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Sunday, September 30, 2007
A-Rod, Indians' pitching ready to shine in playoffs

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

The top five questions heading into the Division Series between the Yankees and Indians:

IndiansYankees

Will Alex Rodriguez's recent postseason slump continue?

Only in baseball do we ever ask this. These slumps can't happen in basketball or football. Michael Jordan never scored 30 points per game during the regular season, then 10 a game in the playoffs. Impossible. And yet A-Rod is hitless in his past 12 at-bats in the postseason and has six hits in his past 49 at-bats in the playoffs with one homer and three RBIs. But he is a different player and a different guy now.

With his historic 2007 season, A-Rod has repaired his image with his team and the town. He has stopped trying to please everyone and just played like few ever have. There will be no slump this postseason. Plus, he demolished the Indians this year: In six games, he went 8-for-24 with six home runs and 13 RBIs. Included was a walk-off, three-run home run off Joe Borowski to cap a six-run ninth inning April 19.

Fausto Carmona

Carmona

C.C. Sabathia

Sabathia

Which team has the best 1-2 pitching punch in the playoffs?

The Indians. C.C. Sabathia likely will win the Cy Young Award in the American League. Fausto Carmona is going to finish in the top five.

Together they have won 38 games this year, the most by any two teammates. If this series goes five games, the Yankees probably will see the two pitchers start three times. And, amazingly, the Yankees haven't seen Sabathia pitch since Sept. 1, 2004. It probably is an advantage to the pitcher when a team hasn't faced him in more than three years. Sabathia is a changed pitcher since then, a better pitcher with greater command. And he will need that command, because he is 1-7 with a 7.13 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

How much does the season series affect what happens in the postseason?

Oftentimes, it doesn't matter. But these numbers are startling. The Yankees went 6-0 against the Indians this season, outscoring them 49-17. The only other time one team was unbeaten (six or more games) against another in the regular season, then faced that team in the postseason, was in 2003, when the Yankees were 7-0 against the Twins. The Bombers beat Minnesota in four games of that Division Series.

Granted, when the Yankees scored 27 runs in three games against the Indians April 17-19 at Yankee Stadium, the Indians weren't yet the team that tore through the Central Division the final six weeks of the regular season.

Will the Indians' bullpen be up for the challenge?

Yes. The Indians bullpen's ERA is 3.77, fourth-best in the league.

Their set-up men are as good as there are in the American League, led by right-hander Rafael Betancourt, who has a 1.47 ERA. Betancourt is holding the opposition to a .183 batting average, and he has nine walks and 80 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings. Lefty Rafael Perez has a 1.78 ERA and a .187 batting average against, with 15 walks and 62 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings.

Closer Joe Borowski had the highest ERA (5.07) ever for a pitcher with at least 40 saves (45); only two other pitchers have had an ERA over 4.00 in a 40-save season. Borowski, obviously, is no Mariano Rivera, but that high ERA mainly resulted from three appearances in which he allowed four or more runs, including the meltdown April 19 at Yankee Stadium when he allowed six runs in the ninth inning. Don't count on Borowski forgetting about that outing.

Roger Clemens

Clemens

Who will pitch Game 3 for the Yankees?

That still is uncertain. It could be Mike Mussina. It could be rookie Ian Kennedy. But how can it not be Roger Clemens?

His decision to pitch one more season was made so he could pitch in games such as this. There's no way a tender right elbow is going to stop him from pitching in the postseason one more time. This is Roger Clemens. He's a rock star. He loves the big stage more than anyone. There's no way he's going to miss out on that chance.

Prediction: Yankees in five.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Is This a Great Game, Or What?", has been published by St. Martin's Press and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.