Commentary

No real sure thing among National League closers

Originally Published: September 9, 2008
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

One year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers were 9-18 in August and fell too far behind in the pennant race.

This year they're 2-6 in September, thanks in part to closer Salomon Torres giving up three runs Monday night and blowing a save against the Reds. Not that anyone's particularly surprised. After all, it's Salomon Torres, right?

Before we pick on Torres, though, it's worth considering a couple of facts:

NL CENTRAL
TEAM RECORD GB
Chicago 86-57 --
Milwaukee 82-62 4.5
NL WILD CARD
TEAM RECORD GB
Milwaukee 82-62 --
Philadelphia 79-65 3
St. Louis 77-66 4.5
Houston 77-67 5
For more on the races, see Hunt for October.

One, before Monday night Torres hadn't given up more than two runs in a game all season. And two, he's not the only pennant-race closer who's not exactly lights-out.

He can't be. There are still 11 teams with significant chances of reaching the playoffs. We know there aren't 11 great closers in the majors … and even if there were, they wouldn't be perfectly distributed to the playoff teams.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to learn that most of the great closers are in the American League, and most of the shaky ones are in the National League. After all, the American League has most of the best hitters and starting pitchers; why shouldn't they have most of the best relievers, too?

Only five American League teams are in the running for playoff spots, and four of them feature outstanding closers. The Red Sox have Jonathan Papelbon, the White Sox have Bobby Jenks, the Twins have Joe Nathan, and the Angels have record-setting Francisco Rodriguez. Only the Rays, with Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler accounting for most of the saves, don't feel practically automatic when they're asked to preserve a one-run lead in the ninth.

It's a different story in the National League.

Torres is far from a household name. He's 36, and entering this season he'd never saved more than 12 games in one season. He's the Brewers' closer only because Eric Gagne has been a total bust.

While Torres' 2.74 ERA is decent enough -- even after Monday night's disaster -- he has blown six saves, and his 46 strikeouts in 72 innings don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of the Brewers' enemies. Can you imagine what the announcers will say if it's Torres facing David Ortiz or Vladimir Guerrero at a key moment in the World Series?

But Torres isn't alone.

As you've no doubt heard, Billy Wagner's dead. Well, at least to the Mets in 2008 (and probably 2009, too). Wagner's old job has fallen to 30-year-old Luis Ayala, who's got five saves since joining the Mets last month. Before joining the Mets, Ayala had a 5.77 ERA with the Nationals this season and had nine career saves.

Kerry Wood, in his first season as the Cubs' closer, has done a credible job. But he has blown six saves, and he has been roughed up in each of his last two outings. Sure, it's probably just a blip … but can anyone really know? Considering Wood's checkered history?

GAMES TO WATCH
• Toronto at Chi. White Sox, 2:05 ET | Talk about it
• Florida at Philadelphia, 7:05 ET | Talk about it
• Tampa Bay at Boston, 7:05 ET | Talk about it
• Washington at NY Mets, 7:10 ET | Talk about it
• Cincinnati at Milwaukee, 8:05 ET | Talk about it
• Kansas City at Minnesota, 8:05 ET | Talk about it
• Chi. Cubs at St. Louis, 8:15 ET | Talk about it
• LA Dodgers at San Diego, 10:05 ET | Talk about it
• Arizona at San Francisco, 10:15 ET | Talk about it
For more on today's big games, see the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse.

The Dodgers did have one of the best closers in the game until Takashi Saito went down two months ago with an elbow injury. His replacement, Jonathan Broxton, has performed well in Saito's absence … but Saito may return to the roster later this week, at which point the strength of his elbow will still be an open question.

Whether the Dodgers' closer is Saito or Broxton, they figure to have a big edge in the NL West over the Diamondbacks, who have relied all season on Brandon Lyon. Unfortunately, Lyon hasn't exactly justified management's faith. He does have 26 saves. He also has a 4.76 ERA. You think he's just having a few rough months? Lyons' career ERA is 4.46, and he's got the low strikeout rate and high home-run rate to back it up.

That leaves just one National League team: the Phillies and Brad Lidge. Granted, Lidge has been unbeatable this season. Literally unbeatable. He hasn't lost one game or blown a single save.

Considering his history, though, don't you think there are still some doubters out there? Even on his own team? Is he likely to finish with a perfect season? (And if he does, doesn't he deserve Cy Young or even MVP consideration?)

In the American League, the pennant races are likely to be decided by hitters and starting pitchers. But not closers. Most of them are simply too good. Papelbon, Jenks and Nathan might all go the rest of the way without giving up a single big hit.

In the National League, though? I'm willing to bet that if one or more of the races goes down to the last weekend, one of the big stories is going to be a blown save.

What if they threw a pennant race …

And nobody showed up?

As the losses in the National League West pile up, we just consider the distinct possibility that the first-place finisher won't finish with more wins than losses. The first-place Dodgers have 18 games left; they need to win exactly half of them to finish above .500. The Diamondbacks have 19, and need to win 11.

Of course, we've seen this sort of thing before. In 2006, the Cardinals finished atop the NL Central with 83 wins. In 2005, the Padres won the NL West with 82 wins, had a losing record entering the season's final week, and wound up being outscored by 42 runs.

But those Padres weren't the worst division-winning team, and neither the Dodgers nor D-backs will take that honor this year. Everyone forgets about 1994 because of the strike, but when the season ended Aug. 12 the Rangers led the American League West with a 52-62 record and little promise of improvement.

What if they threw a pennant race …

And it hardly mattered?

The American League East has the makings of compelling drama, with the young and plucky (and cheap) Rays trying to fend off the defending world champions. Unfortunately, it's not likely that anyone except perhaps the most rabid citizens of Red Sox Nation are getting particularly worked up about this one. According to CoolStandings.com, both of the East's front-runners are nearly locks for playoff spots.

Mortal locks. Which has been the case for a few weeks now, realistically.

One thing has changed lately, though. Whether the Red Sox pass the Rays or not, they have pretty obviously established themselves as the team to beat once the tournament begins. With their recent surge, Boston sports the best run differential in the league by a hefty margin; their +158 is nearly double the Rays' +82, and even further ahead of the Angels' +66 (despite that team having the best record in the league).

The Cubs do have the best run differential in the majors; at +176 they're slightly ahead of the Red Sox. But considering the American League's general superiority, is there any doubt about who will be favored to win the World Series?

Rob Neyer writes for ESPN Insider and regularly updates his blog for ESPN.com. You can reach him via rob.neyer@dig.com.

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