YOU WANT to see the Man?" Francisco Rodriguez asked his fiancée, Daian Peña, a few months ago, after coming across a 2002 playoffs DVD in their L.A. home. It was five Octobers ago that Rodriguez, the youngest pitcher to appear in a World Series game in 32 years, became a national hero in his native Venezuela by winning five games as an unhittable setup man for the world champion Angels. Now Los Angeles needs Rodriguez to be the Man again. The 25-year-old closer has anchored a bullpen that has been a strength of past Angels teams, but this season the relief staff has struggled. (Its 4.06 ERA at week's end was eighth in the league.) Rodriguez, whose 129 saves over the last three years ties him with the Padres' Trevor Hoffman for the most in the majors, will most likely be counted on for a heftier October load than he's accustomed to. "It's been a very tough year for our staff—the toughest since I've been here," says Rodriguez, who picked up his 38th save on Sunday. The righthander remains essentially the same pitcher he was when he broke into the majors as a 20-year-old September call-up in '02, a hard thrower with a devastating slider. But when Rodriguez watches clips of himself as a baby-faced rookie, sometimes he wonders who he's looking at. "I can't believe how cool I was," says Rodriguez. "I was so young, too young to feel pressure. But that was five years ago. It's time to do some new things for a new DVD."
HOW IMPORTANT is Brandon Webb to the Diamondbacks? There is his superb ERA (3.03), high strikeout rate (7.53 per nine innings) and lengthy scoreless-innings streak this summer (42), of course. Then consider that performance against the backdrop of the rest of Arizona's rotation, which includes a rookie known more for his bat than his arm (Micah Owings); a soft-tossing, journeyman lefty whose 75--75 lifetime record is the very definition of mediocrity (Doug Davis); a soft-tossing, journeyman righty with a nearly 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and against whom opponents are hitting .300 in '07 (Livan Hernandez); and a 24-year-old who has given up 17 homers in 95 2/3 innings and as recently as 2004 went 0--9 with a 9.32 ERA (Edgar Gonzalez). Conventional wisdom holds that Arizona (which had been outscored by 14 runs at week's end despite its 88--68 record) is toast in the postseason, when power arms are paramount. But with more off days than ever between games during this fall's playoffs, Webb will be able to pitch twice in a first-round series (Games 1 and 4) with comfortable rest, and possibly even three times in the second round. If Webb and the deep Arizona pen can win three starts in the NLCS, the D-Backs will need only one win in four tries from its other starters to advance to its first Fall Classic since 2001. No, this Arizona rotation doesn't recall those World Series champs, who were built around Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but rather the 1988 Dodgers, who relied on Orel Hershiser and not much else to win it all.
NEW YORK YANKEES
AS HE wraps up what will almost certainly be his third MVP season, and his 14th year as one of the very best ever to have played the game, there remains a segment of the baseball world that simply won't give Alex Rodriguez his due. The critics focus on a sliver of his career: his last dozen postseason games, in which he had four hits in 41 at bats. It's a good way to miss the greatness, like judging Bob Dylan based on a chord change you saw him blow at a live show back in '66. The "choker" label? Set it aside. In his postseason career—it goes back prior to Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against Boston, contrary to what you may have heard—Rodriguez has a .280 batting average with a .375 on-base percentage and a .485 slugging average in 35 games, perfectly decent numbers when you consider that the pitching is better and the weather colder in October. (At .257/.353/.492, Boston's Manny Ramirez has a similar postseason line.) Rodriguez's résumé includes two postseason series in which he carried his team, the 2000 ALCS (.409/.480/.773 for the Mariners) and '04 Division Series (.421/.476/.737 for the Yankees), not to mention a September '07 in which, at week's end, he had eight homers and a 1.059 OPS as the Yankees made their postseason push.