Posted: Friday September 8, 2006 11:58AM; Updated: Saturday September 9, 2006 2:14AM
Nothing, with the possible exception of a stiff pot of coffee and a few cases of Advil, is more important to a contending team than a healthy, rested, strong rotation.
We rate which teams have the best starters, for the pennant drive and beyond:
Barry Zito leads an A's staff that will be tough to beat in the postseason.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
5. Twins: This weekend's series against the Tigers shows how badly the Twins need Francisco Liriano, not just on the staff but in the rotation and pitching like he means it. The Twins, because of Liriano's absence and the way the schedule has fallen, have been forced to start rookies Scott Baker (who lost Thursday night), Matt Garza and Boof Bonser in the first three games of the most critical series of their year. Ace Johan Santana may have to play stopper again Sunday.
If the Twins get Liriano back soon, throwing like he can, they'll be a load in the playoffs. If they make it that far.
Those are two big ifs.
4. White Sox: This is, mostly, the same group that tore up the postseason last year. That may be a reason they're scuffling now.
From Aug. 8 to Sept. 7, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras have made 30 starts. They threw 191 1/3 innings, won 13 and lost 11 with a 4.28 ERA. From Aug. 6 to Sept. 7 in their championship year, also a 30-game stretch, the White Sox's rotation -- swap out Orlando Hernandez for Vazquez and give Brandon McCarthy a start -- was 14-12 with a 3.17 ERA. The starters threw 207 1/3 innings.
More than a run difference, while throwing 16 more innings.
Yeah, this group could be sucking air.
3. Tigers: If it's not Kenny Rogers or Justin Verlander throwing out the first pitch for the Tigers, forget it. The Tigers' record this season with those two starting is 40-17. When Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman start, it's 29-28 (and much worse than that lately). Verlander had a fine start Thursday in beating the Tigers, but questions remain about him as he blows by his personal record for most innings pitched in a season. If he's unreliable, the Tigers are, too.
2. Yankees: The best pitcher on the staff right now may be Chien-Ming Wang (16-5, 3.69 ERA). And though Mike Mussina has been a little dinged up, the Yankees' position in the standings gives him plenty of time to take it easy and get healthy before the playoffs begin. I don't think Randy Johnson is really No. 3 here, especially with the way he's pitched lately (last four starts, 3-1, 3.90 ERA). But you could make that argument.
The Yanks might be my No. 1 AL rotation if I could count on the Unit more and if I knew Mussina was 100 percent. But I can't, and I don't, so ...
1. A's: Everybody wants to write off the A's in the divisional series -- before they've even made it that far -- mainly because of the team's lame offense and the fact that the A's always seem to lose in the divisional series. But, I'm telling you, this rotation can't be dismissed. In the last 30 games Oakland starters are 19-7 with a 3.97 ERA. In August, Esteban Loaiza, Barry Zito, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos went 19-4 with a 2.82 ERA. Loaiza was 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA, and Saarloos was 4-0 with a 2.01 ERA.
Right now, Zito and the resurgent Loaiza are a clear top two, and either Haren, Blanton or -- if he's back and healthy -- Rich Harden is No. 3. That's tough to beat.