Truth Be Told Beware conventional wisdom. Here are 10 myths of these October playoffs, and our expert is happy to dispel them

October 06, 2002

One night last week, over a postgame spread of barbecued chicken,
Atlanta Braves pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz
convened for a brotherly discussion--brotherly, that is, in the
manner of siblings wedged into the backseat of a station wagon on
a long, hot ride.

"You're an idiot," Glavine said to Smoltz.

Smoltz, ever the tinkerer on the mound, had just pitched the
ninth inning of a 7-1 win in Philadelphia, during which he had
sprinkled in a few two-seam sinking fastballs. "You said you
could tell I was throwing it," he said. "You said I was giving it
away."

"I said I could see you had a new wrinkle, you dummy," Glavine
said.

"That's not what you said," Smoltz said.

"I didn't say you were tipping it," Glavine said. "Leo [Mazzone,
the pitching coach] gave me a heads-up. Ninety-five [mph] on the
board for the four-seamer, 94 on the two. It looked like the
split."

"Well, good," Smoltz said. "If it looked like the split, that's
good."

Maddux, between bites, kept laughing from his sideline seat.
Among them the three have 679 wins, 92 postseason appearances,
seven Cy Young Awards, innumerable rounds of golf (including Pine
Valley that morning) and one enduring friendship. What, Smoltz
was asked, would he ever do without his two running mates?

"I don't even want to think about that," he said, "but I might
find out soon."

Are we there yet? The end of the road could be coming for this
band of brothers after 10 years. Glavine and Maddux are eligible
for free agency next month, and the Braves might decide that they
can't afford to re-sign both.

First, of course, is the matter of another postseason, the 11th
in a row for Atlanta. But during that stupendous run the Braves
have come away with just one world championship. You might think
that the bullpen, which Maddux called "the best we've ever had,
top to bottom," will decide whether Atlanta wins a ring this
year. Think again.

Conventional wisdom gets slapped around in October more than Jay
Witasick. This year will be no different, especially in a
democratic field of eight playoff teams who have each won between
94 and 103 games. For instance, the Braves' bullpen tops the list
of the 10 biggest myths about this postseason.

MYTH 1 A vastly improved corps of relievers will make the
difference for the Braves.

The common theory that Atlanta would have won more World Series
with a better bullpen, says Smoltz, "is a perception from a long
time ago. If you look at the last four or five years, it hasn't
been true." No, Atlanta's biggest problem has been that its
vaunted starters, especially Glavine and Maddux, have been
outpitched. Since Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship
Series, that pair was a combined 5-12 in 22 postseason starts
entering the week. The alleged perps in the bullpen? They were
6-4 in that same span.

Atlanta does have a wicked bullpen now, with righthanded closer
Smoltz (NL-record 55 saves) set up by lefthanders Mike Remlinger
(7-2, 1.88) and Chris Hammond (7-2, 0.95). But as Glavine and
Maddux go, so go the Braves, especially when backed by the
least-productive offense among the eight playoff teams (4.4 runs
per game).

MYTH 2 For the Giants to win in October, Barry Bonds has to produce.

Bonds may be great, but he's no Luis Sojo. The four-time NL MVP
and the recently retired utility infielder each had roughly the
same number of career postseason at bats before this year's
playoffs, 97 and 101 respectively. Sojo had more hits (26-15),
more doubles (6-5) and more than twice as many RBIs (15-6). And
Bonds's at bats came in the days when opposing teams actually
pitched to him. You know, way back in 2000, or 119 home runs and
375 walks ago.

In the NL Division Series two years ago New York Mets pitchers
walked Bonds only three times in 17 plate appearances. "Ha!"
Smoltz said when reminded of that statistic. "He'll be lucky if
he gets three at bats against us." Smoltz was only half kidding.
Says one NL scout, "He'll see nothing to hit."

The key at bats for San Francisco will fall to Benito Santiago
and Reggie Sanders, who hit behind Bonds. Santiago had 49 more at
bats with runners in scoring position (134) than did Bonds (85)
and hit just .261 in those spots. Sanders had more such at bats
(160) than even major league RBI champion Alex Rodriguez. Sanders
hit .238 in those situations. The Braves will try to make
Santiago and Sanders, not Bonds, beat them.

MYTH 3 Teams like the A's and the Diamondbacks are better off
using their premier starting pitchers on short rest.

Managers Art Howe of the Oakland A's, Bob Brenly of the Arizona
Diamondbacks, Bobby Cox of Atlanta and Mike Scioscia of the
Anaheim Angels said they would use a three-man rotation in
October. Tony La Russa of the St. Louis Cardinals was considering
it. They should all rethink that strategy.

Since 1996 there have been 20 games in which a pitcher started a
playoff game on three days' rest against an opponent that used a
fully rested starter. Only once did the pitcher on short rest
win--the Padres' Sterling Hitchcock, in Game 6 of the 1998
NLCS--while their teams went 5-15. New York Yankees manager Joe
Torre, blessed with deep starting pitching (and four World Series
rings in the past six years), has used a starter on short rest
three times in 78 postseason games with New York, and he's 1-2 in
those games. Cox, 4-6 in such situations, will use only Glavine,
Maddux and Kevin Millwood this time around, rather than give
rookie Damian Moss (12-6) a start. Don't be surprised if Cox
regrets that decision.

MYTH 4 Off contraction's death row, the Twins are primed for an upset.

The Minnesota Twins play exceptionally good defense and can scare
the bejabbers out of visiting teams in the loud, freakish
Metrodome. However, the Twins match up poorly against the
Athletics, their first-round draw: Minnesota lost the season
series (3-6) and struggled against lefthanded starting pitchers
(23-29). The A's have two of the best lefties in the game, Mark
Mulder and Barry Zito, who threw back-to-back shutouts against
the Twins last month.

MYTH 5 The way to beat the Athletics is to get into their bullpen.

Oakland had some September concerns with setup men Jim Mecir,
Chad Bradford, Ricardo Rincon and Jeff Tam. Plus, closer Billy
Koch has never thrown a pitch in the postseason, and he logged
93 2/3 innings over 84 games this year, an unusually heavy load
for a closer. "He loves to work," one AL general manager says.
"His problem is, when he gets too macho and tries to throw
harder, his ball straightens out."

The A's, however, thrive in the same way that Arizona did last
year: by getting as many innings as possible from their starting
pitchers. The Diamondbacks needed only one win (by Randy Johnson)
and three saves (none in the World Series) from their bullpen to
win three playoff series. Hudson, Mulder and Zito work so deep
into games that they tend to diminish the importance of middle
relief, or even Koch. Beating Oakland will require beating its
starters, as New York did in all six of its postseason wins over
the A's in the past two years.

MYTH 6 The Angels match up well against the Yankees.

Entering the playoffs, Anaheim was 35-34 against New York since
1996--but none of those games were played in October. The Angels
have one player with postseason experience, righthander Kevin
Appier, who lost his only playoff start to the Yankees in the
2000 Division Series. Anaheim's other starting pitchers, Jarrod
Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey, have all exceeded their
previous career highs in innings pitched.

As the Angels stumbled in late September before securing the wild
card, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said, "I just see some guys
tired now." Manager Mike Scioscia added, "They're going through a
pennant race for the first time and trying too hard."

MYTH 7 The home field advantage is overrated.
Howe pitched Zito and La Russa started Andy Benes on the last day
of the season with home field advantage still up for grabs.
Neither team got what it wanted, and that could become crucial if
a series goes the distance. Since 1992 the home team is 9-2
(.818) in winner-take-all games, compared with 127-123 (.508) in
all other postseason games. The advantage is also significant if
a decisive game is close. Since 1982 home teams are 8-0 in
ultimate games that were decided by one run and 6-0 when the
winning run was scored in the final inning.

MYTH 8 The Cardinals aren't good enough to get past Randy Johnson
and Curt Schilling.

St. Louis's starting rotation has been lightly regarded since the
June death of Darryl Kile, but the Cardinals played the best
baseball of any team down the stretch (20-4), with righthander
Matt Morris and lefthander Chuck Finley leading the way. The
matchup against Arizona doesn't faze them, nor should it. Over
their careers Johnson and Schilling were a combined 11-14 against
St. Louis (postseason included). The Cardinals have the best
starting eight in the playoffs and a bench fortified with tough
outs, such as Miguel Cairo, a giant killer who is 8 for 19 in his
career against Johnson.

"St. Louis is so scary right now," says one NL scout. "They
believe they have fate on their side after all they've been
through. They're playing with so much confidence."

MYTH 9 The Diamondbacks' one-two pitching punch will overcome the loss of Luis Gonzalez.

No team can easily survive the loss of its best hitter, but
Gonzalez's separated shoulder is more problematic because Arizona
is already without infielder Craig Counsell (pinched neck nerve),
the 2001 NLCS MVP, and outfielder Danny Bautista (dislocated
shoulder). That trio accounted for 42% of the Diamondbacks' RBIs
last postseason, which makes the burden on Johnson and Schilling
even greater this time around. But the Big Two can't do much more
than they did last October, when they had a 1.30 ERA in 89 2/3
innings and accounted for nine of Arizona's 11 wins.

MYTH 10 The Yankees' offense isn't built for October.

The Bronx Bombers no longer have the grit of Paul O'Neill, Tino
Martinez and Scott Brosius; they're too reliant on the home run;
and they strike out too often--all of which would seem to make
them ill-suited to win the low-scoring, grind-it-out games that
are typical of the postseason. Sounds reasonable, but it's just
not true.

The Yankees won more games in which they did not hit a home run
(19) than they did when they won the pennant last year (10). They
won more games in which they scored three or fewer runs (16) than
they did last season (15). They led the AL in runs, walks,
on-base percentage and fewest shutouts, and were 19-9 against the
other playoff teams. Does that sound like a vulnerable outfit? If
anything, the Yankees' shaky defense (127 errors, 40 more than
the Angels) will cause them more problems than their offense.

"It's probably the best offensive team they've taken into the
playoffs," one NL scout says. "Every year I look for reasons to
pick against them. But if I were a betting man, I'd have to put
my money on the Yankees. They're still the best team."

The Yankees as the team to beat? That's the only conventional
wisdom that's likely to hold true this October.

Read more from Tom Verducci every Tuesday in his exclusive column
at cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER [Leading Off] Trump Cards The Cardinals showed their winning hands after J.D. Drew's eighth-inning, three-run homer sealed a 6-1 victory over Arizona on Sept. 25 in Busch Stadium. The Diamondbacks will have a chance to turn the tables this week, when the teams square off in the first round of the playoffs (page 42). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN ON THE SPOT With Atlanta pitching around Bonds, Sanders (right) will have to produce. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN WEAKEST LINK Maddux has been anything but the answer in recent playoff outings. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO (MIENTKIEWICZ) LEFT OUT Doug Mientkiewicz's Twins don't match up with Oakland's southpaws. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRAD MANGIN TIRED YET? Koch, a postseason rookie, led the league with 84 relief appearances. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO (ECKSTEIN)PIVOTAL POINT Only on defense do David Eckstein's Angels have the Yankees beat. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (MORRIS) BIRD WATCH Morris and underrated St. Louis are peaking at the right time. COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CONNORS/AP (DIAMONDBACKS) POWER OF TWO The Diamondbacks can't ask for more from Schilling and Johnson.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)