This season's juiciest round-robin comes in the last three weeks of September, when three of baseball's hottest teams, the Anaheim Angels, Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, will decide baseball's tightest division race by playing one another either 13 or 14 times. The A's, two-time defending AL West champs and winners of five of six games through Sunday, led both the Rangers (eight of nine) and the Angels (five straight) by half a game. We handicap the field:
Strength: As usual, the starting rotation makes Oakland the class of the division, and this year's is deeper than ever, so much so that Rich Harden (5--0 since the All-Star break) has eclipsed Barry Zito as the third starter.
Question mark: Rightfielder Jermaine Dye, day-to-day with a sprained left thumb, is in a 12-for-64 slump with only two home runs in August.
Key player: Rookie shortstop Bobby Crosby has been streaky, and since Oakland's starters don't strike out a lot of hitters, his defense will continue to be tested.
Schedule: 39 games left; 24 at home, 19 against plus-.500 teams; opponents' winning percentage: .488.
Bottom line: Balanced offense, a bullpen that will add Arthur Rhodes and Chad Bradford from the disabled list for the stretch and a track record of late-season excellence make the A's the clear favorites.
Strength: The Angels excel at small ball, leading the league in steals and sacrifice bunts behind Energizer Bunnies Chone Figgins and David Eckstein. Anaheim has double-digit steals at every lineup spot but catcher and DH.
Question mark: Aside from Jose Guillen and Vladimir Guerrero, they pack little punch (ninth in the AL with a .427 slugging percentage and 36.7 at bats per homer).
Key player: Righthander Bartolo Colon has begun to resemble the hoss of old, winning seven times in eight starts with a 3.23 ERA.
Schedule: 38 games left; 21 at home, 22 against plus-.500 teams; opponents' winning percentage: .490.
Bottom line: Most of Anaheim's core players have World Series rings, but what happens when lifesaving fill-ins such as Figgins, reliever Kevin Gregg and centerfielder Jeff DaVanon fall back to earth?
Strength: Naturally, Texas's unlikely push to contention depends on its monster offense (second in the AL with a .464 slugging percentage and a home run every 23.2 at bats); corner infielders Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock deserve MVP consideration.
Question mark: Since the All-Star break the Rangers' 3-4-5 starters have included Scott Erickson, Mickey Callaway, Mike Bacsik, Nick Regilio and Sam Narron. Pitching coach Orel Hershiser is now oiling his glove.
Key player: Francisco Cordero has saved 39 games in 41 chances with a 1.68 ERA and better than one strikeout per inning. He's the centerpiece of a deep, hard-throwing bullpen that has covered for the junk-slingers at the back of the rotation.
Schedule: 40 games remaining; 24 at home, 24 against plus-.500 teams; opponents' winning percentage: .520.
Bottom line: Shaky starting pitching after Kenny Rogers and Ryan Drese, combined with the unfavorable schedule, make Texas the long shot. --Daniel G. Habib
PAAL BUCK/EPA (TEIXEIRA)
Shaky pitching may cut down Teixeira (top) & Co., while defense will be crucial for Crosby.
[See caption above.]