Stay tuned as baseball gears up for wild September

This is all new for Matt Cain, and the right-hander is doing his best to soak up every minute of his first playoff race.

"It's fun, isn't it?" said Cain, a key reason why the San Francisco Giants are in the hunt for a postseason spot. "You really can't count anybody out, especially when you're playing those teams for the next month."

The surprising Giants trailed the Colorado Rockies by one game in the NL wild-card standings heading into Friday's action, just one of several intriguing races to watch in the final full month of the regular season. Both teams also were within striking distance of the West title, needing just one well-timed winning streak to take down the Dodgers.

In the American League, Detroit was trying to hold off the pesky Twins and fading White Sox in the Central, and the seasoned Red Sox had a whole host of challengers for the wild card.

Get ready for a compelling stretch run. These are some of the big series and important players to watch as October approaches: GIANTS AT ROCKIES, SEPT. 14-16

San Francisco hosts Colorado for three games in the final series of the year between the two contenders. The Rockies visited the Giants' cozy waterfront ballpark last weekend and managed just eight runs while losing three straight and squandering their wild-card lead.

Part of the fun of this matchup is the contrasting styles of the hard-hitting Rockies, among the NL leaders in runs, and the pitching-heavy Giants, with one of the best staffs in baseball.

"Obviously our mettle is going to be tested but that's the interesting thing about a championship season," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said.

Don't forget: San Francisco also has six games left against the West-leading Dodgers and Colorado travels to Chavez Ravine for a three-game series in October to close the regular season.

"There's a lot of games left," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "They're all big series."

TIM WAKEFIELD

One of the biggest questions for the wild card-leading Red Sox is the health of Wakefield, who was in the middle of one of his best seasons until being hampered by recurring back problems after making his first All-Star appearance.

The 43-year-old knuckleballer spent 5 1/2 weeks on the disabled list before returning with seven sharp innings in Boston's 3-2 win over the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 26. He was scratched from his next scheduled start and got a cortisone shot Monday, leaving his future in question.

Wakefield is 11-3 with a 4.12 ERA this season, and the Red Sox are 14-4 in his starts.

JOSH HAMILTON

Texas is bidding for its first playoff appearance since 1999 despite a sluggish season from Hamilton, who has been hampered by injuries and recently had to answer questions about a setback in his recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse.

The Rangers' rejuvenated pitching staff has fueled their success this year but Hamilton is coming off his best month of the season, batting .342 with 17 RBIs in August, and has the type of bat that can power a team to a long winning streak. He hit .366 with two homers and 13 RBIs in September last year.

Hamilton opened this month with a big day in Texas' doubleheader sweep against Toronto but had to leave the Rangers' 6-4 victory over the Blue Jays on Wednesday with a pinched nerve in his back.

"When he gets hot, it's fun to watch and he can put a team on his back," Texas outfielder David Murphy said. TWINS AT TIGERS / RANGERS AT ANGELS, SEPT. 28-OCT. 1

The Tigers and Twins have seven games left, including this four-game set in Detroit. The Twins historically have closed well under manager Ron Gardenhire and went all the way to a 163rd game last year, a 1-0 tiebreaker loss to the division-winning White Sox.

"Timing is everything," All-Star closer Joe Nathan said. "We know what we've done to this point really means nothing. We're in a race and what we've done to this point has kept us in a race, but we know if we can get on a streak here and get on a run like we have lately, anything can happen."

Sliding Chicago also is in the Central mix, with six games left against Detroit and three against Minnesota.

The Rangers will have a chance to stop the Angels from winning a third consecutive AL West title. They are 9-3 against Los Angeles this year with seven games left.

"The fact that we play them seven more times, that's huge," Murphy said, "and we can definitely use those games to make a big move. At the same time, how many games do we have left this year? Every game is crucial and we can't just think about those seven games." JOHN SMOLTZ

The Central-leading Cardinals have the biggest division advantage in baseball, 10 1/2 games over the disappointing Cubs after Thursday's action, and are vying with the Dodgers for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

Smoltz has pitched well since he was cut by the Red Sox, and could be a factor down the stretch for St. Louis. He gave up four runs and six hits over six innings in a 4-3 loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, but is 1-1 with a 2.65 ERA in three starts with the Cardinals.

His final month will determine what kind of role he plays in the postseason.

"I think I've got opportunities to get better, so I'm pretty pleased," Smoltz said. "I'm one of those perfectionists who wants to be as good as I possibly can."

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AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas, Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis and R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.

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