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Dodgers' staff woes may cost them in October

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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Even in the midst of baseball's statistical evolution, one signpost remains: Starters are supposed to pitch 30 games or more each year.
It sounds like an ordinary achievement for a healthy, effective starter, but the significance goes far beyond that. The most consistent teams in the regular season — the ones with good records and rested bullpens — tend to have three or four pitchers with at least 30 starts. When the season ends in 14 days, the Dodgers may have only two. "You'd like to have four," general manager Ned Colletti said. "But with the way the game is today and how many people get hurt, it's tough to plan on that. We don't always plan on that. "Going into the season, you would have liked to see our top four — (Chad) Billingsley, (Randy) Wolf, (Hiroki) Kuroda, (Clayton) Kershaw — get 30-plus starts each. But that hasn't worked out. So, we've done the next-best thing. We've mixed and matched." This month, the mix-and-match Dodgers have relied heavily on two starters, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, who arrived after the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. And the key starters Colletti mentioned have missed at least one start apiece in recent weeks: Wolf, Kuroda and Kershaw because of injuries; Billingsley because of inconsistent performance and waning confidence. The end result is that only Billingsley and Wolf have reached the 30-start mark. Kershaw has 28 but may not pitch often enough to join them because of a separated right (non-throwing) shoulder. What does it all mean? Well, it's been six years since a team won the World Series following a regular season in which only two of its pitchers made 30 starts (Brad Penny and Carl Pavano with the 2003 Marlins). So, the odds won't be in the Dodgers' favor this October. Still, there's at least some precedent for championship teams having rotations assembled on the fly. In the first two games of the 2006 World Series, the St. Louis starter was a right-hander whose regular season ERA was above 5.00 (Anthony Reyes and Jeff Weaver). The Cardinals won that series in five games. "If we're fortunate enough to get there, the postseason is game-by-game," Colletti said. "You try to figure out how to win one game at a time. You can set up your rotation, but a lot of times the bullpen will end up taking over a game." Twelve pitchers have started three or more games for the Dodgers this season. Twelve. That's a statistic one would expect from an also-ran, not a near-certain playoff team. But Padilla and Garland have performed beyond expectations, with a 6-0 record and 2.65 ERA over nine combined starts through Saturday. The Dodgers have the most wins in the National League. Still, it's hard to imagine them doing much in the postseason without contributions from the pitchers who were such a big part of Colletti's initial plans. "They might have to slug their way through the playoffs," one scout said of the Dodgers, "but it always comes down to pitching." Kershaw injured his shoulder during batting practice Sept. 6 and hasn't pitched in a game since. But his simulated game Friday was an apparent success, and the team has made plans for him to pitch out of the bullpen this week. Billingsley is probably the greater concern. He is 3-6 with a 5.49 ERA since appearing in the All-Star Game and was skipped in the rotation for this weekend's series against the Giants. Manager Joe Torre recently told reporters that the team needs "to get him straightened out." But Billingsley hasn't made much progress yet, based on an iffy relief appearance in Friday's loss (1 2/3 innings, two earned runs). FOXSports.com senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal reported during Saturday's MLB on FOX telecast that Wolf and Kershaw are likely to pitch the Dodgers' first two postseason games — and that there's a good chance Billingsley won't be in the rotation at all.

A Wake in 2010

Tim Wakefield has pitched only twice since the All-Star Game because of a disk problem in his lower back, but he's expected to return to the Boston rotation on Monday. Despite the difficult second half, the 43-year-old knuckleballer isn't on the verge of retirement. His agent, Barry Meister, said in a telephone interview that Wakefield will be ready to pitch in 2010 once he undergoes offseason back surgery. "He's going to play next year — zero question," Meister said. The Red Sox have a perpetual club option on Wakefield worth $4 million per year.

Next step in Texas

In the end, Michael Young's hamstring injury was too great for the Rangers to overcome. Friday's loss to the Angels was their fifth in a row, and it doesn't appear that there is going to be a miracle September in Arlington. But it's been a successful season for the Rangers, who have demonstrated just how much young talent they have. The next objective, aside from returning to the postseason for the first time since 1999, is filling up the ballpark. The Rangers entered the weekend with an average home attendance of 26,979, which ranked eighth among 14 franchises in the American League. (Friday's game drew 34,240.) During a series in Cleveland earlier this month, second baseman Ian Kinsler said in an interview that it's been "disappointing" to see the size of some crowds during the summer. "We're playing really good baseball this year," he said then. "It would be nice for (the fans) to jump aboard. But they really haven't. ... I really don't know why. There's plenty of theories. I don't really have any. I just wish they'd show up. It'd be a lot more fun for us, a lot more fun for them. "When we have a full crowd, when we're playing Boston and New York — the cool teams — we get a full stadium and it's awesome. And we have a great atmosphere. We play really well at home when we have a full crowd. ... You're not coming to see the other team anymore. I think they used to come just to see the other team. Now, I think they need to realize they're coming to see us play."

Rick Knapp's proteges, new and old

The Tigers are playing their final regular-season games at the Metrodome this weekend. The series is pivotal in the American League Central race, with the Twins making a late move to eclipse Detroit for the second time in four seasons. And there's another layer of intrigue: The games are pitting Rick Knapp's old pitchers against Rick Knapp's current pitchers. Knapp is in his first year as the Tigers pitching coach after spending 12 seasons as Minnesota's minor league pitching coordinator. Knapp worked with four current Twins starters while they were in the minor leagues: Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Jeff Manship and Brian Duensing, who pitched 6 1/3 shutout innings in a victory over the Tigers on Friday. At the start of September, I asked Knapp what it was like to be in the middle of a pennant race with his former team. "Honestly speaking, I wish that it was with anybody else but them," he said. "And the other thing is, I'm so preoccupied with what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish that I try not to even think about that. If we take care of what we're supposed to take care of, we'll do fine. That's really what my focus is now." The Tigers are 4-9 against the Twins this season, including 1-7 indoors. Count Knapp among the many opponents eager to play the Twins at a venue other than the Metrodome. "I never understood the mystique until I was sitting on the other side of the field," he said. "It's a tough place. The game plays differently there. I don't know how or why. They've got a contact-oriented club. In that place, things bounce funny. It does strange things."

Oswalt: Declining at 32?

For years, it's been unclear how willing the Astros would be to trade starter Roy Oswalt. Now, the question has more to do with whether Oswalt will be in demand on the offseason market ever again. Oswalt's trade value is lower now than it has been in years after the Astros ended his season last week because of hip and back ailments. The right-hander was 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA — the highest in his major league career. And it doesn't appear he is as happy in Houston as he once was. After one loss last month, he told reporters, "The team atmosphere is dead." But the 32-year-old is not exactly priced to move; he is due $33 million through 2011. However, his health is probably a greater impediment to a deal than his contract. Oswalt fell shy of 200 innings this year for the first time since 2003. He's been on the disabled list five times as a big leaguer — three trips for a groin pull in 2003, one for a mid back sprain in 2006, one for a hip adductor strain in 2008. Groin. Back. Hip. Now hip and back again. More than 1,800 innings. You get the idea. "He expends a lot of energy to pitch," one scout said. "That catches up. He's an old-fashioned pitcher, the old drop-and-drive. That's tough to change."

Around the Horn

John Lackey is 2-1 with a 0.80 ERA over his past four starts, including a hard-luck loss at Fenway Park last week. He looks like a legitimate Game 1 starter in the postseason — with all due respect to Jered Weaver, who's had an outstanding season and already set a new career high in victories. It's easy to forget that Lackey didn't pitch in the majors this year until May 16 because of a strained right forearm. But he's reestablished his value — to the Angels and on the free agent market — very nicely since then. Lackey is 7-4 with a 2.31 ERA in his last 13 starts. Jeff Mathis, a better receiver than fellow catcher Mike Napoli, has been behind the plate for every one over that span.
  • The Angels haven't removed Brian Fuentes from the closer's role, but they're open to using Kevin Jepsen in some save situations. Manager Mike Scioscia could use Fuentes, a left-hander, and Jepsen, a right-hander, to get favorable matchups in the ninth, as he did in Thursday's win at Fenway Park. It would be difficult to demote Fuentes outright since he leads the American League with 43 saves. "Fuentes is our closer," Angels general manager Tony Reagins said Friday.
  • The Rangers' Marlon Byrd entered the weekend with an OPS of .800. That's higher than fellow center fielders Adam Jones, Grady Sizemore and Curtis Granderson. And he's about to become a free agent. That's quite a career turnaround for someone whose contract was designated for assignment at the end of spring training two seasons ago.
  • Twins slugger Justin Morneau (stress fracture in his lower back) played his final game of the season on Sept. 12. The team's record since then: 6-0 after Saturday's win over the Tigers. Michael Cuddyer, the team's everyday right fielder, has replaced Morneau at first base and has been the hitting star the past two days, homering in the first two games of the Twins' weekend series with the Tigers.
  • Cleveland team officials haven't decided yet on an offseason program for righty Fausto Carmona. I don't imagine that it will be easy to do so. With a few exceptions, Carmona hasn't been able to command his fastball since signing a four-year, $15-million contract extension through 2011. His statistics since then: 11-18 record and 5.98 ERA in 227 1/3 innings. He's walked 136 batters. The Indians' payroll isn't large enough to make up for underperformance like that.
  • The Diamondbacks are hoping to contend in 2010, and it's hard to imagine them doing that without Brandon Webb (or someone like him) in the rotation. The team has until five days after the World Series to decide on his $8.5 million option for next year. If Webb can demonstrate by then that he's making progress after shoulder surgery, it's likely that Arizona will bring him back. Webb, three years removed from his Cy Young season, made only one start in 2009. His deal also includes a $2 million buyout.
  • When play began Friday, three teams in the majors had 78 wins: Detroit, Atlanta and Florida. The Tigers were in first place in the American League Central; the Braves and Marlins were long shots in the National League wild card race.
  • Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Angels, Indians, Tigers, Twins, Rangers, Braves, Astros, Dodgers, Cardinals, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Jon Garland, Brian Fuentes, Michael Young, Roy Oswalt, Carl Pavano, Vicente Padilla, Marlon Byrd, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Brandon Webb, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Mathis, Curtis Granderson, Ian Kinsler, Scott Baker, Roberto Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Mike Napoli, Adam Jones, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Jeff Manship

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