"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.