a road trip through Texas, Anaheim and Minnesota, and among the contenders, they have been one of the poorer road teams.

Big finish: Three games at Detroit, before four in K.C.

3. St. Louis Cardinals
Incredibly, they will finish their schedule against the Cubs later this week (which begs the question: Isn't there a better way?). Barring a collapse, they should cruise to the division title, with 17 games left against Arizona, Pittsburgh and Houston.

Home-road split: 35-36.

When their fate might be determined: From Aug. 6-18, they play four series against contenders -- the Mets, Florida, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Big Finish: After a 10-game road trip, the Cards have four games at home vs. the Brewers.

4. Boston Red Sox
Like the Yankees, should feast on AL East weak teams. But their off-field issues have made them inconsistent, and their 13 games remaining against the high-energy Devil Rays could become a trap.

Home-road split: 36-36.

When their fate could be determined: Yankees fans would argue the fate of the Red Sox was determined long ago. But from Aug. 31-Sept. 8, Boston has three consecutive series against the AL West contenders -- and this is when the wild card could be won or lost.

Big Finish: Three games at Tampa Bay, three at Baltimore.

5. Cincinnati Reds
Overachieved already, but they play the most games against sub-.500 teams (27) in the NL the rest of the way.

Home-road split: 37-33.

When their fate could be determined: Aug. 3-18, when 12 of their 15 games are against contenders. The Reds get through those OK, and they should hang in the race into September.

Big Finish: After 10 road games, they wrap up with three at home vs. Pittsburgh.

6. New York Mets
If they can stay in the race and none of the other NL East contenders break away from the pack, the Mets might have an opportunity. They have the second-most games left against teams with records under .500 (24) in the NL, will be finished with Florida and Philly by Sept. 12, and nine of their last 15 are against the Expos and Pirates (who presumably will be without either Kris Benson or Jose Mesa by then).

Home-road split: 37-34.

When their fate could be determined: Aug. 10-19, they play six games at home vs. lowly Arizona and Houston, and then have three in Colorado. They must make a big dent in those games.

Big Finish: After four games in Atlanta, the Mets wrap up with three at home vs. the Expos.

7. Oakland Athletics
The schedule might be more irrelevant for them than any other team. It will come down to six words for Oakland, as always: Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder.

Home-road split: 38-34.

When their fate might be determined: They play 19 games against also-rans -- the likes of Kansas City and Baltimore -- from Aug. 10-29, their chance to break away.

Big Finish: Oakland has seven games at home in the last week -- four with Texas, three with Anaheim.

8. San Diego Padres
Great finishing schedule.

Home-road split: 34-37.

When their fate could be determined: Beginning on Sept. 9, they have three series on the road -- at Colorado, never a good place to start a trip, before four in L.A. and three in S.F.

Big Finish: After playing nine games at home, they wrap up with three in Arizona, where the Diamondbacks -- probably Unit-less -- will be ready to pack.

9. Texas Rangers
The Rangers have the second-best home winning percentage of any major-league team, with a 28-12 record, and they have more home games (41) remaining than any other contender. But they will need the edge: 45 of their last 73 games are against teams with records of .500 or better, by far the most in the AL. The Rangers, who have the second-best record in AL, play with so much energy daily that they will either wear out, or wear down other teams.

Home-road split: 41-32.

When their fate could be determined: Sept. 13-23, they play four games at Oakland, three at Anaheim, before playing host to the Athletics in three games.

Big Finish: After a 10-game homestand, they wrap up with three games at Seattle.

10. Chicago Cubs
They soon will be done with the Cardinals, which will help as Chicago chases wild-card dreams.

Home-road split: 36-35.

When their fate might be determined: They've got a challenging stretch against the West teams from Aug. 3-15, beginning with a series in Colorado.

Big Finish: Close with seven home games against the Reds and Braves.

11. Atlanta Braves
Lots of home games near the end.

Home-road split: 36-35.

When their fate might be determined: From Sept. 24-30, Atlanta has three games vs. Florida, and three games vs. the Mets.

Big Finish: Three games in Wrigley Field. This series could have huge ramifications in the wild-card chase.

12. Anaheim Angels
They will have big hurdles in the last week of the schedule.

Home-road split: 36-35.

When their fate might be determined: The games in which Bartolo Colon pitches. He's got to put it together for them to stay in the race.

Big Finish: After four games in Texas, they have three in Oakland.

13. Los Angeles Dodgers
The last week sets up nicely for L.A.

Home-road split: 35-37.

When their fate might be determined: Sept. 17-26, when they have nine road games -- three in Colorado, where a pitching staff can be wrecked, and then three at San Diego and three in San Francisco.

Big Finish: Seven games at home against Colorado and San Francisco.

14. Milwaukee Brewers
Have a good share of games against Arizona, Houston and Pittsburgh, but wrap up on the road.

Home-road split: 36-36.

When their fate might be determined: At the trade deadline. Nobody expected the Brewers to be this good, but now that they are within range of the wild-card chase, can the adroit GM Doug Melvin add a veteran or two, rather than subtract?

Big Finish: Three games in Arizona, then four in St. Louis, where the Cardinals might be easing into the postseason.

15. Minnesota Twins
They have 35 games left against teams with records of .500 or better, second most in AL, and fewest home games remaining among AL contenders.

Home-road split: 33-38.

When their fate might be determined: From July 26-Aug 9, they play 13 straight games against some of the AL's best - the White Sox, Boston, Anaheim and Oakland.

Big Finish: After 10 road games, they come home for the last series against Cleveland.

16. Philadelphia Phillies
Fifty-two of their last 71 games are against teams with records of .500 or better, tied for most in majors.

Home-road split: 33-38.

When their fate might be determined: The last week, when they get to play at home.

Big Finish: After playing host to Pittsburgh for three games, the Phillies face the Marlins.

17. Florida Marlins
Fifty-two of their last 71 games are against teams with records of .500 or better, and their finishing schedule is the toughest of any team. They gathered momentum last year, finished strong and won the World Series; they've never really gotten on an extended roll this year.

Home-road split: 35-36.

When their fate might be determined: Aug. 6-26, the Marlins play nothing but contenders -- Milwaukee, St. Louis, L.A., San Diego, San Francisco -- and they will either swim or sink.

Big Finish: Ten road games -- three at Atlanta, three at Montreal, four at Philadelphia.

18. San Francisco Giants
Not only do they have the fewest home games remaining of any contender, they also face a brutal stretch of games down the stretch, when they go head to head with their primary division rivals; Barry Bonds will probably be walked three or four times per game.

Home-road split: 32-37.

When their fate could be determined: Twelve of their last 15 games are against the Padres and Dodgers.

Big Finish: After playing host to the Dodgers for three games, the Giants will go to San Diego for three games and then L.A. for three to end the season.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released on Aug. 17 and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine