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LAST MEN Standing
Tom Verducci
October 06, 2003
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
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October 06, 2003

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

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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

TWINS

ATHLETICS

RED SOX

KEY RELIEVERS

Mariano Rivera RH, 5-2,1.66 ERA, 40 saves in 46 ops.
Jose Cotltreras 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

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

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

Byung-Hyun Kim RH, 8-5, 3.18 ERA, 16 saves in 19 ops. for Boston
Scott Williamson RH, 0-l, 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

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

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

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

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

DIVISION SERIES DATA

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

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

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

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...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 Stars

3 Stars

4 Stars

2 Stars

NL

BRAVES

CUBS

GIANTS

MARLINS

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.

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? IP

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)6 IP in 2002 playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braves Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones have hit .433 with five HRs and II RBIs combined against Remlinger.

In saving all five Giants wins over the Marlins this season, Worrell surrendered just two hits and a walk in 5? innings.

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...

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

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

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).

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

BOTTOM LINE

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

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

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

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

RATING

2.5 Stars

2.5 Stars

3 Stars

2.5 Stars

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 Tit�n de Bronce, after the nickname of Antonio Maceo Grajales, a valiant 19th-century Cuban general.

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 Tit�n 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�-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."

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