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Tim Brown / SUNDAY REPORT

Pitching Their Hopes High

October 01, 2006|Tim Brown

Baseball plays itself to the end of its regular season, all but Manny Ramirez, the Colorado Rockies pitching staff and Ozzie's boys anyway, right to a final, manic, hurl-yourself-from-the-Gateway-Arch week.

But, while Tony La Russa was channeling Gene Mauch, and out of nowhere the commissioner's office was holding coin flips related to a potential tie atop the National League Central -- between Houston and Cincinnati -- even as opposing managers insisted on pitching to Albert Pujols, so too came a quandary.

Eventually, maybe, we'll know the eight teams that will play for their World Series cuts.

The question is, when the playoff games start, to whom will the managers give the baseballs?

Pitching, if you hadn't noticed, has taken a big-time hit, just in time for October, when all anyone talks about is pitching and defense.

A year later, there will be no Chicago 4.

Two years later, remember how the Boston Red Sox momentum carried from Schilling to Martinez to Lowe?

Three years later, can we even picture Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano in teal?

In their places: Pedro Martinez waving a white towel, out for the playoffs as he prepares for rotator cuff surgery; Randy Johnson taking an epidural, questionable for the playoffs; Brad Radke bleeding a few more innings out of his shoulder, surviving for the playoffs; David Wells suffering from gout, thinking of eating the playoffs.

We'd already lost Francisco Liriano, Mark Mulder, Mike Maroth, Victor Zambrano, Brandon Backe and Pavano, some months or (in Pavano's case) years ago.

On the back end, we'd lost Eric Gagne, Jason Isringhausen and, for a brief, uncomfortable moment for the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera.

Musing recently over how the postseason might play out, Minnesota Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said, "I think you have to look at the playoffs as anyone who gets in has an opportunity. But, probably the strongest team, if they get healthy, would be the Yankees. As far as depth and all their players, their lineup with [Gary] Sheffield and [Hideki] Matsui coming back, with the guys they already have there, they're going to be the favorites. So, go to Vegas, you'll probably find that out, too, off their line.

"But, that doesn't mean you can't beat 'em. You just have to figure out a way to go out and do it. They'd be favorites, with everybody getting healthy like they have, yeah. Take that, Joe. You can have all the pressure."

That said, Joe Torre might start Jaret Wright in Game 3 of the division series, Cory Lidle in Game 4, and pray his series gets back to Chien-Mien Wang.

The New York Mets have won more games than anyone in the National League and might just bang their way into the World Series, but they are headed into the postseason with a rotation of Orlando Hernandez, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel and John Maine.

In the final days of the regular season, the Houston Astros rotation was the one many general managers and managers most feared, and Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte awoke Saturday morning two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the loss column with two games to play. As a trio, they are 22-9 with a 2.65 earned-run average since the All-Star break (Oswalt was 5-0 in September), and what they might have to show for it is one, long baleful stare at their offense.

Of the eight teams that Saturday appeared most likely to play on, the Twins possess the most dominant pitcher in Johan Santana, who will start Game 1 of their division series and, if Gardenhire's gang faces quick elimination, would return as early as Game 4 on three days' rest.

But, the three best rotations -- and therefore those possessing the greatest potential to pitch past the Mets and Yankees -- belong to the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers and Oakland A's. The worst, by all regular-season appearances, belongs to the Cardinals, who don't go much past Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan.

The Padres line up Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Woody Williams and Wells, if not Clay Hensley. The A's do the same with Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Danny Haren and Esteban Loaiza.

And the Tigers, despite their second-half plateau and ongoing observations about what long seasons do to young arms, present balance -- left-handers Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson, right-handers Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman -- and contrasting styles.

According to one scout, on:

* Rogers -- Great ability to throw strikes on the outer half.

* Bonderman -- Great fastball, one of the best sliders in the game, evolving changeup.

* Robertson -- Really underrated, competes.

* Verlander -- Good feel for a young kid. Can plus and minus his fastball as well as any young pitcher, changing speeds with it, and can go to 97 (mph) when he wants it.

"I never have figured that out. They keep talking about young pitchers," Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. "Does somebody think it's harder this year for Justin Verlander to pitch than it is Kenny Rogers? Justin Verlander's a strong horse at 22 years old, Kenny Rogers is 41 years old. Why would it be easier for Kenny Rogers than it is for Justin Verlander? I never understood that. That'd be like saying it's tougher on a younger manager than it is on an older manager, and that ain't the truth, I can tell you that."

And that, you can be sure, is the past week talking.

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