One night last week, due to a lengthy rain delay, the American League Championship Series preempted the Fox talent show The X Factor. Some viewers might not have noticed though, especially the way Rangers manager Ron Washington habitually went all Simon Cowell on his starting pitchers and showed them the door. At times amateurish—the Brewers' defense took up juggling this October—and at other times spectacular but at almost no time boring, this postseason has been an unscripted, beautiful wreck of a show nobody saw coming.
Baseball's equivalent of the Geneva Convention, the established protocol of postseason engagement, has been suspended until further notice. Forget everything you ever learned about fall baseball, which is exactly how the Rangers and the Cardinals wound up in the World Series—with St. Louis, a team that finished in second place, six games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central, holding home field advantage because of a home run surrendered by a Texas pitcher, C.J. Wilson, in the All-Star Game. Small ball? Great starting pitching? Big payrolls? The might of the Northeast Corridor? None of those supposed October truisms matter in 2011, a prime number year that lacks divisors (other than 1 and itself) and logic.
Speaking of prime numbers, Washington and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa combined to make a whopping 53 pitching changes, an average of nearly 4½ per night, in LCS play—and they were the winning managers. Following a regular season in which runs per game (8.56) dropped to its lowest level in 19 years, runs have become 14% easier to come by this postseason (9.78). Washington and La Russa both jerry-rigged a previously blasphemous postseason formula to win pennants: Get the starting pitcher out quickly, before he can do real damage, turn the game over to a parade of relievers and simply outmash the other team. Such strategy works especially well when LCS MVPs Nelson Cruz of the Rangers and David Freese of the Cardinals slug better than 1.000.
In defeating the Tigers in six games in the ALCS, the Rangers joined the 1997 Indians as the only teams to win a best-of-seven series without getting a win from a starter. The Cardinals had no starter throw a pitch after the fifth inning in their six-game NLCS win over the Brewers. "It could be more of the same [in the World Series] with these two teams," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels says. "You still have to think somebody is going to come out one day and go eight innings, give up one run. But I guess you could call me naive for still thinking that. The off days in the postseason allow this [bullpen-heavy] strategy to play out a little more."
Says La Russa, "It's a freaky, weird postseason. It's very possible in the World Series to see starters take charge and get everything back to normal. But it's defined the postseason so far."
For La Russa, the founding father of the modern specialized bullpen, running an eight-man relief unit with a day off every two or three is like Dennis Kozlowski throwing a birthday party or Charlie Sheen on the company dime in Vegas: There is no such thing as excess. On Sunday, La Russa hooked his starter, Edwin Jackson, in the NLCS clincher, a 12--6 win, after two innings, with a 9--4 lead.
Entering this year, teams lost 73% of the time when a starter failed to last more than five innings in the postseason (213--564). But the Rangers (6--1) and the Cardinals (5--2) have flipped those odds and are winning 84% of those quick-exit games. What may be freakier yet about this postseason is how much money was spent not to make the World Series. The top nine spenders in baseball failed to win a single playoff series (Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, White Sox, Cubs, Mets, Giants and Twins). The Cardinals came in at No. 11 ($105 million) and the Rangers at 13 ($92 million), according to Opening Day payrolls.
Texas pulled off a rare feat by winning back-to-back pennants. The Yankees are the only other AL franchise to do so in the 17 years with the wild-card format. Going back further, the Rangers are just the eighth franchise in either league in the free-agent era (since 1976) to appear in two straight World Series. But their achievement has a singular honor attached to it: They are the only team in the wild-card era to go to back-to-back World Series without having a payroll among the seven biggest in baseball. (They ranked 27th last year.)
"I do think that has meaning," Daniels says. "How many times have you heard an executive or writer say you may not need a high payroll to win once, but you do to sustain it? I do agree payroll extends the run at the top of the cycle. But I think our guys take pride in how we've done it. And we're cycling up right now."
In January, after free-agent outfielder Lance Berkman signed with St. Louis rather than with Texas, he dismissed the defending AL champions as the equivalent of a one-hit wonder. "I felt like if they didn't re-sign Cliff Lee, that they were going to be an average team, and I feel that's probably what's going to end up happening," he told a Houston radio station. "I feel like last year was one of those special years where you kind of catch lightning in a bottle, and they got hot and they had some guys that I felt like were pitching better than their talent level, and consequently they had a great year."