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Right place, not right stuff

A few notes while wondering if great pitching really does beat great hitting ...

Position of opportunity
Will the 2003 postseason put to rest forever the notion that the ability to protect a small lead in the ninth inning is reserved for a chosen few, blessed by the almighty with both great stuff and the right stuff?

Granted, there may well be pitchers who can't pitch in the ninth because they're emotionally incapable of pitching (effectively) in the ninth. But the common wisdom seems to be that those guys are the rule, when I suspect that instead they're the exception.

Entering the 2003 season, Tim Worrell had pitched in 402 major-league games, and saved exactly seven of them.

Entering the 2003 season, Joe Borowski had pitched in 130 major-league games, and saved exactly two of them.

In 2003, both were thrust in the role of closer: Worrell by necessity, Borowski by choice. Of course, both have thrived. Worrell finished the season with 38 saves and a 2.87 ERA, Borowski 33 and 2.63.

So that's two closers, representing half the National League's postseason teams. And you know, we could throw John Smoltz into that mix, too. After all, Smoltz didn't record his first regular-season save until August of 2001, when he was 34 years old. He seems to have made the adjustment, though.

The famed "closer mentality" is a crock. If you've got the talent and the opportunity -- to borrow from Ron Shandler's play book -- the mentality ("Guile") will usually show up for the ride. Just ask Dusty Baker and Felipe Alou.

Twins in driver's seat
In a similar vein, I couldn't help but be amused when the Yankees did their best to kick Tuesday's game away. Not because it's fun watching them lose (it is), or because if they continue to lose it's good news for the A's and Red Sox (it is). No, I amused myself with thoughts of what the pundits would have said if it were the Twins making all those mistakes.

We know what they would have said, because the said it last year during and after Game 2 of the Twins' Division Series against the Athletics, in which the Twins looked like they couldn't beat the junior varsity squad from St. Mary's of the Blind. They said the Twins were inexperienced (which they were) and jittery (which they were not).

Of course, the Twins lost Game 3, but came back to win Games 4 and 5 before getting blown out by the Angels in the Championship Series.

Anyway, Tuesday it was the Yankees who looked like they'd never played in such a big stadium before ... and it don't mean a thing. All we learned from Game 2 is that on Sept. 30, 2003, the Twins played a better game than the Yankees. And that LaTroy Hawkins has a great fastball.

Has the equation changed in this series? Sure it has. Even if we assume the Twins aren't as good as the Yankees, we still have to consider the Twins the favorites now. Simply put, here's the question: If there are four games left, are we more likely to see the Yankees win twice, or three times? And considering the Twins are a good team, a split of the four games is the most likely outcome.

My gut tells me the Yankees are going to have their way with Brad Radke on Thursday and Kyle Lohse on Saturday. But my brain tells me the Yankees are in a fair spot of trouble.

Gillick's fault?
This concerns the postseason just peripherally, but it occurred to me that a significant percentage of people are going to consider Pat Gillick to have been a failure in his tenure as the Mariners' general manager, because 1) the 2001 M's won 116 games but didn't reach the World Series, and 2) the M's didn't reach the postseason in either 2002 or 2003.

Those are facts. Here are a few more:

  • Gillick's been running the show for four seasons. Over the course of those four seasons, the Mariners lead the major leagues with 393 wins.

  • In 2002, the Mariners won 93 games while playing in perhaps the toughest division in the majors.

  • In 2003, the Mariners won 93 games again and finished with the best run differential in the majors.

    Did Gillick put together a perfect team every year? No, but how many general managers accomplish that Sisyphean goal?

    Considering how much money and talent he had to play around with, I think Gillick can be faulted for not putting a slightly better team together, especially this year (he should have learned his lesson last year). But to run a team for four seasons and average 98 wins per season ... well, that's about the best you're going to find. As good as the Yankees have been and as much money as they've spent, they can't quite match what the M's have done in the 21st century. In the regular season, that is.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.