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Schilling gives Red Sox an edge

Over the course of the 162-game season, pitching is critical. Think otherwise? Check out the team pitching leaders.

In the American League, the teams with the best staff ERA (Minnesota), third-best (Boston), fourth-best (Anaheim) and sixth-best (New York) are headed to the postseason.

Meanwhile, the club with the second-lowest ERA was eliminated in Game No. 161, and the team with the fifth-best was knocked out with four days remaining in the season.

Then, when the playoffs arrive, a curious thing happens: pitching becomes even more important. In a short series, pitching can dominate and carry an otherwise flawed team. Or make a good team great.

"Our whole (October success) has been based on pitching, especially our starting pitching,'' says Yankee manager Joe Torre.

With that in mind, here's a look at the starting staffs of the four AL playoff teams, ranked from strongest to weakest.

1. Red Sox
For years, the Red Sox rested their championship hopes on the slight frame of Pedro Martinez. Since Martinez arrived in Boston, some of his fellow October starters have included Pete Schourek and John Burkett.

But this fall, Martinez has been supplanted by 21-game winner Curt Schilling, with Martinez bumped to No. 2.

Schilling sports a 1.66 career ERA in the postseason and was, of course, the co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. He's traditionally risen to October challenges.

"That's one of the things I take a lot of pride in,'' he said. "Quality starts (three runs or less over six innings or more) are losses in September and October. Pitching in the late season in a pennant race and going into the postseason, it's not about pitching well; it's about pitching great and playing great. If you don't step it up, you go home earlier than other teams.

Martinez, meanwhile, begins the Division Series with a personal four-game losing streak, his longest in 10 years. Worse, he has been exhibiting some self-doubt of late, showing frustration over his inability to beat the Yankees and, in a self-deprecating moment following his start Wednesday against the Devil Rays, joked that "I should actually pitch fifth or not even pitch in the playoffs if I continue to pitch'' as poorly as he has recently.

Manager Terry Francona makes clear he has full confidence in Martinez.

"He's going to get the ball for Game 2,'' said Francona, "and I'm very, very happy about that.''

Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield will, in some order, pitch Games 3 and 4. Arroyo has never started a postseason game, but finished with a respectable 4.01 ERA. After a poor stretch for much of September, Wakefield was strong in his final start. It's easy to forget, but Wakefield would likely have been named the ALCS MVP last October had Game 7 turned out differently.

2. Twins

This much is certain: the Twins have the single most dominant pitcher in either league in lefty Johan Santana, who hasn't lost in the second half and won his last 13 decisions.

Santana might be this year's Orel Hershiser or Josh Beckett.

"He's absolutely filthy right now,'' said one AL scout. "Good luck to anyone getting him twice in a five-game series.''

Where to begin with Santana's brilliance? He leads the league in strikeouts, opposing batting average against and strikeouts per nine innnings.

The Twins seem uncertain about their rotation beyond Game 3. After Santana, they'll start Brad Radke and Carlos Silva. The Twins had originally signaled that they would go with a three-man rotation, and bring Santana and Radke back for Games 4 and 5.

But more recently, they seem to have hedged their bets, saying that Santana would only pitch Game 4 if the Twins faced elimination. Otherwise, Kyle Lohse would be the choice.

Radke is experienced, and finished with the leagues fourth-best ERA. Silva, obtained from the Phillies for Eric Milton last winter, proved a nice addition, winning 14 games. Lohse, however, has repeatedly tested manager Ron Gardenhire's patience.

Depth, though, shouldn't be an issue. Given Santana's dominance, the Twins may only have to figure out how to win just one other game.

3. Angels

After going with a four-man rotation down the stretch, during which they overtook Oakland and won the AL West title, the Angels are talking about the possibility of a nine-man staff for the first round. Having Ramon Ortiz in the bullpen gives them options.

Jarrod Washburn, who would have started Sunday had the Angels lost to the A's on Saturday, will pitch the opener Tuesday against Boston, to be followed by Bartolo Colon in Game 2.

Kelvim Escobar is the choice for Game 3, with John Lackey a possibility for Game 4. One mitigating factor: Lackey has a 5.72 road ERA, compared to 3.48 at Angel Stadium.

For Game 5, they could go to Washburn on regular rest, or have the option of using Colon on three days' rest, though that seems a risky proposition. He did that for Cleveland in 1999 and failed, and his typically high pitch count won't help matters. In general, the gambit seldom pays off -- Beckett last October notwithstanding, finishing off the Yankees in the Bronx in Game 6 when Marlins manager Jack McKeon didn't want to let the Yanks off the mat.

"Remember,'' says one general manager, "(the Angels) won't be asking much more than five or six (innings) out of their starters.''

Indeed, with Anaheim's bullpen, it will be the starters' job to merely keep it close since when the game gets turned over to Brendan Donnelly, Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival, the pressure is on the opponent.

Keep an eye on Colon, who pitched far better over the second half, winning 10 games after the All-Star break. But while Colon is capable of dominating, he can also be infuriating with his languid pace and inability to get ahead of hitters.

Escobar bears watching, as he has never pitched in the postseason. But again, the Angels will rise or fall based on their dominant relief staff and their relentless lineup.

4. Yankees
"Can the Yankees just have a six-man staff and go with 19 position players?'' asked a scout recently.

These are not the Yankees that won three World Series in a row. Heck, these aren't even the Yankees of a year ago, who boasted Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Roger Clemens, all big game pitchers.

Mike Mussina is the nearest thing they've got to a front-line starter, and his inconsistency, drop in velocity and increased reliance on his breaking stuff has the Yanks crossing their fingers.

Jon Lieber will get the start in Game 2. Beyond that? There's Kevin Brown, who had been considered a set-up option until Orlando Hernandez's shoulder began barking again in Toronto Friday night.

Don't underestimate the loss of El Duque, who was a remarkable postseason pitcher in his first Yankee incarnation, and who was 8-0 in his first 12 starts before his shoulder began to ache.

Javier Vazquez? Esteban Loaiza? The Yankees don't trust either, and for good reason.

The Yanks' best hope is that their lineup can get to Santana in the first round, and they can dispatch of the Twins quickly enough to buy some rest and recovery time for Brown and Hernandez. But even with the Yanks' offense, that's a lot to ask.

One thing is clear: the Yanks may need a lot of that firepower to advance beyond the ALDS. Once the hallmark of their championship teams, pitching is now an obvious weak spot.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.