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:
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.
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.
"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? 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.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]