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By now the road to a World Series championship is so well established it might as well be available on your GPS. For five straight years, the last team standing opened the postseason with a win behind its ace and ended it with its closer on the mound, while relying heavily on those two key arms in between.
October baseball, with off days that diminish the importance of bottom-of-the-rotation starters and bullpen underbellies, is defined by leading men taking even bigger roles. The past four champions—the 2007 Red Sox, '08 Phillies, '09 Yankees and '10 Giants—used their aces and closers to chew up 35% of their postseason innings, a 75% increase from their regular-season usage (20%). Of the 44 combined playoff victories by those champions, 33 were won or saved by the ace or the closer.
Elite pitching figures to be even more important in this postseason, with overall offense weaker than it's been in a generation. The home run rate hasn't been this low since 1993, with even more dramatic dips for runs (lowest since '92), batting average (lowest since '89) and walks (fewest since '68); strikeouts occurred this year at their highest rate ever. And no team is better equipped at the starting and finish lines than the Tigers, whose ace, Justin Verlander, and closer, Jose Valverde, had historically great seasons. With three games remaining, Detroit had won 88% of the time since May 24 when either Verlander or Valverde pitched (53--7). "The Tigers are an O.K. team with two good hitters in the middle," says one advance scout, referring to first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez, "but they have one pitcher who makes them great. Verlander is what Orel Hershiser was to the '88 Dodgers."
"He's just as good after 120 pitches as he is after 10," Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski says of Verlander, the major league leader in wins (24) and strikeouts (250), and the AL leader in ERA (2.40) through Sunday. "Back in 2006 when he pitched in the postseason [with a 1--2 record and 5.82 ERA in four starts], he was just a rookie and he was running out of gas. He's added the slider, a consistent breaking ball and consistent change. He's much stronger now."
Valverde has saved 13 of Verlander's 24 wins. The closer has converted 49 consecutive save chances since last year, the third-longest streak ever, behind Eric Gagne (84 from 2002 to '04) and Tom Gordon (54, 1998 to '99). At week's end he had allowed only three earned runs in 47 innings in his 47 save chances, an 0.57 ERA. The Tigers gave up a first-round draft pick to the Astros and $14 million over two years to sign Valverde as a free agent after the 2009 season. Known for his flamboyance on the mound and his strangely befitting nickname of Papa Grande—an Arizona announcer thought it meant Big Daddy, but it translates as Big Potato—the lumpy Valverde, 33, is well protected by his setup men. All of his saves this season have involved exactly three outs and no inherited runners.
Just to get through the AL Division Series, which begins on Friday, the Tigers may have to take down one of two teams that has an ace-closer tandem that already has a world championship: the Yankees, with CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera, or, if they can survive an epic September collapse, the Red Sox, with Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. (Boston, which held a nine-game lead over the Rays in the AL wild-card race on Sept. 3, was clinging to a one-game edge with three games to play.)
New York's duo has the edge on Detroit's when it comes to workload. Sabathia made two starts in the 2009 postseason on three days' rest, with the Yankees winning both games. Manager Joe Girardi will start his ace in Game 1 of the ALDS and could bring him back for Game 4 if New York is facing elimination. Detroit manager Jim Leyland has already ruled that out for Verlander. "He's never done it before," Dombrowski says about Verlander's starting on short rest. "So I don't know about three days' rest."
Likewise, the 41-year-old Rivera gives Girardi more options than Valverde does Leyland. Rivera had five saves this year in which he inherited runners, and though he had just one requiring more than three outs, he has 31 such extended saves in his postseason career.
The other AL entrant, defending pennant winner Texas, has closer Neftali Feliz, who gave up just one run and struck out 11 in 71/3 innings during the 2010 postseason. But with last year's October ace, Cliff Lee, relocated to Philadelphia, the Rangers will deploy C.J. Wilson at the top of the rotation, a role for which he prepped by going 6--2 with a 1.95 ERA in nine starts down the stretch. Wilson, 30, began this season, only his second as a starter, with a 27--28 record. "It's hard to argue against C.J. as an ace," Rangers G.M. Jon Daniels says. "Consistency, winning big games, saving the bullpen by pitching deep, running up almost 230 innings in the hottest summer on record in Dallas—he's answered every question."
The National League side of the tournament—both NL Division Series start on Saturday—features an even less likely ace. Ian Kennedy, 26, of the Diamondbacks had a 10--14 career mark entering the year; he developed slowly enough that the Yankees, who drafted him in 2006, gave up and traded him in December 2009 to the Tigers, who then flipped him to Arizona. But in reminding everyone why he was a first-round pick out of USC, Kennedy tied for the league lead in wins at week's end (21) and ranked fifth in innings (222). He was also 20--0 when he had pitched at least six innings.