By now the road to a World Series championship is so well established it might as well be available on your GPS. For five straight years, the last team standing opened the postseason with a win behind its ace and ended it with its closer on the mound, while relying heavily on those two key arms in between.
October baseball, with off days that diminish the importance of bottom-of-the-rotation starters and bullpen underbellies, is defined by leading men taking even bigger roles. The past four champions—the 2007 Red Sox, '08 Phillies, '09 Yankees and '10 Giants—used their aces and closers to chew up 35% of their postseason innings, a 75% increase from their regular-season usage (20%). Of the 44 combined playoff victories by those champions, 33 were won or saved by the ace or the closer.
Elite pitching figures to be even more important in this postseason, with overall offense weaker than it's been in a generation. The home run rate hasn't been this low since 1993, with even more dramatic dips for runs (lowest since '92), batting average (lowest since '89) and walks (fewest since '68); strikeouts occurred this year at their highest rate ever. And no team is better equipped at the starting and finish lines than the Tigers, whose ace, Justin Verlander, and closer, Jose Valverde, had historically great seasons. With three games remaining, Detroit had won 88% of the time since May 24 when either Verlander or Valverde pitched (53--7). "The Tigers are an O.K. team with two good hitters in the middle," says one advance scout, referring to first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez, "but they have one pitcher who makes them great. Verlander is what Orel Hershiser was to the '88 Dodgers."
"He's just as good after 120 pitches as he is after 10," Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski says of Verlander, the major league leader in wins (24) and strikeouts (250), and the AL leader in ERA (2.40) through Sunday. "Back in 2006 when he pitched in the postseason [with a 1--2 record and 5.82 ERA in four starts], he was just a rookie and he was running out of gas. He's added the slider, a consistent breaking ball and consistent change. He's much stronger now."
October 2, 2011
Valverde has saved 13 of Verlander's 24 wins. The closer has converted 49 consecutive save chances since last year, the third-longest streak ever, behind Eric Gagne (84 from 2002 to '04) and Tom Gordon (54, 1998 to '99). At week's end he had allowed only three earned runs in 47 innings in his 47 save chances, an 0.57 ERA. The Tigers gave up a first-round draft pick to the Astros and $14 million over two years to sign Valverde as a free agent after the 2009 season. Known for his flamboyance on the mound and his strangely befitting nickname of Papa Grande—an Arizona announcer thought it meant Big Daddy, but it translates as Big Potato—the lumpy Valverde, 33, is well protected by his setup men. All of his saves this season have involved exactly three outs and no inherited runners.
Just to get through the AL Division Series, which begins on Friday, the Tigers may have to take down one of two teams that has an ace-closer tandem that already has a world championship: the Yankees, with CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera, or, if they can survive an epic September collapse, the Red Sox, with Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. (Boston, which held a nine-game lead over the Rays in the AL wild-card race on Sept. 3, was clinging to a one-game edge with three games to play.)
New York's duo has the edge on Detroit's when it comes to workload. Sabathia made two starts in the 2009 postseason on three days' rest, with the Yankees winning both games. Manager Joe Girardi will start his ace in Game 1 of the ALDS and could bring him back for Game 4 if New York is facing elimination. Detroit manager Jim Leyland has already ruled that out for Verlander. "He's never done it before," Dombrowski says about Verlander's starting on short rest. "So I don't know about three days' rest."
Likewise, the 41-year-old Rivera gives Girardi more options than Valverde does Leyland. Rivera had five saves this year in which he inherited runners, and though he had just one requiring more than three outs, he has 31 such extended saves in his postseason career.
The other AL entrant, defending pennant winner Texas, has closer Neftali Feliz, who gave up just one run and struck out 11 in 71/3 innings during the 2010 postseason. But with last year's October ace, Cliff Lee, relocated to Philadelphia, the Rangers will deploy C.J. Wilson at the top of the rotation, a role for which he prepped by going 6--2 with a 1.95 ERA in nine starts down the stretch. Wilson, 30, began this season, only his second as a starter, with a 27--28 record. "It's hard to argue against C.J. as an ace," Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels says. "Consistency, winning big games, saving the bullpen by pitching deep, running up almost 230 innings in the hottest summer on record in Dallas—he's answered every question."
The National League side of the tournament—both NL Division Series start on Saturday—features an even less likely ace. Ian Kennedy, 26, of the Diamondbacks had a 10--14 career mark entering the year; he developed slowly enough that the Yankees, who drafted him in 2006, gave up and traded him in December 2009 to the Tigers, who then flipped him to Arizona. But in reminding everyone why he was a first-round pick out of USC, Kennedy tied for the league lead in wins at week's end (21) and ranked fifth in innings (222). He was also 20--0 when he had pitched at least six innings.
"Absolutely, without a doubt, he's an ace," D-Backs general manager Kevin Towers says. "He's one of those guys, like CC, who sniffs a victory. As the game goes on, his velocity goes up. He has that ability to slow the game down. I saw [Trevor] Hoffman do it, and I saw [Greg] Maddux do it. He's never flustered. It's almost like he doesn't have a heartbeat out there. That's big in the postseason."
Behind Kennedy is closer J.J. Putz, whom Towers recruited as a free agent to fix what in 2010 was one of the worst bullpens in history (16--32, 5.74 ERA). Putz, 34, who had last worked primarily as a closer with the Mariners in 2007 and had a history of elbow trouble, responded with 45 saves in 49 chances, including 24 straight conversions in the second half. The repairs on the bullpen worked (22--14, 3.64), and Arizona became only the third team to reach the playoffs the year after losing at least 97 games. "It's probably my most enjoyable season," says Towers, who was the Padres' G.M. from 1995 to 2009. "The '98 season we went to the World Series, but people knew we were good. This year, we knew internally we could compete, but nobody else did."
Like Arizona, the Brewers went from a losing team to a playoff team, in great part because of trades that added righthanders Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke to the rotation. Greinke has a Cy Young Award on his résumé, but Milwaukee has a deep staff with no clear-cut ace: Marcum had the lowest ERA through Sunday (3.31), and Yovani Gallardo the most wins (17) and strikeouts (207).
The Brewers enter the postseason with the best bullpen in the majors in the second half (2.48 ERA), in part because closer John Axford has been almost flawless since the break (0.89 ERA at week's end). Axford hasn't blown a save since April and hasn't trimmed his droopy, stringy mustache since before then, giving him the weathered look of an Old West drifter whose appearances conjure tumbleweeds, six-shooters and swinging saloon doors.
Axford is a stunning turnaround story himself. In 2009 he was a 26-year-old Class A reliever who had been released once (by the Yankees in 2007, one year after they signed him as an undrafted free agent) and who worked that off-season as a bartender in Dundas, Ont. The Brewers signed him before the '08 season, and the next year he climbed every level, finishing the season in the big leagues. He became the closer last season, taking over for Hoffman, the alltime saves leader until Rivera passed him last week.
Axford is proof that winning teams can find closers almost anywhere—even at East Side Mario's, the joint in Dundas where closing time had a different meaning for Axford. The Phillies, for instance, turned to setup man Ryan Madson in April after Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras broke down with injuries and Antonio Bastardo was deemed more valuable in a setup role. Madson, 31, has rolled up 31 saves in his first extended crack at closing, during which manager Charlie Manuel never used him for more than one inning. Indeed, assuming the Braves, with 36-year-old Tim Hudson anchoring an injury-riddled rotation—and with rookie Craig Kimbrel working almost 80 games out of the pen—survive their September swoon to hold off the Cardinals for the wild-card spot, the NL playoff field will feature four closers with one career postseason save among them.
If a track record of excellence under pressure matters most in October, no team can match the Phillies at the outset of games. Philadelphia has four aces in front of Madson: They can send Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt to the mound fully rested every time and with home field advantage in every round. Each has been the ace of his team in a past postseason. "The only way to take out Philly," says the scout, "is to make them run their pitch counts up, keep it close and take your chances with the bullpen. The question is, Can you do that enough times to win a series from them? That's going to be very difficult."
Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt have a combined 2.84 ERA over 35 playoff starts, in which their teams have gone 25--10. This postseason may be positioned for Verlander, backed by the perfection of Valverde, to lay perpetual claim to 2011 the way Hershiser did to 1988. But Philadelphia, with an ace to start every game, may have found an even better road map through October.
OCTOBER WILL BE ABOUT THESE LEADING MEN TAKING ON EVEN BIGGER ROLES
NEW YORK YANKEES