AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2007 issue
THE BOOK on this baseball postseason, beset as it has been by a plague of flies and then a plague of darkness, would seem to be Exodus. At this rate the League Championship Series forecasts include a chance of hail, frogs and locusts. But to have watched Indians righthander Fausto Carmona, 23, stare through an infestation of bugs and blow away Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez to end the ninth inning of Game 2 in Cleveland's ALDS battle with New York was to understand that victory in these playoffs was written in Isaiah: A child shall lead them. ¬∂ Carmona did not get the win in Game 2-near-untouchable lefthanded reliever Rafael Perez, 25, did-but he made it possible by permitting just one run and becoming the first pitcher this year to go nine innings against the Yankees, the highest scoring team in baseball. Entering the Indians' ALCS opener against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, Carmona has secured his place in the pantheon of young, top-of-the-rotation starters whose dominance in this postseason signals a new generation of stars built largely around power arms and not booming bats.
Carmona was one of 15 pitchers age 28 or younger to start a game last week, the most in the 13-year history of the Division Series. The Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 27), Diamondbacks (Brandon Webb, 28) and Rockies (Jeff Francis, 26) all swept their way into the LCS behind hard-throwing, youthful aces, while the Indians advanced in four games behind two (C.C. Sabathia, 27, and Carmona). And nearly each day brought a young arm—starting or relieving—to the fore:
• Beckett became only the second pitcher, after Christy Mathewson, to throw three postseason shutouts before turning 28. So dominant was Beckett in a 4--0 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Game 1 that he delivered only 25 balls to 31 batters and became the first pitcher to hurl a postseason shutout with no walks and as many as eight strikeouts.
• Manny Corpas, 24, became the youngest pitcher to earn three saves in a postseason series, wrapping up each of the Rockies' wins in a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies. The last save finished off a 2--1 victory begun by fellow rookie Ubaldo Jimenez, 23, who pitched 6 1/3 innings of three-hit ball despite a 14-minute delay after the Coors Field lights suddenly went dark. The Rockies shut down the NL's highest scoring team by getting 63 of 81 outs from pitchers in their 20s.
• Phil Hughes, 21, became the youngest Yankees pitcher to win a postseason game with his 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief in an 8--4 victory over Cleveland in Game 3.
Fittingly, with New York on the brink of elimination, Hughes bailed out the oldest Yankees pitcher to win a playoff game; a balky hamstring had sent Roger Clemens, 45, to the showers in the third. When manager Joe Torre congratulated Hughes after the game, the righthander blurted, "This is [bleeping] fun!"
Postseason play was kid stuff, a showcase opportunity for young guns such as Carmona, whose meteoric ascent is historically rare. The Indians signed him in 2000 out of the Dominican Republic, just weeks after his 17th birthday. Carmona stood 6'4", weighed all of 160 pounds and couldn't crack 90 mph with his fastball. Says Luis Rivera, his manager at Class A Lake County in 2003 and now Cleveland's first base coach, "The key to Carmona's development has been his work habits—his preparation before and after the games. When other pitchers are icing, he's running or biking for 15 more minutes after the game even if he's thrown six or seven innings."
By last season Carmona weighed 220 pounds and threw 95 mph. Promoted to the majors, he suffered through a 1--10 season, becoming just the eighth pitcher since 1901 to have a winning percentage below .100 in his rookie year (minimum: 10 decisions). Five of those pitchers faded into oblivion without ever winning another game, and only one, Guy Morton, who began 1--13 for the Cleveland Naps in 1914, recovered to win more than 10 games (97).
In one particularly horrific week last year beginning on July 31, Carmona, while being tried out as a closer, blew leads in the bottom of the ninth inning in three straight appearances. "We had to find out if closing was something that was an option for us with him or whether we had to go out and get a closer," says G.M. Mark Shapiro, who, upon getting his answer, signed veteran Joe Borowski last winter. "It showed you what we thought of Fausto; the guys who you consider as closers normally have front-of-the-rotation stuff as starters."
After returning to the rotation at the end of 2006 and developing more movement on his fastball, Carmona went 19--8 this season with a 3.06 ERA. He gained a reputation around baseball for his hard sinker and in the clubhouse for his humility. He considers sleeping his favorite pastime and Wal-Mart his preferred shopping experience. "Everything is exactly the same," Carmona says of his approach. "Never once during that hard stretch did I hang my head."
Carmona kept his head up in the ninth inning of Game 2, though the Yankees put the go-ahead run at second base with Rodriguez up as a thick swarm of midges engulfed the field. Like something out of a B horror flick, the flies had distracted Yankees phenom Joba Chamberlain, 22, into easily the worst, wildest inning of his brief career, allowing Cleveland to tie the game at one. But Carmona was lord of the flies, whiffing Rodriguez with the last of his 113 pitches. Cleveland wound up winning in the 11th, 2--1, assuring a beginning of Biblical proportions to Carmona's postseason career.