Commentary

NL East race being decided by relief pitching

Originally Published: September 22, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It isn't September of 2007 that hangs over the Mets' psyches anymore. It's their bullpen of 2008.

NL EAST
TEAM RECORD GB
Philadelphia 88-68 --
New York 86-69
NL WILD CARD
TEAM RECORD GB
New York 86-69 --
Milwaukee 85-71
For more on the races, see Hunt for October.
We've talked a lot this month about the Mets' 2007 nightmare. But the more we watch this 2008 edition, the more we're convinced: This year, their biggest problem is a whole different nightmare.

Bad memories, you can stomp out. Bad bullpens … eh, not so much. These Mets are living proof.

So with every day that goes by, every late-inning lead that slips away, it becomes more apparent that bullpen success, or lack thereof, is going to wind up being the difference in the National League East.

That difference is now 1½ games, after a Mets loss in Atlanta and a Phillies win in Florida on Sunday. But if all games ended after six innings, those NL East standings would look a whole lot different.

In fact, according to Bill James Online, here's how those standings would look if games were six innings:

Teams W-L GB
Mets 84-52 --
Phillies 71-62 11½

Yep, you read that right. If games were six innings, the Mets would be leading this division by 11½ games.

OK, suppose all games were eight innings. Here's how those standings would shake out:

Teams W-L GB
Mets 83-59 --
Phillies 75-64

Mind-boggling, isn't it? How gigantic are those last three outs? Gigantic enough to cause an eight-game swing in the standings. Gigantic enough, in other words, to change everything about this race.

Thanks to the best closer in baseball this year, Brad Lidge (sorry about that, K-Rod), the Phillies are 75-0 when they lead after eight innings. Their bullpen has blown just 15 saves (in 61 opportunities), fewest in the NL.

On the other hand, thanks to a bullpen that has lost its closer and has lost all sense of stability, the Mets have lost seven games they led after eight innings and 14 games they led at some point in the eighth inning or later. Their bullpen has blown 29 saves (in 71 opportunities), the second-most in the league, behind St. Louis.

So how ominous is that? Well, the good news for the Mets is that the 2007 Rockies also blew 29 saves -- and reached the World Series.

Now here's the bad news: Those Rockies are the only team in history that blew that many saves in a season and went on to win a postseason series (since the inception of the modern save rule).

So let's say this again: The difference in the NL East isn't that 2007 hangover. It's relief pitching, pure and simple.

GAMES TO WATCH
• Rays at Orioles, 7:05 p.m. ET Talk about it
• Indians at Red Sox, 7:05 p.m. ET Talk about it
• Braves at Phillies, 7:05 p.m. ET Talk about it
• Cubs at Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET Talk about it
• D-backs at Cardinals, 8:15 p.m. ET Talk about it

"Both those bullpens are fried at this point, but the Phillies' is less fried -- and they have Brad Lidge," one NL scout said. "The difference between these two teams, really, is Brad Lidge. And even if Billy Wagner was still healthy, the difference is Brad Lidge."

After Sunday, Lidge is 40-for-40 in save conversions this year. If he makes it through this week without a blown save, he'll join Eric Gagne (55-for-55 in 2003) as the only closers in history to save at least 40 games in a season and blow none.

Sunday in the NL East

On Sept. 10, the Mets held a 3½-game lead over the Phillies. Since then, the Mets have gone 4-6. The Phillies have gone 9-1. … Opposing hitters have batted .224 against the Phillies in that span. And the Phillies have had to go to their middle relievers just 26 times. … The Mets' staff has had a slightly different result. Opposing hitters are batting .301 over the past 10 games. And the Mets have had to use their middle relievers 34 times. The ERA of Mets relievers in those 10 games: 7.29. Sunday was the fifth time this month the Mets have used six relief pitchers in one game.

Chase Utley

Utley

Game-turning moments Sunday: Chase Utley put the Phillies ahead early with a two-run homer off dazzling Marlins rookie Chris Volstad. Before that, Utley hadn't homered since Aug. 22. Volstad had allowed just two home runs in 73 1/3 innings. … The Phillies' other big hit came from Pedro Feliz, who thumped a two-run homer in the eighth after the starting third baseman, Greg Dobbs, had to leave with a calf injury. How hot are the Phillies? They double-switched after the injury, but manager Charlie Manuel played a hunch and left Feliz in Dobbs' spot in the lineup instead of in the 9-hole and got a home run out of it. "Our timing on stuff is tremendous right now," Lidge told the Camden Courier Post's Mike Radano afterward. "Whether it's a guy getting a cramp in his calf or whatever, it's all working well." … On the other hand, Mets manager Jerry Manuel chose to intentionally walk the injured Chipper Jones (sore shoulder) Sunday to load the bases with two outs in the eighth. Martin Prado followed with a game-breaking two-run double off Aaron Heilman.

Prince Fielder

Fielder

Elsewhere in the National League

The Brewers' 10-game, three-city trip to Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati couldn't have been more disastrous (eight losses, plus one lost manager). But they did win Sunday, thanks to 5 2/3 shutout innings from their beleaguered bullpen and a big, two-hit, three-RBI day from Prince Fielder. When they started the trip, Fielder hadn't homered in a month. But he has hit .447 since, with five homers, seven doubles, 14 RBIs and a .533 on-base percentage. The Brewers are back to within 1½ games in the wild-card race and play out the rest of the week at home, against the Pirates and the Cubs. The Brewers (5-15 this month) have to go 3-3 this week to avoid going down in history with the worst September record by any team that finished with a winning record since 1900. Current record holders: the 1977 Twins (7-18, .280 winning percentage).

Don't wave goodbye to Arizona quite yet. The Diamondbacks blew out Colorado 13-4 on Sunday to finish off a 6-1 week -- while the Dodgers were losing their second 1-0 extra-inning game in a week to San Francisco. The Dodgers did score 10 runs Saturday, but they've scored one or none three times in their past eight games. So Arizona is within 2½ games with seven to play. But their seven are against the Cardinals and the Rockies. The Dodgers close it out against the Padres and the Giants.

Meanwhile, in the American League

The Red Sox shut out Toronto on Sunday, while Tampa Bay was losing to Minnesota. So the Red Sox -- who clinched a tie for the wild card Sunday -- are just 1½ games back in the AL East. The Rays now have to hit the road for eight games in seven days, while Boston spends the final week at home.

The question is, how much energy will the Red Sox expend to try to finish first? Our guess is not much -- not if it means overtaxing their pitching staff, anyway. The Red Sox remember 2005 all too well, when they went into the final day of the season trying to hang onto first place, lost to the Yankees and wound up getting swept by the White Sox in the division series. If faced with that scenario again, they should know that since 2000, 11 wild-card teams have finished within four games of the team that won their division. How much did it hurt them to finish second? Nada. Six of the 11 went to the World Series.

The Twins won in Tampa Bay on Sunday, ending their grueling stretch of 24 of 30 on the road. The Twins won the first and last road games in that span. In between, they went 7-15. Now, they get to play three pivotal games at home against the White Sox, Tuesday through Thursday. But the Twins used their one hot starter, Francisco Liriano, on Sunday -- meaning their three starting pitchers in this series all are scuffling.

Scott Baker (two wins in his past 10 starts) opposes Javier Vazquez on Tuesday. Nick Blackburn (one win in his past eight starts) takes on Mark Buehrle on Wednesday. Kevin Slowey (one win in his past four starts) duels Gavin Floyd on Thursday. The White Sox pitched all three of those guys on short rest last time out, but Monday's off day gets them back on normal rest for this series.

Jair Jurrjens

Jurrjens

Get out your schedules

Your biggest pennant-race games on Monday's schedule: Phillies rookie J.A. Happ (six shutout innings Wednesday in Atlanta) gets a rematch with the Braves in Philadelphia. Braves starter Jair Jurrjens tossed eight innings of zeroes against the Phillies the last time he visited Philadelphia (July 25). … The Mets kick off Shea Stadium's final regular-season homestand with a four-game series against the Cubs, who have already clinched. Mets rookie Jon Niese (8 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 7 K against Atlanta in his previous start) opposes Jason Marquis. Marquis, a native New Yorker, is 2-2 with a 4.70 lifetime ERA at Shea and hasn't won there since 2004. The Cubs spend the week playing the Mets and the Brewers. And manager Lou Pinella promised Sunday: "We're going to have to play representative lineups because it's not fair to the other clubs [if we don't]." … One of the biggest potential X factors in October, Rays phenom David Price, will make his first career start Monday in Baltimore. Price whiffed two of the three Twins he faced in a relief outing over the weekend. … Josh Beckett, who has a 0.94 ERA in three starts since Dr. James Andrew reassured him that his elbow was OK, faces the surging Indians in Fenway. In case you hadn't noticed, the Indians now are a game over .500 (78-77). They were 16 games under as recently as July 9. So they can wreak some havoc with their final-week duels with the Red Sox and the White Sox. … Off Monday: Twins, White Sox, Dodgers, Brewers.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com