Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Playoff Previews: Why This Could be the Year, Part II

Yesterday we took a look at how this year’s hitters stack up against the teams from the past two postseasons. Today we will cover the pitching half of the equation. In the playoffs, the game is elevated to a new level. A dominant pitching performance can still come up short, and it is important to have as much depth as possible. For the first time in years, the Twins have a legitimate playoff number one starter in Johan Santana. They have a power bullpen. They have a pitcher to compliment Santana in Brad Radke, one who won't let down in game two. All of this is reason to get excited for the Twins' chances. Below we take a closer look at how they compare to previous years.

Number One Starter
One of the Twins biggest problems going into the 2002 playoffs was a lack of playoff pitching experience. At the time there was actually a debate of whether Brad Radke or Rick Reed should start game one. Reed was coming off a pretty good year in which he went 15-7 with a 3.78 ERA. In the end Brad Radke was given the nod in game one and he did not disappoint, going 2-1 with a 1.96 ERA in the playoffs. He overcame the Twins' early jitters and beat Oakland twice. Last year the number one was Johan Santana, who pitched great in the second half after coming out of the bullpen. He started well against the Yankees but his final line was 6 runs in two starts, totaling 7.2 innings. This year, Santana taken his game to another level and has had arguably one of the most dominate second halves in baseball history. He has been in his starting role for a season and a half and has not backed down in any of his big games this year. He is now a legitimate ace, one who strikes fear in the hearts of any possible playoff opponents. Curt Schilling is the only other pitcher who will be able to match up with him if he is in his regular season form. Now, all he needs to do is go out and prove he can carry it into the second season.
Edge - 2004 Twins - Santana will carry his dominance into the playoffs but will need to give the Twins a win every time out.

Number Two Starter
Rick Reed was the man going into the 2002 playoffs and gave up 8 runs in just 10.1 innings. His playoff experience meant nothing as the Twins lost both his starts. Brad Radke continued his playoff success in 2003 by keeping the Twins in the game that he pitched, giving up 2 runs in 6.1 innings. Radke was a solid regular season pitcher last year with 14 wins and a 4.49 ERA. This year, he is having one of his best seasons. His ERA is almost a full run lower and he has been consistent all year. He gives the Twins a second starter who can match up with anyone. It still might be hard for him to improve his numbers from the last 2 years.
Edge - 2004 Twins - Radke may need to win every game he pitches for the Twins to win the World Series but he seems to be especially up to the task this year.

Third and Fourth Starters
Both Eric Milton and Joe Mays had been injured in either 2002 or 2003. Milton won his start against Oakland and pitched well in the ALCS in '02. Mays had been terrible for most of the year and struggled in the ALDS. He pitched a spectacular game one against Anaheim and won the only game in that series for the Twins. Against the Yankees, the Twins only needed a third starter. Kyle Lohse gave up a disappointing 3 runs in 5 innings. He had won 14 games with a 4.61 ERA in 2003. This year, the Twins third starter is Carlos Silva. Silva has finished strong nailing down his spot. He was not a starter before this year; he gives up a lot of hits and uses his sinker to induce double plays and get out of trouble. When compared to the rest of the third starters in these playoffs his 14 wins and 4.16 ERA are pretty darn good. Terry Muholland has come out of the 'pen to keep the Twins in most of the games he starts. However, he probably won't be needed unless the team goes deep into the playoffs. He is a wily veteran and capable of getting the Twins five solid innings before handing it over to the bullpen in addition to contributing in long relief.
Edge - Previous Teams - In 2002 the Twins had more starters capable of pitching well; for now it is wait and see how Silva fairs.

Eddie Guardado was not particularly dominating in the 2002 or 2003 playoffs. In both years he had an ERA over 9, and we all remember Mark Ellis' famous blast in game five of the ALDS. He did record 3 saves in his outings while not losing a game for the Twins. Joe Nathan has been much more dominant than Guardado this year. He is more of a power pitcher and strikes out 10.70 guys per 9 innings.
Edge - 2004 Twins - Nathan shuts the door on the 9th innings and maybe even the 8th if they need him to.

Lefthanded Setup
The Twins had a great 1-2 punch of JC Romero and Johan Santana going into the 2002 playoffs. Both pitchers struggled, posting ERAs over 8 after dominating in the regular season. Much of this was blamed on overuse during the season. Last year Romero was back and didn't allow a run in 3.1 innings after struggling during the regular season. This year, Romero has been up and down but has an impressive 3.04 ERA and over 8 K per 9 innings. He has pitched close to where he was during his dominant 2002 season. He will be counted on to get big outs but has struggled at times in those situations. He is a wild card going into theplayoffs.
Edge - Previous teams - It is hard to trust Romero with a lead and so the big outs will have to come from the hard throwing righties.

Righthanded Setup
LaTroy Hawkins was a great pitcher in 2002 but struggled in the playoffs somewhat. Last year he dominated the Yankees in game one, but they were able to get him later in the series. Juan Rincon has replaced him in the bullpen and had an outstanding year with 11 wins, a 2.67 ERA and 11.47 K/9. Rincon strikes out more batters than Hawkins but at times has looked worn down throughout the year.
Edge – Even - Rincon should be able to improve on Hawkins' postseason numbers and hopefully make it a 6-7 inning game.

The Rest of the Bunch
In 2002 the Twins relied mostly on their big 3 with Mike Jackson and Tony Fiorie struggling in their appearances. Last year, Rincon pitched well, giving up no runs in 2.1 innings. The regular season starters also pitched some good innings in relief for the team. This year the Twins have more depth. They can throw Jesse Crain and Grant Balfour at teams and then come back with Joe Roa when they need someone to eat some innings. Crain has a chance to be the K-Rod of this year's playoffs. He has pitched 22.1 innings and given up just 6 ER.
Edge - 2004 Twins - The Twins have a bullpen with the ability to shrink a game and dominate should a starter have to leave early.

(Note yesterday we forgot to include a comparison of the bench players so we will slip it in here)

The Twins had a decent bench in 2002 with Dustan Mohr, Matt LeCroy, Bobby Kielty and Denny Hocking. Mohr and LeCroy even started games for the Twins, while Kielty was probably their best pitch hitter. What they lacked was experience. The same goes for last year, evidenced by the fact that Mike Ryan was the best option to pitch hit against Roger Clemons in a crucial situation. The Twins believe they have fixed that this year with the addition of Jose Offerman. Offerman has already had some big hits off the bench this year and will probably be joined by Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Matt LeCroy and Augie Ojeda. That group includes more potential than in past years.
Edge - 2004 Twins - Offerman has stayed on the roster all year for this one purpose; Kubel and LeCroy give Gardenhire flexibility.

The Twins are legitimately a better team then they have been. They have more weapons on top of that added experience. Johan Santana scares other teams and then the Twins get to follow him with Brad Radke, a proven playoff commodity. If they make it to the late innings with the lead, Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan should shut the door. This doesn’t mean the Twins are going to win it all, but it gives them a chance. They are no longer the new kids on the block and seemed poised to go further then they have before. Only the Yankees, Red Sox, and possibly St. Louis stand in their way.

Playoff Perspectives

Boston won 10-8 over Tampa Bay to go 95-62 and move to 2.5 GB the Yankees.

Twins and Yankees rained out, doubleheader today starting at 3 p.m.
Notes – “El Duque” Hernandez is expierencing a tired arm but should be able to pitch later in the week.

Anaheim beat Texas 8-2 to go 89-68, now tied for the lead in the West.

Oakland lost 7-2 to Seattle to go 89-68, tied for the lead in the West.
Notes – Tim Hudson allowed 7 runs in 6 innings, Ichiro collected two hits and is only 3 from 257.

National League

Atlanta won 5-2 and lost 2-1 to the Mets in a doubleheader to go 93-65.
Chicago lost 8-3 to Cincinnati to go 88-69, .5 GA in the Wild Card.
Houston beat St. Louis 2-1 to go 88-70, .5 GB in the WC.
San Francisco won 7-5 over San Diego to go 87-69, .5 GB in the WC.
Los Angeles won 5-4 over Colorado to go 91-66, 3 GA in the West.