|ESPN.com | Baseball Index | Peter Gammons Bio|
Series talk starts with Big Three
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
They are nearing the point where "if" precedes their aspirations, or a "might be" is attached to the notion that the Mariners, A's and Yankees are the three best teams in the American League. Joe Torre has made it clear that he wants to have a better record than the Indians, not necessarily because he prefers playing Oakland to Seattle, but because the Yankees would get the home-field advantage for the first round, with the Athletics as the wild card.
Not that anyone necessarily wants to play the Indians, either, because up and down the lineup and around the infield, they are still one of the most dangerous teams in either league with Robby Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome playing for the ring. But while Dave Burba put together three straight encouraging outings after returning from the bullpen, finding his legs and thus his fastball, until they know that Bartolo Colon has matured, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey are healthy and John Rocker regains his self-confidence, they are fourth in line in what could be one of the best American League postseasons since the wild-card format was introduced in 1995.
They are 1-2-3 in wins. Oakland and Seattle are 1-2 in starters' ERA, and the Yankees are just now getting their Fab Four together. The Yankees have won four of the last five World Series and won't be counted out until someone piles six feet of dirt atop them. But the A's and Mariners both believe they can beat The Bombers and should have beaten them last October.
Is each team flawed? Of course. The Yankees are worried about their bench. If they get into a lot of middle-relief situations they could worry and they may have to rely on Alfonso Soriano, Shane Spencer and Nick Johnson in several pressure situations. The A's have been prone to offensive lapses, especially when Johnny Damon gets shut down, but more important, they have struggled in the bullpen for long periods of time, not only with Jason Isringhausen leading the league in blown saves, but because Jim Mecir has been hurt and others have been inconsistent. The Mariners do not have much sock coming off the bench if Lou Piniella needs to pinch-hit for anyone in the bottom third of the order.
That said, every team has flaws. Ask the Astros how much they worry about getting dominated by hard-throwing right-handed pitchers, especially those with nasty sliders. And it's easy to see any of the American League's three best teams winning it all for one reason: pitching. Power pitching, especially starting pitching.
Going into Sunday's games, Tim Hudson and Mike Mussina led the league in quality starts with 20. Freddy Garcia and Barry Zito were next with 19. Roger Clemens, Mark Mulder, Andy Pettitte and Aaron Sele had 18. Then comes the rest of the league's starters.
Clemens leads the league in wins with 18, followed by Mulder and Jamie Moyer at 16, then Hudson and Freddy Garcia at 15 and Pettitte and C.C. Sabathia (finally another team's pitcher) at 14. Ten of the 15 top AL pitchers in ERA start for the Yankees, Mariners or A's.
"Any of us that can get a little room in September can help our pitching for the postseason," said Piniella, who like the A's had to go to the last day of the season last year and didn't have his starters aligned as the Yankees were able to do when Boston bowed out in early September. "The big guys have worked hard all season. But the key is going to be to get them a little time -- maybe skip a start, limit some innings or throw in some extra days' rest -- early in the month. You don't want to be sitting guys around and let them get out of whack the last couple of weeks of the season and have them out of synch in the playoffs. Same thing with the bullpen. It's a tricky proposition that has to be done right."
If they are right, there isn't one of these staffs anyone wants to face, especially in the first round. But as good as Seattle and Oakland may be, the Yankees right now are regaining their swagger with Derek Jeter healthy and playing like the star he is, David Justice getting healthy and Bernie Williams on an MVP-type of run to the end. "With all due respect to the other teams, when I hear people say we should hate to play Oakland or Seattle," Paul O'Neill said, "but what about the guys we run out there? Roger, Andy and Mike (Mussina) are as good as anyone, anywhere."
Clemens could use a little rest down the stretch, although he'll deny it. Mussina, who start-by-start has been everything he was signed to be and has a postseason history of some brilliant outings, goes with Pettitte to form their traditional Big Three without knowing how Orlando Hernandez, a postseason master, will perform. "This team doesn't talk about what it's going to do," Bernie Williams said. "We just try to perform, not talk."
As for Seattle, Garcia is a legitimate No. 1 starter and showed it beating the Yankees twice in last season's ALCS. Moyer has pitched well against the Yankees. Sele has been reliable and Piniella's deep, powerful bullpen allows him to match up situations the last three innings. It worked last year, only Justice twice beat Arthur Rhodes with games on the line.
But while the Yankee starters back down to none, they would like to start Oakland in The Stadium. "Those guys are really good," O'Neill said. "Very, very tough."
Will inexperience apply? "It didn't last year and won't this year, either," Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson said. Indeed, Mulder was sidelined with a back injury for the Yankee series, and Hudson and Zito couldn't pitch until the third and fourth games because they had to work the final weekend to get Oakland into first place. Hudson lost Game 3 in The Stadium, allowing three earned runs in eight innings, but anyone who saw the game remembers that his biggest problem was that the Yankees didn't hit the ball hard enough for the infielders to turn outs. Zito beat Clemens in Game 4.
Remember, Hudson was the Cy Young runner-up in 2000 and is the winningest pitcher in the league since his debut in June 1999. Mulder and Zito each came up from the minors during last season. Mulder has 26 wins, Zito 18 since arriving in Oakland, and Zito recently has been one of the most dominant starters in the game. "They're all very different individuals," said Peterson, who has been described as the Ayn Rand of pitching coaches. "But each one is a great athlete, has a great delivery in terms of hip turn and mechanics, each one has great stuff and each one is totally fearless."
"Imagine going into Yankee Stadium with Mulder and Zito," said one A's official. "We'd have a chance." Coming up with two prime left-handed starters in a league in which 24.3 percent of the games were started by left-handers going into the weekend (from 1990-93, lefty starts ranged from 30-34 percent) is very important. And while the Yankees have fared well against lefty starters this season, Mulder and Zito are not your average left-handed starters.
Mulder is one of the few pitchers who can beat you easily with his sinker, or he can throw his curveball and change and strike you out. His velocity has often touched 95, yet in his five complete games, only once did he throw more than 100 pitches. Zito's been to 120 pitches three times and Hudson reached 115 just three times all season. Art Howe and Peterson closely monitor their starters' pitches in 11-day cycles -- three starts, two work days -- and if any one of them gets up into a high count they back off a throw day or the next game.
Since Zito moved across the rubber to the third-base side and regained the focus that burst him into the spotlight last season, he has thrown harder (up to 91) with his usual filthy curveball, a developing change and a new angle in to hitters.
Other teams point to the bullpen, which Saturday broke down in Tampa, but Mecir's return this week is a huge factor for the postseason. Mecir has a rehab outing Monday and could be back by the end of the week. "He was close to the best eighth-inning reliever in the league last year," Peterson said, "and he's doubly valuable because he gets left-handers out so well with his screwball. So his return could be a big thing for us."
It is Labor Day weekend and you start thinking about Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown and Chan Ho Park or Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine come October. But it's been awhile since the American League has had headline starting-pitching acts like the Yankees, Mariners and A's. If you think about it long enough, you start to think that any one of them could be left standing with the fourth and last case of champagne.
Velarde welcome, surprising addition
ESPN.com: Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at ESPN.com