Who can you trust?

It takes more than a great closer to win in October. Strong 'pens need matchup specialists and setup men, too.

Originally Published: September 29, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

It takes more than a great closer to win in October. It takes matchup specialists and setup men, too. With a week to go, we ranked the contenders based on bullpen strength and simple math: if you've got the lead and you can get 27 outs, you win. We've factored in how many outs each team can expect from its starters and critical relievers, and just how good and deep these pens are. The AL locks are praying the Angels don't make the round of eight. Here's why.

1. Angels
Whatever happened to the artist known as K-Rod? As Troy Percival will attest, the 2002 Series star is doing just fine, thank you (118 K's in 81.1 IPs).

  • From the left: The Angels have no lefty relievers; it's their only real weakness.

  • From the right: Francisco Rodriguez blows away righties, who have 18 hits and 67 strikeouts against him. Scot Shields has fanned 56 righties.

  • X factor: Brendan Donnelly came back in June from a broken nose, threw well in July-August, then struggled in September. Ex-steel mill worker Kevin Gregg could supplant him.

  • Stretching the closer: There's little need for Percival to overextend himself. Five prime guys who've combined for 387 strikeouts in 350 innings -- that'll kill some rallies.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 16 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Troy Percival
    Percival

    Donnelly (3 outs): Injured much of the year, threw well in August, struggled in early September. Gregg could supplant him.

    Rodriguez (5 outs): Best AL reliever other than Rivera.

    Percival (3 outs): He's got the heart, as always. The stuff, that's another matter. The Rally Monkey will be holding his breath a bit.

    2. Twins
    Quality closer Joe Nathan leads a bunch of hard throwers. And when Johan Santana starts, they know they'll enter with a lead, if they come in at all.

  • From the left: J.C. Romero went from June 12 to Sept. 12 without allowing a run. Sweet.

  • From the right: Juan Rincon may be the league's most underrated player; opponents hit .145 against him in late-inning situations, and he's held right-handers to a .205 BA.

  • X factor: Rookie Jesse Crain brings serious heat, is death to right-handers (.167 BA), and handled nearly every situation Ron Gardenhire threw at him. He figures to get more.

  • Fear factor: This 'pen features several relievers who've never faced playoff pressure. But that doesn't bother the Twins.


    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 20 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Joe Nathan
    Nathan

    Rincon (2 outs): Maybe the most underrated AL player this year.

    Romero (2 outs): Blistering hot. Holding righties to meager .204 average.

    Nathan (3 outs): He proved he could be a standout closer in the regular season. Now he must prove himself in October.

    3. Cardinals
    Closer Jason Isringhausen is more dominant when pitching on zero days' rest (9 H, 1 ER in 18.1 IPs). That's big in October.

  • From the left: Steve Kline and Ray King aren't big on K's, but they're holding lefties to a combined .150 BA. King buckles a hitter's knees with his nasty side-slinging delivery.

  • From the right: Julian Tavarez has allowed one homer all season, and Izzy has handcuffed righties (.192 BA).

  • Fear factor: Kline went on the DL in August with a groin injury; before that, he was having one of his best seasons. They need him.

  • X factor: The rotation started to show some cracks in September. A great bullpen isn't worth much if it doesn't inherit leads.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 20 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Jason Isringhausen
    Isringhausen

    King (1 out): Nasty side-slinging lefty buckles the knees of lefty hitters with his funky delivery.

    Tavarez (1 out): Had some trouble in road games this year, a recurring theme in his career.

    Kline (1 out): His August injury could hamper his effectiveness.

    Isringhausen (4 outs): Even better on the road with 1.34 ERA away from Busch.

    4. Yankees
    If you want to beat the Yankees, you'd better get 'em early. In 99 playoff games since 1996, they've blown only four saves -- just two by Mariano Rivera.

  • From the left: No reliable lefty? No big deal. Rivera and Tom Gordon are effective against lefties and righties, anyway.

  • From the right: Righties have hit .400 off Paul Quantrill since Aug. 1, so Joe Torre may have to turn to, gulp, Tanyon Sturtze.

  • X factor: Hard-throwing Steve Karsay is returning from shoulder surgery. Torre would love for the $6M man to replace Quantrill in middle-inning matchups.

  • Stretching the closer: Almost half of Rivera's postseason saves and wins have required four outs or more. He can handle it.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 17 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Mariano Rivera
    Rivera

    Quantrill (2 outs): Opposing batters are hitting .354 against Quantrill since the All-Star break.

    Gordon (4 outs): Thrown the most relief innings of his career, and he's pitching tired.

    Rivera (4 outs): The best ever. Career postseason ERA of 0.86.

    5. Red Sox
    Name the last team that won a World Series with a soft-tossing closer like Keith Foulke. (Yeah, we couldn't, either.)

  • From the left: Sidearmer Mike Myers (1.04 ERA in September) could supplant Alan Embree against tough lefty hitters.

  • From the right: Scott Williamson is very effective with his hard slider, holding righties to a .119 BA. Just hope his elbow holds out.

  • X factor: Ramiro Mendoza proved his playoff mettle with the Yanks, and starter Tim Wakefield has pitched well in relief in the past (well, except for that Aaron Boone incident).

  • Stretching the closer: Foulke has had seven saves of more than an inning this year.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 20 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Keith Foulke
    Foulke

    Williamson (1 out): Ravaged by injuries -- a doubt, sometimes. When he's on, he's great.

    Embree (1 out): Never been a period this year when he was lights-out good.

    Mike Timlin (2 outs): He's got a 6.86 ERA against other AL contenders this year, and struggled after the break.

    Foulke (3 outs): Shaky of late with 4.63 ERA in September.

    6. Braves
    John Smoltz gets all the attention, but Chris Reitsma holds the key. He throws strikes, and opponents hit just .174 with RISP against him.

  • From the left: Tom Martin, the lefty specialist, struggles against lefties (.316 BA).

  • From the right: None of the middle relievers in regular rotation will blow you away. Enemy hitters should get plenty of good hacks.

  • X factor: If Bobby Cox is willing to trust flamethrowing Juan Cruz in a more prominent role, he could generate valuable midgame strikeouts (8.83 K's/9 IPs).

  • Stretching the closer: Smoltz has had 16 save chances of 1.1 innings or more; he's converted 15. But he got knocked around in September. Will his elbow hold up?

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 18 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    John Smoltz
    Smoltz

    Martin (1 out): Allowed 49 hits in 43-plus innings. A contact pitcher.

    Antonio Alfonseca (2 outs): He's been around forever, got a World Series ring, throws strikes. Not overpowering, though.

    Reitsma (2 outs): Little known and underrated, he took pressure off Smoltz all year.

    Smoltz: (4 outs): One of the best postseason pitchers of all time, he's gotten hit around a bit down the stretch. But Braves were in a position to rest him.

    7. Dodgers
    Eric Gagne has 113 K's, more than several LA starters. He and rookie Yhency Brazoban have the right stuff to strand runners.

  • From the left: Opposing lefties have lit up Wilson Alvarez, hitting .318 with six jacks.

  • From the right: With Giovanni Carrara fading, Jim Tracy might have to summon Gagne vs. right-handers, who hit .135 against him, in the eighth. Whither Guillermo Mota?

  • X factor: Rookie right-hander Edwin Jackson can overmatch hitters. If Carrara and Alvarez falter, he's the next option.

  • Stretching the closer: Gagne wore down in August, then bounced back after five days off. He can be effective for more than an inning, but not necessarily day after day.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 17 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Eric Gagne
    Gagne

    Brazoban (3 outs): Promoted from minor leagues into setup role after trade of Guillermo Mota and injury to Darren Dreifort. But he's got just over 30 innings in the big leagues.

    Alvarez (1 out): Had a tough season for what was supposed to be a strength -- getting lefties out.

    Carrara (2 out): Pulled off the scrap heap, he pitched great in July and August, but seemed to be fading in September, allowing 16 hits over 14 innings.

    Gagne (4 outs): Rebounded late in the season to his good 'ol overpowering self, striking out 21 in 16.1 innings in September.

    8. Astros
    Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt will stay in their games beyond exhaustion, and only then will Phil Garner turn to his thin bullpen.

  • From the left: Mike Gallo has been the bullpen's only consistent lefty this season, but in a tough spot, Garner would probably use one of his righties, instead.

  • From the right: Opposing right-handed hitters had 150 at-bats against Lidge, and a ridiculous 86 strikeouts. Dan Miceli does most of his damage against RHs, as well.

  • X factor: Somehow, Lidge needs to get some rest, between off-days and one-sided games. If every day becomes a dogfight, he will be taxed heavily.

  • Fear factor: Miceli pitched in the '98 postseason and did fine, but overall, the Astros' relievers are largely untested in pressure situations.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 20 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Brad Lidge
    Lidge

    Chad Qualls (1 outs): The strike-throwing rookie developed a nice little niche down the stretch, earning Garner's trust.

    Miceli (2 outs): He's got experience, he throws strikes, he's had a decent year. There must be a reason why Houston is his ninth team.

    Brad Lidge (4 outs): Shoulders the heaviest burden of any NL reliever, and the question will be whether he can hold up physically and mentally.

    9. Cubs
    Relying on LaTroy Hawkins is like riding on one of those thin spare tires. You just hope you can keep moving forward without a blowout.

  • From the left: Kent Mercker holds opponents to a .203 BA, but batters have hit .353 with RISP vs. Mike Remlinger.

  • From the right: Kyle Farnsworth can be very good or very wild, which is why the Cubs might lean on fearless Ryan Dempster and his slider; righties hit .214 against him.

  • X factor: Spot starter Glendon Rusch has been even more effective in relief (3.41 ERA). Better yet, he'll take the ball anytime.

  • Fear factor: Hawkins enters his first postseason as a closer having blown six of 10 save ops with a one-run lead. Ouch.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 21 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    LaTroy Hawkins
    Hawkins

    Mercker (1 out): Pitched sparingly down the stretch. Does Dusty know something he's not telling us?

    Dempster (1 out): Fearless veteran attacks hitters and ascended into effective middle man late in the year.

    Remlinger (1 out): Pitched OK through a season shortened by injury. Veteran.

    Hawkins (3 outs): His 1.84 ERa in September is a good sign. Can he carry that over to October?

    10. Giants
    Newly minted closer Dustin Hermanson was deadly in September, but he flopped in the role earlier in his career.

  • From the left: Scott Eyre has held lefties to a .198 BA, five walks in 96 ABs, but nine of the 19 hits he's allowed them are for extra bases.

  • From the right: Hermanson (.246) and Jim Brower (.220) fare well in righty matchups.

  • X factor: Felipe Alou has a tendency to overwork his relievers before they enter a game. If the Giants have a lot of activity in the bullpen, they're in trouble.

  • Fear factor: Everything has to go right. The Giants must squeeze every possible out from their starters to minimize chances for Matt Herges and Co. to put runners on.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 20 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Dustin Hermanson
    Hermanson

    Herges (1 out): Worked heavily early, got ripped, lost his closer's role, but he's one of the few veterans Felipe Alou can rely on.

    Eyre (1 out): Lefties don't get many hits off him, but the hits he does allow tend to go a long way.

    Brower (1 out): The most reliable Giants' reliever from start to finish, but he'll give up a lot of baserunners, and that's usually trouble in October.

    Hermanson (4 outs): Is far from a sure thing, but has shown he can get the job done most of the time. Has 14 saves in 17 chances.

    11. Athletics
    With this kerosene pen (26 blown saves), the Big Three had better be on their games.

  • From the left: Ricardo Rincon is good for one hitter. Arthur Rhodes should dominate left-handers, but they nail him (.314 BA).

  • From the right: Screwball makes Jim Mecir tough, especially vs. lefties (.221). Righties hit just .213 vs. submariner Chad Bradford.

  • Fear factor: Bad things happen to Rhodes in New York. If the A's play the Yankees, he might as well stay home.

  • Stretching the closer: Octavio Dotel is one of only two A's relievers who average a K an inning.

    The Principle Way To 27 Outs ...
    Starters 19 outs. Bullpen breakdown:

    Octavio Dotel
    Dotel

    Rhodes (1 out): Might be bypassed altogether.

    Bradford (1 out): Pitched well late in the year, but you'll get good swings against him.

    Mecir (1 out): Screwball makes him tough against lefties. Perfect one-and-done guy.

    Rincon (1 out): Control can abandon him quickly. If you ask for more than one batter, you might be asking for trouble.

    Dotel (4 outs): First try as a postseason closer, and he's vulnerable to good left-handed hitters -- and he'll see a lot of those in October.

    Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

    Buster Olney | email

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine