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Final stretch can be draining come October
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
First place may matter to the Mets and the Braves, but it doesn't matter that much. Oh, home-field advantage is important and there may be advantages to playing the Cardinals rather than the Giants in the first round, but not at the risk of blowing out their pitching staffs and opening the playoffs with Bobby Jones or Andy Ashby.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean knows "it takes a lot out of you if you have to scramble and fight to the final day. Sometimes you expend so much energy doing that, so there's nothing left. It's hard enough for one series, let alone getting set for three." Joe Torre knows, which is why his postseason rotation has been in place for a week.
Sometimes teams do fight through a tough end to the regular season, most notably the 1999 Mets who had to go to an extra game against the Reds to make it into the playoffs, then turned around and beat Arizona. The Mets developed a guerilla mentality after playing the Braves in two intense series in September. They had depth. Hey, they also had a lot of talent, but if they had been able to clinch by September 20 and Bobby Valentine had been able to set his pitching staff in order, would they have lost the first three games to Atlanta? Probably not.
The '95 Mariners are another club that overcame the extra game. After beating the Angels with Randy Johnson in the AL West tiebreaker, they came from behind to win three straight from the Yankees in their noisy dome and turn baseball around in the region. But they also ran into a wall in Game 6 of the ALCS against Cleveland, when Johnson finally tired pitching several games on three days' rest. One more recent example of a club that survived a long race is Atlanta in 1991, a club that was playing on the fumes of its ascent.
Otherwise, the message to the Indians, Red Sox, Athletics and other clubs clawing their way to the postseason is that making the playoffs is worth it, but there is a price. Remember what the long, glorious race with the Giants in '93 did to the Braves, who ran into a wall and lost to the John Kruk/Lenny Dykstra Phillies in the NLCS. The Giants in 1997 went to the last weekend to edge the Dodgers, but were worn out by the time they met the Marlins in the first round and were out in three games. The '98 Cubs rode Sammy Sosa and the daily appearance of Rod Beck through a one-game playoff with the Giants into the Division Series, but they had nothing left. In '96, the Dodgers and Padres went to the final day for the NL West title, and neither won a Division Series game -- although this generation of Dodgers might have had a month to prepare and still wouldn't have awakened.
The 1988-90 Oakland Athletics were clearly the best team in the American League, but any chance the '89 Blue Jays and '90 Red Sox had of beating them were exhausted by having to clinch on the final weekends. In Toronto, they remember 1985 and having to go to the second-to-last-day against the Yankees -- blowing the clincher on Friday night in Exhibition Stadium -- which probably wore them out so badly that when the nothing-to-lose Royals started coming back in the ALCS they had nothing left. In 1987, an aging Tigers club left everything in the pennant race when Frank Tanana beat Jimmy Key 1-0 on the final day, then got clocked by the Twins in the ALCS.
"People talk about momentum going into the postseason, (but) I'll take fresh," Torre says. "I prefer my starters to be fresh and in a rotation, same with my relievers. But you can't always have that."
The Indians thought they were set last year, but all of a sudden they had breakdowns in the bullpen, Dave Burba got hurt with a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning of a possible clinching playoff win over the Red Sox and the team unravelled. This time around, Cleveland may have to kill its bullpen down the stretch; or maybe Boston's pen continues to perform miracles through its brutal schedule and the Red Sox have to throw Pedro Martinez in Tampa Bay the season's final day just to get the right to face the White Sox, leaving a whole lot of heart and Pedro going in Game 3 instead of 1 and 5.
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