It's amazing, and amusing, to see the difference in bullpen use between the regular season and the postseason. From April through September, everything is relatively scripted, long men are long men and closers rarely pitch more than an inning. Then comes October ... and it's total bedlam, starters and relievers living together, mass hysteria.
All the roles become one giant role: somehow get 27 outs, or, in the case of this absurdly good postseason, 33, 36 or 39 outs. The use of the bullpen is one reason why October is tremendous. It pushes closers to places they've never been, it turns pampered starters into tough guys and, for managers, it presents second-guess opportunities that'll be discussed forever.
"You spend five months of the regular season always looking out for today, but measuring it against the whole season," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "When September comes, and you're close, you've got to push. October is easy. You win or go home. No choices."
This postseason has been anything but easy. It began when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire allowed his closer, Joe Nathan, to pitch a third inning in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Yankees. Nathan had never pitched three innings as a closer, so when it failed, Gardenhire was roasted. It was totally unfair -- his options were rookie Jesse Crain and a struggling left-hander, J.C. Romero -- but fairness is often irrelevant in the postseason. When there's no tomorrow, there's no pity, and no leniency for the right move going wrong.
Astros manager Phil Garner brought in closer Brad Lidge in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the NLDS. What is this, 1978 with Yankees closer Goose Gossage? No one brings in a closer before the eighth inning these days, but when you're the Astros, and your seven-man bullpen includes five guys who played in the minor leagues, and one of the two who didn't is Dan Miceli, you throw the book out the window and get to your closer as soon as possible.
In Game 6 of the NLCS, Lidge and Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen each pitched three innings -- the first time in postseason history that two closers have pitched three innings in the same game. Isringhausen was attempting to complete a two-inning save, which he hadn't done all season. Lidge has gotten used to significant work this October. After inexplicably not being used in a key spot in Game 2, he threw 42 pitches in Game 3, then threw 26 the next day -- it marked the first time this season that he came back to pitch the day after throwing 40 pitches. In Games 3 and 4, he joined Gossage (twice in 1981) and Byung-Hyun Kim as the only closers to record six-out saves on consecutive days since the save rule became official in 1969. The next night, he only went one inning, but "he was going out for another, you know," said Astros pitching coach Jim Hickey, until Jeff Kent ended the game with a walkoff homer. The only pitcher since 1969 to record two-out saves in three consecutive days was workhorse Bruce Sutter of the 1980 Cubs.
The Red Sox-Yankees series destroyed, thankfully, all thinking on the way bullpens are deployed. The Red Sox brought closer Keith Foulke into Game 4 in the seventh inning, exactly what manager Terry Francona predicted he would do before the game. Not once, but twice in that series, Francona took a left-handed pitcher out of a game and replaced him with another left-hander: Alan Embree for Mike Myers, then Mike Myers for Alan Embree.
Then there is the use of starting pitchers out of the bullpen. It rarely, if ever, happens during the regular season, unlike many years ago when Warren Spahn would pitch in relief on occasion in between starts. But he was from a different era: He had 382 complete games, Pedro Martinez has pitched in 388 games. In the postseason, however, we routinely see a starting pitcher work in relief, all in the name of winning now.
It started in the ALDS when Angels left-hander Jarrod Washburn, a starting pitcher, replaced reliever Francisco Rodriguez to face left-handed hitting David Ortiz in the 10th inning of Game 3. Ortiz hit a home run to end the series. Since then, Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo and Martinez, all Boston starters, pitched in relief against the Yankees. It's understandable with Wakefield, who throws a knuckleball, but Arroyo's relief appearance followed a start two days earlier in which he didn't allow a swing-and-miss to the Yankees in two innings. In his relief appearance, Arroyo threw extremely well.
At this time of year, all starting pitchers have to be prepared to pitch in relief. Sometimes it works, as it did with Derek Lowe in Game 5 of the ALDS last year against Oakland, and sometimes id doesn't, including Steve Rogers against the Dodgers in 1981. But as some starting pitchers like to say, "my spikes are always on." They have to be, especially when some teams can't depend on certain relievers, such as poor Dan Miceli, who became the first reliever in postseason history to allow two walk-off home runs in his career. And he did it in the same postseason.
As the Astros prepared for Game 7 of the NLCS, Roy Oswalt, a starter, was preparing to pitch in relief. It would have been fitting for this postseason if he had joined Catfish Hunter (1974) and Orel Hershiser (1988) as the only 20-game winners to record a save in the postseason. Instead, the Cardinals won with six innings from starter Jeff Suppan, then used Kiko Calero, Julian Tavarez and Jason Isringhausen in the same order that were so often used in from April through September. For a postseason game, that was quite a surprise.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.