Crucial weekend series set to start up

Crucial weekend series set to start up

Division leaders will be hoping to add on to their leads with several aces taking the mound on Friday with many new crucial weekend series starting up.

The Tigers' Justin Verlander will try to tame the Rays, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw will aim to top the Padres, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright will look to beat the Pirates and the Phillies' Cliff Lee will try to continue his run of dominance in the NL against Astros.

Postseason matchups

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AL Division Series
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NL Division Series

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Three of those four pitchers have sub-3.00 ERAs this season with Verlander being the only exception. But Verlander makes up for it by being a strikeout machine, whiffing 215 batters in 189 innings this season.

Verlander will be leaned upon by Detroit as it travels to Tampa Bay for a critical three-game series against the Rays, who sit six games back in the AL Wild Card standings.

But Tigers manager Jim Leyland said his club won't be treating the series any different despite the fact his club is playing against the defending AL champs.

"Just go play the game," Leyland said. "We don't need to be talking about anything, just like nobody else does. That's just the way it is. Just play the games."

The Dodgers and Cardinals will be playing bottom-dwellers in the Padres and Pirates, respectively, but both clubs have their eyes on home-field advantage in the postseason this year as Los Angeles has the best record in the NL by just a game over the Cardinals and Phillies.

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, however, doesn't want to use home-field advantage as a motivating tool for his club.

"It's a sign of nothing," La Russa said. "It's a sign of a potential distraction for our team. What we need to do is, we need to crank out series, competitions, and try to get to the finish line. Whatever the numbers turn out to be, it turns out to be. Anything that the team thinks about other than that is a distraction."

Meanwhile, the Yankees and Angels will also be sending top starters to the mound Friday with Joba Chamberlain getting the call against the Blue Jays and Jered Weaver getting the nod against the Royals.

But how long Chamberlain goes in Toronto is anyone's guess as the young right-hander pitched just three innings in his last start to keep his innings down this season with the Yankees' large lead in AL East.

"We've got a routine going, and it's been something we've been searching for," Chamberlain said. "We've got a good one going. I had a good four days in between, so I'm excited to get back out there."

And while it doesn't appear as though the Yankees' 7 1/2 game lead over the Red Sox is in any danger, Boston is still in the Wild Card hunt with a three-game lead over Texas.

The Red Sox will send veteran Paul Byrd to the mound against the White Sox for his second start this season while the Rangers will rely on right-hander Scott Feldman in Baltimore.

But the Rangers will have a tough task with third baseman Michael Young out for two to three weeks with a strained left hamstring.

"Anytime your best player goes down in any sport, it's important for the rest of the team to pick up their game," infielder Hank Blalock said. "Everything Mike does speak for itself -- it's important for us to step up our game to another level."

In the NL, the Wild Card race is even wilder with the Rockies leading the Giants by just one game with the clubs set to face the Diamondbacks and Brewers, respectively.

The Rockies will lean on right-hander Jason Hammel, who has been a pleasant surprise this season since being traded from the Rays, while the Giants will call on left-hander Barry Zito, who has recently started to find the stuff that made him the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2002.

The goal for Zito will be to end the Giants' recent string of bad luck in Milwaukee as the club has lost 14 of 18 at Miller Park. And as for Hammel, his goal is to pitch deeper into the game after lasting just five innings in his last start.

But just like Zito, who has a 1.92 ERA in his last nine starts, Hammel has been lights out in his last three starts with a 2.37 ERA. He credits his recent success with sticking with a four-seam fastball over a sinker.

"When I used a two-seamer, it helped a little bit, but I'd change my arm angle trying to make it sink, and it was affecting my other pitches," Hammel said. "So I'm sticking with what works."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.