Commentary

Rangers take unusual pitching approach

Texas is rare Series team to ride unpredictable rotation backed by dominant bullpen

Updated: October 17, 2011, 12:38 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- No Cliff Lee, no problem.

Yet as the Texas Rangers celebrated a second straight American League championship on their home field late into a perfect Saturday night, such a flippant statement cannot be made if we're keeping things real.

Lee's brilliance in the divisional and league championship series a year ago propelled the Rangers. Even when he wasn't pitching, he applied enormous pressure on the opponent, looming over the two AL series as the ultimate elimination hammer.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
Tim Heitman/US PresswireALCS Game 6 starter Derek Holland lasted 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits. Four Rangers relievers finished the game, giving up just one run and three hits over 4 1/3 innings.
Throughout the six-game ALCS against the wounded Detroit Tigers and the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rangers' rotation has defied conventional wisdom and beaten the odds.

Perhaps the happiest man in the Rangers' clubhouse Saturday night was their No. 1 starter, C.J. Wilson. The 16-game winner has taken his lumps this postseason, but he's been afforded the chance to get back in the saddle Wednesday night in Game 1 of the World Series at St. Louis.

He's not the only one. The Rangers' four starters -- Wilson, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison -- finished the ALCS with a 6.59 ERA. The only rotation in baseball history to post a higher ERA in the ALCS and still advance to the World Series was the 1977 Yankees with a 7.25 ERA.

This staff went all 10 playoff games without a single starter pitching beyond the sixth inning. When's the last time a rotation rode such a streak into the Fall Classic?

Never.

"Our starting rotation is arguably the biggest reason we made it to October," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who strategically bolstered the bullpen at the trade deadline rather than seek a top-line starter such as Lee during the offseason. "Our starters pitched real close to 1,000 innings for us. I was very confident in our rotation."

And so the Rangers are now that rare World Series team with an unpredictable, front-end rotation bolstered by a dominant back-end bullpen and an offense of big bats that can explode at any time.

Oddly, so are the St. Louis Cardinals. Ace and Game 1 starter Chris Carpenter threw a complete game shutout to oust Lee's Phillies in Game 5 of the ALDS. Otherwise, the Cards have been buoyed by a bullpen that actually logged more innings pitched against the Milwaukee Brewers in the six-game NLCS than the starters, a scenario practically unheard of in the postseason.

How does pitching coach Mike Maddux feel about the Rangers' formula for success so far?

"Words can't explain it," Maddux said after the Game 6 clincher in which starter Holland allowed four runs (including three more home runs) in 4 2/3 innings, while four relievers combined for a single run and three hits over 4 1/3.

[+] EnlargeNeftali Feliz
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireCloser Neftali Feliz finished out Game 6 with a perfect ninth inning to send the Rangers back to the World Series.
"Very happy," Maddux said. "Elated."

Maddux and Washington have adjusted their approach to managing the rotation, taking a reversed philosophy of traditional baseball strategy. Washington will certainly take more innings from his starters, but he isn't hesitating to employ the bullpen early and often.

"Our rotation all year long is so good, they kept the bullpen fresh, which is why we are allowed to kind of use the bullpen the way we use it right now because the starters covered their tails all year," Maddux said. "It's not unique. You have to win the game today."

In the Rangers' six ALCS games, Washington pulled his starter after five or fewer innings four times.

Holland, the emotional left-hander, continued that trend in Game 6. Staked to a 9-2 lead after three innings, he couldn't complete the fifth inning, giving up a two-run homer to Tigers leadoff man Austin Jackson, his only blast of the postseason.

"I know I've got to step it up big time and go longer than two innings or whatever," Holland said. "I've got to continue to go out there and keep battling and everything will be all right."

Washington has had the luxury of turning to relievers with starting experience in Scott Feldman, who has been brilliant in long relief, and Alexi Ogando, whose high-90s fastball has dazzled fans and demoralized opposing hitters.

Mike Adams, a key deadline trade acquisition, and flame-throwing closer Neftali Feliz have locked down the late innings. Darren Oliver has pitched well in his limited innings and situational left-hander Mike Gonzalez found success twice in three chances.

In 40.1 innings, the bullpen has allowed 10 runs, 27 hits and 12 walks with 37 strikeouts.

But five of those runs belong to disappointing Koji Uehara in just 1 1/3 innings. Washington will have options for the World Series if he so desires. Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Lowe, injured in late September, said he is ready to return, and side-winding right-hander Darren O'Day is also available.

Wilson, the staff ace being talked about as commanding upward of $80 million in free agency, can wipe his bloated slate (0-2 with an 8.04 ERA) clean. He unraveled in the sixth inning of Game 5 after an unlucky bounce turned a Miguel Cabrera grounder to third into a run-scoring double down the line.

Lewis, the most consistent of the four starters, added to his major league high home run total with three more in his two starts totaling 11 2/3 innings. Young guns Holland and Harrison have racked up heavy pitch counts while doing a decent job of escaping jams of their own making.

"For me, personally, I had never pitched in the playoffs," said Harrison, who has lasted five innings in both of his starts with a 4.22 ERA. "So, I think especially with this [Detroit] lineup, I was a little bit more timid about coming as much in the strike zone."

Amid Saturday night's rousing celebration, the Rangers starters' low innings and high ERA were not a chief concern.

"We're good," Josh Hamilton said. "We made it this far, we'll be all right."

Cliff Lee can't say the same.

Jeff Caplan covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.

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