In the middle of July, Ivan Nova was pitching for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, a Triple-A team, and Doug Fister was pitching for the last-place Seattle Mariners, an approximation of a Triple-A team. Tonight they get the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS with the entire seasons of the Yankees and Tigers reduced to how well they handle a sudden death game.
But here's the thing about getting the ball in these win-or-go-home games: the bullpens often decide these games. In the wild-card era (since 1995) starting pitchers in all sudden death postseason games are just 15-18. Relievers are 10-7.
In the regular season, the win will go to a starter about 70 percent of the time. But in sudden death postseason games, it drops to 60 percent. Here's another way to look at it: The Yankees have played 21 sudden death games in their long postseason history. Do you know how many times in those 21 games the starter got the win? Two. That's it. (Johnny Kucks in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series and Ralph Terry in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series).
So as long as Nova and Fister don't go all Gil Heredia on their clubs and let it get out of hand early, this looks like a bullpen game, and the edge there has to go to the Yankees.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland can't use an ineffective Al Alburquerque in a big spot and he won't use ace Justin Verlander. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he does have his ace, CC Sabathia, on his available list. More importantly, his last three relievers (Rafael Soriano, Dave Robertson and Mariano Rivera) are better than the Tigers' last three (Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde).
One more edge for New York in a close game: the Yankees are home. If the game does wind up tied going to the ninth inning, the home team never has to defend a lead. Home teams are 14-11 in sudden death games since 1995.
Rivera has thrown only 14 pitches in the past 10 days. That sounds like an awful lot of rust -- for the rest of pitching population. No rules apply to Rivera. He turns 42 next month and is as reliable as ever.
The Tigers somehow have played eight straight postseason games without allowing Rivera a save situation while seeing him pitch to only four batters. They probably need to extend that streak to a ninth straight game in order to continue playing.
Rivera, by the way, has pitched in six of the Yankees' eight winner-take-all games since 1995, getting four or more outs in four of them. He is 0-1 with two saves in three chances and a 1.00 ERA in nine innings in sudden death games.
Since Rivera became the Yankees' closer in 1997, they have won 18 postseason series. Rivera has been the team's finishing pitcher in all of those series except two. Can you name the only two Yankees pitchers during Rivera's reign to close out a series?
You are one serious Yankees fan if you know that Gabe White (2003 ALDS vs. Minnesota) and Ramiro Mendoza (1999 ALCS vs. Boston) took care of Rivera's usual closing act.
Leyland has ruled out using Verlander because he doesn't want to jeopardize any part of the future of someone he believes is a multiple Cy Young Award winner. Such respect is admirable. I'm just not sure why I would announce that a pitcher is unavailable and I'm not sure there isn't a way to use Verlander in a narrow way without putting his future at risk.
Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown . . . the list of starters who worked an emergency bullpen appearance in the playoffs is fairly long, and you don't have to go back into ancient history.
Leyland wants to win this game using three pitchers: Fister, Benoit and Valverde. He knows he probably has to run Coke in there, too, for a matchup against Robinson Cano. And he may need starter Max Scherzer to back up Fister early. After that? Where does he go? What if the game is tied and all of those best arms have been used? Would he use Verlander or his second-tier pitchers? It sounds as if Leyland would not use Verlander even in that circumstance.
Joe Saunders may disagree, but I loved the move in NLDS Game 4 when Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson pulled Saunders for a pinch-hitter with a two-run lead early in the game against the Brewers. Gibson's aggressiveness was rewarded with a two-run single by Colin Cowgill that put Arizona ahead 7-3 in a game they would win 10-6.
Saunders is Gibson's No. 4 starter. He was pitching decently, but it wasn't as if he had overwhelming stuff. Gibson was looking at a game in which he would have to outscore Milwaukee, and with two runners in scoring position and two outs, he had an opportunity to add runs to his pile.
The move made even more sense because Gibson had an off day today, so running his bullpen out there early in Game 4 wasn't as taxing as it might have seemed. The Diamondbacks are one win away from the NLCS precisely because Gibson instituted an aggressive, confident culture. It backfired when they let Prince Fielder beat them with a base open in Game 1. But it paid a reward in Game 4 with the two-run hit by Cowgill.