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Last Men Standing The final outs are the hardest to come by in October, which means the fate of all eight playoff teams could rest on their flawed bullpens

Oct. 06, 2003
Oct. 06, 2003

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Oct. 6, 2003

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Last Men Standing The final outs are the hardest to come by in October, which means the fate of all eight playoff teams could rest on their flawed bullpens

Watching television in Miami last fall, his first October since
defecting, Jose Contreras stared with curiosity upon a baseball
game with which he was not familiar. He had recently left Cuba,
where starters like him pitch long and often. Those found lacking
are called relief pitchers, and their services are required only
occasionally. At the 1999 Pan American Games, Contreras pitched
six innings for a win in the semifinals, took one day off and
then threw eight innings to beat the U.S. in the final, striking
out 13. Fidel Castro was so moved by this act of machismo that
he dubbed Contreras El Titan de Bronce, after the nickname of
Antonio Maceo Grajales, a valiant 19th-century Cuban general.

This is an article from the Oct. 6, 2003 issue Original Layout

It has been more than a quarter century since the baseball
Contreras knew was the same game that was played in the major
leagues, be it Sandy Koufax's throwing a shutout on two days'
rest to win the 1965 World Series or the Oakland A's winning the
1974 Series by using a total of five pitchers. What Contreras
watched last October was the Anaheim Angels seizing the world
championship with a battalion of relief pitchers marching up the
mound early and often. Manager Mike Scioscia made 49 pitching
changes in 16 postseason games. His relievers had more wins (six)
than his starters (five), who gave him an average of just under
five innings per game.

Faced with the grind of three rounds of playoffs and the
relentlessness of power-packed lineups, the modern bullpen has
evolved into a specialized defense system that has never been
more important. Last year relief pitchers were 28% more likely to
account for wins and losses in the postseason (37% of all
decisions) than they were in the regular season (29%). Even El
Titan de Bronce has been enlisted as a reliever with the New York
Yankees, who hope the 31-year-old righthander can be this
October's version of heaven-sent Angels rookie reliever Francisco
Rodriguez.

"Bullpens are a factor in just about every postseason game
because the score is more likely to be 2-1 or 3-1 than it is
7-1," Yankees starter Mike Mussina says. "The game isn't the same
[in the postseason]. It's managed differently and it's played
differently, especially in the late innings. In a playoff series
it's not about who has the best 25 guys. It often comes down to
three relief pitchers."

Says Boston Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein, "I believe a bullpen can
win a postseason series more than it can lose one."

Hang on to that thought, folks, because all eight postseason
teams carried significant bullpen questions into the Division
Series that began this week, especially regarding the pitchers
who will work the seventh and eighth innings. This is the year of
living dangerously. "I don't think the bullpens are going to be
the strong part of the playoffs until you get to the closers,"
says Detroit Tigers scout Scott Reid. "That will make for some
exciting games, those 3 1/2-hour, four-hour games."

Nowhere does the peril appear greater than on Epstein's own team.
At the end of the regular season Boston had the worst bullpen ERA
of any playoff team (4.87) and a closer, submariner righty
Byung-Hyun Kim, who had not only a 4.19 ERA in save situations
but also the stigma of being the only man in World Series history
to twice take a lead into the ninth inning, blow the save and
have his team lose. The rest of the pen is so shaky that
centerfielder Johnny Damon admits, "We have [Mike] Timlin, [Alan]
Embree and B.K., and everybody else is kind of a flip of the coin."

Red Sox Nation is not alone in its late-inning angst. The Yankees
are betting their $180 million payroll that erstwhile starter
Contreras (6-1, 2.34 as a starter; 1-1, 7.43 as a reliever) and
postseason neophyte Gabe White can finally build the bridge to
closer Mariano Rivera that's been under construction all year.
New York manager Joe Torre said he won't hesitate to summon
Contreras with runners on, or on back-to-back days. "Yes, I
watched [Rodriguez] on TV," Contreras says. "But I'm not trying
to match myself up with anyone. When it's my time to pitch, I'll
do the best that I can."

The A's (Keith Foulke), Chicago Cubs (Joe Borowski), Florida
Marlins (Ugueth Urbina) and San Francisco Giants (Tim Worrell)
all use closers who have been traded within the past three years
and have never saved a postseason game. Foulke appears to be the
best of that bunch after a season in which he held batters to a
career-low .184 average, allowed only four of 23 inherited
runners to score and showed he's more than your pampered
one-inning closer. (Ten of his 43 saves were longer than the
one-inning variety.)

"The last few years I've watched the way Torre has managed," A's
skipper Ken Macha says. "He's never been afraid to bring in
Rivera in the eighth inning for the big out. And that's the way
I'll use Foulke."

The Minnesota Twins will bank on the Yankeephobic LaTroy Hawkins
(chart, page 50) to get a lead to closer Eddie Guardado. Likewise
the Atlanta Braves' setup corps, which features Ray King (almost
40% of his inherited runners have scored), is no lock to hand
over leads to John Smoltz. The Braves' closer may not appear
before the ninth, because elbow tendinitis limited him to seven
innings between Aug. 3 and Sunday.

The paradox of the evolution of the modern bullpen is that even
as it becomes more specialized and more frequently used, the
reliever's job becomes more difficult because of the
proliferation of offense. For instance, from Game 5 of the 1947
Series through Game 3 in '72, ninth-inning comebacks were unheard
of. Teams leading after eight innings were 135-0 over that span,
often relying on starting pitchers to finish the job. But over
the past 10 Series the conversion rate in such spots was only 87%
(45-7), and all of those failures were bullpen meltdowns. Only
once since '75 has a starting pitcher lost a Series game in which
he was leading after eight innings--and that occurred in 1985
when Charlie Leibrandt of the Kansas City Royals blew a 2-0 lead
in the ninth.

Here's why the postseason is fraught with danger for relievers:

ONE-RUN GAMES Yes, the leads tend to be smaller in October. Of
the 258 postseason games played since the start of the
three-round format, 82 of them, or 32%, have been one-run games.
By comparison 28% of regular-season games over that same span
were decided by one run. Among playoff teams the Giants (28-12)
had the best record in one-run games. The Braves (17-25) are the
only playoff team that had a losing record in one-run games.

HOME RUNS The emphasis on power hitting since the majors expanded
in 1993 means that now more than ever, disaster is only one pitch
away. Five of the past eight ninth-inning World Series bullpen
blowups were caused by home runs (Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius
for the Yankees in 2001, Joe Carter for the Toronto Blue Jays in
1993, Ed Sprague for the Blue Jays in 1992 and Kirk Gibson for
the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988). Last year the Giants were eight
outs from a series-clinching 5-0 win in Game 6 when San Francisco
manager Dusty Baker gave starter Russ Ortiz the game ball as a
departing keepsake. However, before they could get three outs,
four relievers gave up six runs, four of them coming on homers by
Anaheim's No. 7 hitter (Scott Spiezio) and No. 2 hitter (Darin
Erstad). Among playoff pens this year San Francisco, now managed
by Felipe Alou, and the Yankees have been the stingiest when it
comes to homers (37), Boston the most generous (56).

TOUGHER AT BATS "Nobody gives away at bats in October like they
do in the regular season," Epstein says. "Hitters lift their
concentration to another level, and often that means fouling off
tough pitches to get to a pitch to hit." Teams that don't strike
out often--Oakland is the toughest this postseason to put away
(898 K's)--tend to be good rally teams against bullpens.

QUICKER HOOKS "There's more urgency," says former Baltimore
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who as the skipper in Cleveland
watched his bullpen blow a ninth-inning lead in Game 7 of the
1997 World Series. "You can live with a three-game losing streak
during the season because you have so much time to recover. In
the playoffs a three-game losing streak sends you home. So you're
more likely to go to your go-to guys quicker and more often."
Many managers like to play matchup in the late innings, pitting
lefthanded pitchers against lefthanded hitters and righthanders
against righthanders. "We've never had this many lefthanders,"
Torre says of his three-lefty postseason bullpen roster (White,
Chris Hammond and Felix Heredia). "We can go back and forth so
many times." The Marlins, on the other hand, have no proven
lefthanded specialist. They rely on righthander Chad Fox, whom
the Red Sox released in July. Lefties hit .205 against Fox this
year, though he did have control problems overall (31 walks in
43 1/3 innings).

Anaheim minimized some of those postseason factors last year. It
played the most one-run games in the AL during the regular
season, its hitters were the toughest in the league to strike
out, and its deep bullpen ranked first in ERA and third in fewest
home runs allowed. Oakland fits a similar profile this October.

Alas, A's G.M. Billy Beane is on record as reducing what happens
in the postseason to nothing more than "a crapshoot," in which
the percentage-based baseball he favors in the regular season
doesn't have enough games to prove itself. There's little doubt,
however, about how the playoffs will end. The last pitch of the
past 10 World Series has been thrown by a relief pitcher, the
longest such streak in history. And that's the way it should be,
given the rise of relievers during that period. The last word
belongs to the bullpen.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK PEN ULTIMATES Though his right elbow may be tender, Smoltz has the postseason experience that (from left) Contreras, Urbina and Foulke are lacking.COLOR PHOTO: EFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLERCOLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGINCOLOR PHOTO: MARK GOLDMAN/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: GARY ROTHSTEIN/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSCOLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMONCOLOR PHOTO: BOB LEVERONE/TSN/ICON SMICOLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO LOW MOMENTS Kim, the front man for a shaky Red Sox pen, has the stigma of two blown ninth-inning World Series leads.

WHO CAN HANDLE THE HEAT?
SI rates the less-than-surefire bullpens of the eight Division
Series teams and sizes up how each might fare in the following
round

AL

YANKEES

KEY RELIEVERS
Mariano Rivera RH, 5-2, 1.66 ERA, 40 saves in 46 ops.
Jose Contreras RH, 7-2, 3.30 ERA, 7.43 ERA in relief
Gabe White LH, 2-1, 4.38 ERA in 12 games with New York

BIG QUESTION
Can Contreras get the crucial outs in the seventh and eighth
innings to get the game to Rivera?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
New York's starting pitchers earned the win in each of the last
nine meetings with the Twins.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
In nine playoff games against the A's and the Red Sox, Rivera has
seven saves and an 0.00 ERA.

BOTTOM LINE
Rivera is still as good as it gets, but that won't matter if
Contreras and White can't preserve a lead.

RATING
3 1/2 STARS

TWINS

KEY RELIEVERS
Eddie Guardado LH, 3-5, 2.89 ERA, 41 saves in 45 ops.
LaTroy Hawkins RH, 9-3, 1.86 ERA, .205 BA vs. lefties
J.C. Romero LH, 2-0, 5.00 ERA, .214 BA vs. lefties

BIG QUESTION
Can setup man Hawkins overcome his lifetime 1-5 record and 6.64
ERA against the Yankees?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
In 27 career at bats against Guardado, Jason Giambi has a .148
average and one RBI.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Guardado saved six of Minnesota's eight wins over Oakland but
only one of four victories over Boston.

BOTTOM LINE
Because Romero is inconsistent, the Twins lack depth behind
Hawkins and gutsy closer Guardado.

RATING
3 STARS

ATHLETICS

KEY RELIEVERS
Keith Foulke RH, 9-1, 2.08 ERA, 43 saves in 48 ops.
Chad Bradford RH, 7-4, 3.04 ERA, .190 BA vs. righthanders
Ricardo Rincon LH, 8-4, 3.25 ERA; 7.94 career postseason ERA

BIG QUESTION
Can RH Jim Mecir (5.59 ERA, .280 opponents' batting average)
return to being tough on lefties and give Oakland added depth?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
Boston batted .105 (2 for 19) and scored one run (a Manny Ramirez
homer) in 5 2/3 innings against Foulke this season.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Twins' Shannon Stewart (.545 career BA vs. Foulke) and Yankees'
Bernie Williams (.357) loom as dangerous threats.

BOTTOM LINE
Foulke, Bradford and Rincon are the heart of the best bullpen
you've never heard of (14 losses, fewest among playoff teams).

RATING
4 STARS

RED SOX

KEY RELIEVERS
Byung-Hyun Kim RH, 8-5, 3.18 ERA, 16 saves in 19 ops. for Boston
Scott Williamson RH, 0-1, 6.20 ERA for Boston; 21 saves for Reds
Alan Embree LH, 4-1, 4.25 ERA, playoff appearances in four of
eight years

BIG QUESTION
Will manager Grady Little try to squeeze more out of his starters
to avoid having to go to his bullpen?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
In seven games against Oakland this season, Boston's relief corps
was 0 for 2 in save chances and picked up two losses.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Red Sox used 15 relievers in 19 games against Yanks; most of the
current crew arrived after Boston last faced the Twins, in May.

BOTTOM LINE
Red Sox may have to use starter Tim Wakefield to bail out a
home-run-prone pen in which no one has nailed down a set role.

RATING
2 STARS

NL

BRAVES

KEY RELIEVERS
John Smoltz RH, 0-2, 1.12 ERA, 45 saves in 49 ops.
Ray King LH, 3-4, 3.51 ERA, .200 BA vs. lefties
Will Cunnane RH, 2-2, 2.70 ERA, 3 saves in 3 ops.

BIG QUESTION
Are journeymen King, Cunnane and lefty Kent Mercker good enough
to get the game to Smoltz?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
Sammy Sosa has four hits, three walks and 18 strikeouts in 38
career at bats against Smoltz.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Smoltz has been smacked around by Bonds (eight HRs, .300 BA), but
he owns the Marlins (15 for 15 in saves).

BOTTOM LINE
In the past two postseasons combined the Braves gave Smoltz only
two save opportunities in 13 games.

RATING
2 1/2 STARS

CUBS

KEY RELIEVERS
Joe Borowski RH, 2-2, 2.63 ERA, 33 saves in 37 ops.
Mike Remlinger LH, 6-5, 3.65 ERA, 83 K's in 69 IP
Kyle Farnsworth RH, 3-2, 3.30 ERA, 92 K's in 76 1/3 IP

BIG QUESTION
Can Borowski (only two of 21 inherited runners scored against
him) continue his magic in his first postseason?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
Braves Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones have hit .433 with five HRs
and 11 RBIs combined against Remlinger.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Though they faced him only three times total, neither the Giants
nor the Marlins scored against Borowski.

BOTTOM LINE
Think 2001 Diamondbacks: a bullpen that's known for strikeouts as
well as blowups.

RATING
2 1/2 STARS

GIANTS

KEY RELIEVERS
Tim Worrell RH, 4-4, 2.87 ERA, 38 saves in 45 ops.
Joe Nathan RH, 12-4, 2.96 ERA, .136 BA vs. righties
Felix Rodriguez RH, 8-2, 3.10 ERA; 2.70 ERA in 13 1/3 IP in 2002
playoffs

BIG QUESTION
Can Worrell, a first-time closer at 36, recover from his World
Series-turning failure in the eighth inning of Game 6 last year?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
In saving all five Giants wins over the Marlins this season,
Worrell surrendered just two hits and a walk in 5 1/3 innings.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Nathan manhandled Chicago (0 hits, 8 K's in four innings) but was
worked over by Atlanta (9.00 ERA, one blown save in three innings).

BOTTOM LINE
It may lack premium power arms, but this pen keeps the ball in
the park (37 HRs in 487 2/3 IP) and is tough to beat (33-15).

RATING
3 STARS

MARLINS

KEY RELIEVERS
Ugueth Urbina RH, 3-0, 1.41 ERA, 6 saves in 8 ops. for Florida
Braden Looper RH, 6-4, 3.68 ERA, 28 saves in 34 ops.
Chad Fox RH, 2-1, 2.13 ERA in 21 games for Florida

BIG QUESTION
Can Looper, who lost the closer's job down the stretch, recover
enough confidence to get key outs for a thin bullpen?

DIVISION SERIES DATA
Florida's top three relievers faced Barry Bonds 12 times this
season and gave up only one hit and four walks combined.

IF THEY ADVANCE ...
Looper and Urbina blew 4 of 6 save chances against Atlanta this
year but converted their only opportunity against the Cubs.

BOTTOM LINE
The Marlins need their starters to pitch deeper into games than
they did in the regular season (6.1 IP per start).

RATING
2 1/2 STARS

SI.com
Tom Verducci's Insider column, every Tuesday at si.com/baseball.

"NOBODY GIVES AWAY AT BATS in October," Epstein SAYS. "HITTERS
LIFT THEIR CONCENTRATION to another level."