Punch your ticket with a top-notch 1-2-3 rotation
For the past several weeks, the baseball season has been all about waiting, hoping, praying and (in the New York Mets' case) regretting.Starting now, it all comes down to pitching. Of course, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira and other prominent hitters will have a big say in the proceedings. But the teams with the deepest, most balanced and most pressure-resistant starting contingents stand the best chance of making an extended October run. Which of the eight postseason rotations gives its team the best chance of going the distance? We looked at the 2008 numbers and factored in health, stuff, recent performance, postseason history, experience and workloads, and ranked the 1-2-3 starters on baseball's playoff teams from one through eight: John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders This rating is predicated on the "good" John Lackey making an appearance. That guy cut a swath through the American League after returning from a strained triceps in mid-May and made a strong run at the All-Star Game despite missing his first eight starts. Lately, Lackey has turned in too many no-shows. The Angels' ace has been up in the strike zone and lacked the usual crispness with his breaking ball, and that helps explain his 8.14 ERA in September. Lackey was torched for 12 hits in 2 2/3 innings by Texas in a particularly ugly start Friday. But Lackey is apparently healthy, and he showed it with 12 strikeouts in six innings against the Rangers two starts ago. "That was postseason John Lackey right there," Texas outfielder Marlon Byrd told reporters after the game. Said an AL personnel man: "That guy is such a damn bulldog, he'll be there when it comes time to grind. He stays with the game plan and he never gives in. I respect him a lot." Santana and Saunders saved the Angels in April and May when Lackey was on the DL and Kelvim Escobar went down with a shoulder injury. Santana, a disaster on the road in 2007, went 11-2 with a 3.02 ERA in away games this season. Saunders relies on deception, a low-90s fastball, an effective changeup and breaking ball, and a knack for working both sides of the plate. With the exception of a brief funk in late August, he's been a quality start machine. Depth is a staple of manager Mike Scioscia's rotation. The Angels also will have Jon Garland and Jered Weaver in the mix as October progresses, so they're in good shape the longer this thing goes. Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett Under typical circumstances, the Red Sox would rank first on this list, but Beckett's oblique injury could put a crimp in the team's expectations. While management is quietly optimistic that Beckett will pitch Game 3 of the first-round series with the Angels, the Red Sox know from Mike Lowell's recent oblique injury that these things tend to linger. And the injury is more likely to hinder a power pitcher like Beckett than, say, a finesse guy such as Paul Byrd. Beckett is 6-0 with a 1.73 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 72 2/3 postseason innings, so he's the rightful heir to the Curt Schilling-John Smoltz label as baseball's premier October starter. With this injury in the back of his mind (and possibly impeding his delivery), will Beckett feel self-assured enough to cut it loose in the playoffs? Can he maintain his confidence, his swagger and his stuff? Even if the answer is no, Boston is better equipped than most clubs to weather the loss. Lester pitched the World Series clincher last fall and threw a no-hitter against Kansas City in May. He and Matsuzaka have a combined record of 34-9 this season -- not bad for a pair of sidekicks. Tim Wakefield and Byrd, the next two guys in the rotation, have a combined 24 postseason appearances on their résumés (17 by Wakefield, seven by Byrd), so they're not about to get flustered by a little October scrutiny.
3. Chicago CubsRyan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden The Cubs lose points for uncertainty. Zambrano, the nominal ace, has been shelled in back-to-back outings since throwing 110 pitches in his no-hit victory over Houston two weeks ago. Nobody knows which Zambrano will show up for the postseason. Just as alarming, Harden's velocity is on hiatus. In his last outing, against the Mets, he began the game with seven straight changeups followed by an 87 mph fastball and rarely topped 90. For the sake of comparison, he consistently pitched at 91-94 mph and touched 97 during his first start as a Cub in mid-July. "I know it was a chilly night, but that's a stuff guy," a scout said. "He knows something is going on, and it looked like he was protecting himself heading into the playoffs. That scares me." Harden is 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in Chicago. But Cubs manager Lou Piniella knows hard stuff wins in the postseason, when the bats are a little slower, and Harden is a different pitcher than the guy who wowed them in Oakland. The Cubs are deep enough they might be able to sustain a dropoff by one of their two "stuff'' guys. Dempster, who has simplified his approach this year and done a better job of throwing strikes, is 14-3 with a 2.86 ERA at Wrigley Field. And Ted Lilly has been quite a productive sign for GM Jim Hendry at four years and $40 million. Lilly is tied with Dempster for the team lead with 17 wins, and he's pitched six innings of no-hit ball in two of his past three starts. Lilly could play a pivotal role if the Cubs face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Philadelphia's strong lefty lineup in the National League Championship Series. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza The Rays come up short in the experience department. None of the top four starters -- Shields, Kazmir, Garza and Andy Sonnanstine -- has a postseason inning on his résumé. It's a mystery how they'll react when they're on the biggest stage of all. Tampa's starters also have hit some potholes lately. After going 121 starts without surrendering four homers in a game, Kazmir has turned that neat trick in two of his past three outings. Kazmir's slider, certifiably nasty when he's on, has been inconsistent of late, and when it spins up there instead of snapping, it can go a long way in the wrong direction. But there's a lot to like about this group. Kazmir has a power arsenal from the left side, Garza can blow the ball past hitters from the right and Shields relies on one of baseball's best changeups as an outpitch. That's three distinctly different looks. "All three of those guys did it when it counted, and they have legitimate stuff," an AL scout said. "If they're ahead in the count, they're going to get some swings and misses out of the strike zone even against good teams." The Rays recently allowed Garza to skip a start so he could regroup, and his pitches were crisper in a five-inning tuneup against Detroit. Manager Joe Maddon told reporters Garza's stuff looked "fantastic." Tampa's starters posted a 61-45 record with a 3.95 ERA, fifth best in baseball, against some daunting lineups in the AL East. Rays pitchers also benefit from playing in front of a defense Baseball Prospectus ranks as the most efficient in the game. Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda Joe Torre's starting pitching has been awfully good of late. Lowe, Billingsley, Kuroda and lefty Clayton Kershaw, who might move to the bullpen to replace the injured Hong-Chih Kuo, were a combined 11-0 with a 2.51 ERA in September. Some of that was a product of inferior competition. While Tampa was taking on Boston, the Yankees and Toronto, Los Angeles was toying with Pittsburgh and some feeble NL West lineups down the stretch. The Dodgers won't have that luxury in the postseason; the Cubs led the NL in runs, Philadelphia ranked third and Milwaukee hit 198 home runs. The last time Lowe was pitching for a free-agent contract, he parlayed a big October with the Red Sox into a four-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers. Now he's ready to hit the open market again at age 35, and he's warming to the challenge. Lowe is 4-0 with a 0.50 ERA in his past six starts. If Torre adheres to the conventional wisdom that sinkerball pitchers are more effective with work, he'll lean toward bringing back Lowe on three days' rest rather than going with Greg Maddux or Kershaw in Game 4. Billingsley leads the Dodgers with 14 wins and 201 strikeouts, but he's thrown 805 more pitches this season than last season, and his past two outings were more of a grind for him. Kuroda, 33, has endured some ups and downs in his transition from Japan, but he's 1-1 with a 0.59 ERA in two starts against the Cubs. That includes a complete-game, 11-strikeout, four-hit masterpiece in a 3-0 victory over Chicago in June. Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer The good news: By clinching the NL East title Saturday, the Phillies avoided having to use Hamels on Sunday against Washington. Philadelphia's ace will be working on seven days' rest when he faces the Brewers in the NLDS opener. Reason to be wary: Hamels, rail thin at 6-3, 175 pounds, has thrown 44 more innings and 641 more pitches than last season. He had trouble keeping his ball down and locating his pitches at times in September, and that could be an issue if the Phillies make an extended October run. Myers, as usual, is pivotal for Philly. When he's spotting his fastball and his curve has the optimal bite, he can mow through opposing lineups. But when he tries to overpower hitters, his fastball straightens out and he can get whacked. Myers is so intense on the mound, he'll have to be conscious of harnessing his emotions before those sellout postseason crowds. Moyer, while velocity-challenged, is great at teasing opponents with his changeup and throwing inside enough to keep hitters honest. He's a tough matchup for the Brewers, who aren't especially big on plate discipline and selectivity. The Phillies are such a well-rounded team -- with sure-handed defense, a strong bullpen and the NL's second-most productive offense -- they can get by without lockdown starting pitching. Hamels and Myers are capable of throwing gems, but manager Charlie Manuel probably would be thrilled with garden-variety quality starts from this group. Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks File Chicago's rotation under "balanced, if unspectacular." Floyd, the perennial prospect, came of age this year and led the team with 17 wins. Danks, who pitched the White Sox into the playoffs with a tremendous effort against Minnesota on Tuesday, was tops in ERA at 3.32. And Buehrle is the unflappable workhorse and staff leader -- the guy manager Ozzie Guillen knows he can count on for seven solid innings more often than not. Javier Vazquez led the team with 200 strikeouts, but his most conspicuous moment came during the stretch run when Guillen questioned his ability to produce in big spots. Judging from Vazquez's 13.50 ERA in his last three starts of the regular season, he's not exactly brimming with confidence right now.
Buehrle, Floyd and Danks all pitched valiantly on short rest to get Chicago into the playoffs, so there are some weary arms in this group. Danks, at 23, enjoyed a national coming-out party with eight shutout innings against the Twins in Tuesday's one-game playoff for the AL Central. He's 2-1 with a 1.86 ERA in three starts against the Rays this year, so Carlos Pena and the boys are aware of what a handful he can be.
CC Sabathia, Yovani Gallardo, Jeff Suppan Sabathia is a thoroughbred. But at this point in the season, he must be feeling like Big Brown at the end of the Belmont. Does Sabathia have the endurance to maintain this pace? Does anyone? Last season, he ranked sixth in the majors with 3,582 regular-season pitches, and the workload finally caught up to him in October. His command deserted him, and he got cuffed around by the Yankees and Boston in the playoffs. This season, Sabathia easily leads the majors with 3,816 pitches. He's made his past three starts on three days' rest. And we're talking about high-stress, intense games in which every pitch is meaningful. He's achieved a lot on guts and adrenaline, but it's a lot to ask for him to remain this sharp for three more weeks. The Brewers plan to start Sabathia in games 2 and 5 against Philadelphia, so they'll have to plug the dike in the other three games. They'll take a flyer in the series opener on Gallardo, who hit 92-93 mph on the radar gun and displayed impressive command over four innings against Pittsburgh last week. But he missed almost five months because of knee surgery, and the Phillies would be wise to exercise patience and drive up his pitch count so they can exploit a hittable Milwaukee bullpen. If Ben Sheets is finished because of elbow problems, as it appears, the Brewers will turn to Suppan and Dave Bush at home. Suppan was superb in the 2006 postseason with St. Louis, but that 8.44 September ERA is worrisome. Bush allowed 29 homers this year, one fewer than Suppan. But he throws strikes, and he was 6-4 with a creditable 3.60 ERA at Miller Park. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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