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Guys behind aces just as important
Soon, the red, white, and blue bunting will hang from upper decks in all the lucky ballparks. Two of the most magical words in baseball will be emblazoned across newspapers, websites, and stadium marquees.
Along with the proclamation, we will see the smiling photographs of two starting pitchers. We will call them “aces” or perhaps write stories that argue they don’t deserve the designation. For good or ill, the scrutiny is theirs. In the baseball postseason – especially in the best-of-five Division Series – the first impression is indeed an important one.
But amid the hype, let’s not forget to ask three equally crucial questions:
* … Who’s going to start Game 2?
* … And Game 3?
* … And Game 4?
The best starting pitcher isn’t always clutching the empty champagne bottle after the season’s final game. But the best starting rotation often wins in the end. That explains how Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter last October … and then watched the Giants beat his Phillies in the National League Championship Series.
“Your Game 1 starter is going against their Game 1 starter – it’s usually a toss-up,” said Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, a veteran of postseasons with the Reds, Marlins, and Cubs. “The next guys come into play in a huge way. There’s no way around that.”
For all the trepidation about facing Johan Santana during his heyday in Minnesota, the Twins won just one of the five postseason series in which he pitched. At some point, Carlos Silva or Kyle Lohse had to take the ball.
“From my experience, Game 3 in a five-game series was always the most pivotal – that’s the swing game,” observed Eric Chavez, reflecting on his trips to the postseason with Oakland. “Everybody puts the emphasis on the Game 1, Game 2 starters. Most times, you walk away with a split, and the Game 3 starters really determine a whole lot.”
So, we’re not going to discuss No. 1 starters in this space today. We’re going to talk about The Other Guys.
With only 10 days left in the regular season, here’s my ranking of the would-be postseason rotations – setting aside the likely Game 1 starters, whose names are listed in parentheses.
I’m including the Tampa Bay Rays as the ninth team, because, well, the American League wild card is very much undecided at the moment.
1. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (Roy Halladay)
The Phillies have been as advertised this season. According to STATS LLC, they are on pace to become the first team since the 1992 Atlanta Braves to finish with a rotation ERA below 3.00.
When asked to identify the best postseason rotation in the majors, Toronto manager John Farrell replied, “You’d be hard-pressed to find three guys better than what’s going on in Philadelphia. The numbers bear it out. You’ve got three guys who are potential Cy Young candidates. That’s a formidable group. All have playoff experience.”
Farrell was presumably referring to Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has a nice problem to have, needing to choose between Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley for the No. 4 spot.
2. TAMPA BAY RAYS (James Shields)
You want irony? I suspect the Yankees are rooting for the Red Sox to win the wild card. No American League team – and I’m including the Rangers and Tigers here – wants the Rays to be part of these playoffs.
The Tampa Bay rotation has compiled the best ERA in the American League this year – and it’s deep. The Rays have a dynamic group of arms after Shields, including All-Star David Price, Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, and Wade Davis, who won his postseason debut last year.
3. TEXAS RANGERS (C.J. Wilson)
The Rangers are a hitting team by reputation, but they actually boast one of the most balanced rotations in the major leagues.
True, Wilson isn’t an established ace. But there isn’t much of a drop in ability after him. Lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison have the stuff to neutralize the Boston and New York sluggers – although Holland, in particular, has struggled against the Yankees in the past. Colby Lewis, while hit hard at times this year, beat the Yankees twice in last year’s playoffs.
One concern: Alexi Ogando, a reliever last year, has had the second-half slide that many feared. He’s 4-5 with a 4.70 ERA in 61 1/3 innings since the All-Star break.
4. DETROIT TIGERS (Justin Verlander)
Verlander has absorbed much of the attention when the Tigers’ pitching staff is discussed, and rightfully so. He is certain to win the AL Cy Young Award and is firmly in the MVP race.
But in Doug Fister, Detroit might have the hottest No. 2 starter of any AL playoff team. Fister is 6-1 with a 2.12 ERA in nine starts since arriving from Seattle in a deadline trade.
Still, the Tigers’ biggest weakness entering the postseason appears to be the Nos. 3 and 4 spots. Max Scherzer tends to be either dominant or lousy, and Rick Porcello has poor career numbers against Boston, the likeliest first-round opponent.
5. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS (Ian Kennedy)
The Arizona rotation has improved as the season progressed, maintaining a 3.53 ERA since the beginning of August, according to STATS LLC.
Kennedy, the 19-game winner, has already surpassed his career high for innings, but his performance hasn’t suffered. The same is true for fellow starter Daniel Hudson, who’s actually enjoying his best month of the season.
Joe Saunders, the lone Arizona starter with postseason experience, will be counted on to provide stability in the playoffs – particularly with rookie Josh Collmenter struggling in September.
6. MILWAUKEE BREWERS (Yovani Gallardo)
Gallardo has had an uneven September – 2-2, 5.32 ERA – but Zack Greinke seems to be peaking at precisely the right time. Randy Wolf, the Milwaukee pitcher with the most postseason experience, has a 3.17 ERA since the All-Star break.
Shaun Marcum is the man to watch. He battled shoulder tightness in spring training and is about to extend his season into October for the first time as a big leaguer. If he pitches to his capability, the Brewers should reach the NLCS.
7. NEW YORK YANKEES (CC Sabathia)
The Yankees’ rotation has been an unknown all season. Why change now?
Rookie Ivan Nova – who was sent to the minors at midseason – has actually been the Yankees’ second-best starter after Sabathia. He appears to have a lock on a postseason roster spot.
Beyond him, a pinstriped tempest brews. Phil Hughes has been affected by back spasms, just when it seemed he was regaining his consistency. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia seem to be tiring. A.J. Burnett is as enigmatic as ever.
8. ATLANTA BRAVES (Tim Hudson)
At one point, the Braves were a trendy pick to win the World Series. No more.
Tommy Hanson (shoulder) and Jair Jurrjens (knee) haven’t pitched in September because of injuries. Unless this rotation gets very healthy – very quickly – Atlanta is staring at another first-round exit.
Rookies Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Brandon Beachy have started three of the Braves’ past five games. Veteran Derek Lowe’s postseason reliability is one of his greatest attributes, but he has an ERA near 5.00 and couldn’t finish the third inning in his most recent start.
9. BOSTON RED SOX (Jon Lester)
Rookie right-hander Kyle Weiland will start the opener of Monday’s crucial doubleheader against the Orioles … and he’s going to do it on short rest.
Weiland is 0-2 with a 7.58 ERA this season. He has thrown six innings in a major-league game exactly once, and that happened in July.
Is there any surer sign of a rotation at the breaking point?
Injuries are the primary reason for Boston’s late-season slide, with Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka unavailable and Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard missing September starts. The supposed team for the ages should have enough depth to withstand those setbacks, but the Red Sox farm system has failed to produce a Hellickson or Harrison type.
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