Major League Baseball's regular season is getting down to the nitty-gritty, and fans are being treated this year to a very exciting stretch run.
Of the league's 30 teams, 13 are still within five games of a playoff spot, and only one division, the NL East with the Philadelphia Phillies, looks to have a runaway winner.
Many of these teams have stars who have underperformed or struggled with injuries all year. So, who are the ballplayers who could step up and give their team an extra push into the playoffs?
With Clay Buchholz likely done for the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his back, the Red Sox starting rotation is in dire straits. They recently picked up Erik Bedard to try and shore up a rotation that features Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and not much else.
The rotation has been plagued all season by the struggles of last season's big free agent signing, John Lackey. The right hander, has posted an ERA below 5.00 for an entire month only once. While his record, which sits at 10-8, does not look terrible, his 6.14 ERA is enough to drive Red Sox fans crazy.
For $16 million a year, Lackey needs to regain the form he showed with the Angels. One or two more awful starts from Lackey could be the difference between winning and losing the AL East for the Red Sox.
AJ Burnett has not been nearly as bad as John Lackey this season for the Yankees. What he has been is maddeningly inconsistent. He can look like a Cy Young candidate one inning with unhittable stuff, and like a rookie getting shelled the next.
Burnett's entire career has been highlighted by this problem. His potential is indisputable, as he has some of the best pure stuff in the league. He has struggled to harness it, however.
The Yankees did not pull the trigger on an upgrade to their rotation at the trade deadline, and are committed to going with Burnett for the time being. If Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia continue pitching well, Burnett could find himself out of the postseason rotation.
The Yankees are in a dogfight with the Red Sox for the division title and need AJ Burnett to live up to his $16 million paycheck at least until the end of September.
The Detroit Tigers are locked in a battle with the resurgent Cleveland Indians. With the exception of Justin Verlander, who is running away with the AL Cy Young, none of the Tigers starting pitchers had compiled an ERA below 4.00 until the acquisition of Doug Fister at the trade deadline.
That is simply not going to serve a team well down the stretch.
One pitcher on the Tigers has stood out for his maddening inconsistency. Rick Porcello's performance has fluctuated from month to month. The 22-year-old has the potential to be a legitimate No. 2 behind Verlander, and has pitched well after the All-Star break with a 3.42 ERA in four starts. He had a 4.78 ERA before the break.
The Tigers need Porcello to continue his strong pitching in order to hold off the Indians.
The Cleveland Indians got off to a hot 30-15 start this season before their lack of consistent offensive production put a damper on the good feelings at Progressive Field.
One reason the team has struggled is because of the season-long injuries to five-tool outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. When healthy, Choo is a rare combination of power and speed. The Indians have sorely missed him.
Choo could begin his rehab assignment this weekend. With the Indians surging again and within two games of the Tigers, they could use a boost from their All-Star outfielder, taking pressure off MVP candidate Asdrubal Cabrera.
The Chicago White Sox have been one of the most inconsistent teams this season. They've certainly managed to drive manager Ozzie Guillen crazy on more than one occasion.
Some would expect me to list Adam Dunn as the player the White Sox most need to step up. With the resurgence in Atlanta of Dan Uggla who struggled just as much as Dunn before ripping off one of the most unlikely 30-game hitting streaks in baseball history, Dunn certainly has an inspiration to regain his swing.
He just simply looks defeated at the plate. Dan Uggla never stopped ripping and making good contact. Dunn is striking out at close to record pace. He has always struck out a lot, but never like this.
Sadly, it looks like if the White Sox are going to get a contribution from a slumping player, it will have to come from somewhere else. Jake Peavy has shown flashes of the pitcher he was for San Diego this season. He has struggled with arm troubles since leaving the Padres, but if he ever figures out how to dominate again, he could be the ace Chicago needs to make the playoffs.
Neftali Feliz was one of the driving forces behind the Rangers run to the World Series last year. He racked up a rookie record 40 saves, while blowing only three.
This year, things have not been going as well for Feliz. He has blown six saves already this year, and seen his walk rate rise as his strikeout rate plummet.
It's possible hitters are on to Feliz this season. With the Angels breathing down their necks, the Rangers cannot afford to blow games in the ninth inning. With major bullpen acquisitions at the trade deadline, Feliz could be in danger of losing his job if he remains inconsistent. He will have to step up to keep his job.
The Angels have managed to keep the Texas Rangers in sight thanks to the stellar pitching of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. Their offense has let them down, however.
With the exception of rookie Mark Trumbo, the Angels offense does not provide much pop. One player who has aged poorly in an Angels uniform is Bobby Abreu.
Abreu, however, did hit two home runs against the Yankees on Tuesday night, including the game winner off Mariano Rivera. If he can provide more games like that one, the Angels may be able to catch the Rangers thanks to their stellar pitching staff.
It's certainly hard to find fault with anything the Philadelphia Phillies have done the past month. After completing a dominant 9-1 West Coast swing, the Phillies look to be the class of the league.
One player the Phillies have been without much of the season, Roy Oswalt, is finally back from his back injury. The Four Aces are finally back together again. If Oswalt is able to live up to his billing in the Four Aces, the Phillies will be that much harder to beat.
Only a month ago, this spot would have been reserved for Braves second baseman, Dan Uggla. Uggla, currently riding a 31-game hitting streak, is no longer a cause for concern in Atlanta.
The Braves, should now be concerned with getting Jair Jurrjens healthy again. After dominating opponents with an ERA below 2.00 in the first half, the right hander suffered a dip in performance after the All-Star Game.
His decline could possibly be attributed to the knee injury that landed him on the DL. With Jurrjens set to return August 17, the Braves need him to be at his best.
With Michael Bourn and Uggla answering the questions about the offense in Brian McCann's absence, getting their ace back in top form will go a long way in making the Braves a legitimate World Series contender.
The Brewers, winners of 13 of their last 14 games, are on the verge of running away with the NL Central.
Like the Phillies, the Brewers do not have many flaws. Their rotation is solid, and they have received production from almost every spot in their lineup.
One player in the lineup who has struggled has been third baseman Casey McGehee. After driving in over 100 runs last year, McGehee has suffered through a year-long power outage.
McGehee has picked it up in the second half. After slugging only .315 before the All-Star break, he has slugged .451 in the second half. This is a much more respectable mark for a third baseman who hit 23 home runs last year.
With their deep pitching rotation, and All-Stars like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks leading a potent offense, rediscovering a power threat in McGehee could put a scare into the Phillies.
It's not often that Albert Pujols is called out for needing to step up and lead his team.
But, with the Cardinals in danger of falling out of contention, he is the one player the team needs to step up most.
Against the Brewers this season, Pujols has hit only .119 without a home run. With only seven games remaining against the Brewers, Pujols needs to figure out the Milwaukee pitching staff which has kept him strangely quiet.
It is becoming clear that the Arizona Diamondbacks are in the playoff hunt for the long haul. This is a team chock full of exciting young players.
The Diamondbacks have enjoyed Justin Upton's emergence as a true star and the breakthroughs of pitchers Ian Kennedy and Josh Collmenter.
There is one youngster the Diamondbacks are still waiting on to live up to his full potential. Chris Young has long had the right blend of speed and power to be a 30-30 threat. His problem, however, has been too many strikeouts.
If Young can bump his batting average above .250 while continuing to hit for power and steal bases, the Diamondbacks will make it hard for the Giants to make the playoffs and defend their World Series title.
The World Series champs are in a serious fight with the Diamondbacks, due largely to their offensive woes. With the pitching staff the Giants have assembled, reaching the playoffs should not be a problem for this team.
They simply have not been able to score enough runs to support their hurlers, as evidenced by Tim Lincecum's nine losses. A large part of the team's offensive struggles can be attributed to this being a down year in Aubrey Huff's yo-yo-like career.
Huff has had one of the most up and down careers in recent history. His yearly home run totals and batting average go through good and bad cycles. For example, in 2008 Huff hit 32 homers and batted .302. The next year, he hit only 15 bombs and batted .241. Then, in 2010, the year he helped the Giants to the World Series title, he knocked 26 balls out of the park and batted .290.
2011 is a down year in Huff's cycle. He has hit only 11 home runs and batted .249. The Giants need him to break out of this cycle. Otherwise, the acquisition of Carlos Beltran will have been for naught.