John Smoltz always rose to the occasion during 21 seasons in the major leagues. He logged a career 15-4 postseason record with a 2.67 ERA for the Atlanta Braves, and never hesitated to speak his mind. So when he expresses an opinion on the best way to set up a playoff rotation, it's newsworthy.
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez actually might be tempted to heed Smoltz's advice if not for a strange personality quirk: He likes being employed.
Smoltz, now a baseball analyst for TBS, provided some food for thought recently when he suggested the Braves should use their third-best starter in the upcoming one-game wild-card playoff and save their top two pitchers, Kris Medlen and Tim Hudson, for Games 1 and 2 of the National League Division Series at Turner Field. Smoltz theorizes that the risk is worth taking because Atlanta stands a better chance of winning a World Series with Medlen and Hudson lined up to pitch in the first round.
"I know it's unconventional," Smoltz told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "I know it's outside the box, and I know I'd get fired if I was the manager. But this is what I would do if I was the Atlanta Braves."
Former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, now a radio personality in Atlanta, chuckled when he heard the proposal. He always enjoyed talking pitching strategy with Smoltz and fellow aces Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine during the team's extended run of National League East dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s. But as a live-for-today guy, Mazzone is petrified by worst-case scenarios. And that's no knock on Paul Maholm or Mike Minor, Atlanta's two best starters beyond Medlen and Hudson.
"When I heard Smoltzy say that, I started laughing," Mazzone said. "I thought, 'He's still the same.' He's one of the smartest individuals I've ever been around. He's always tinkering, always trying to figure something out.
"But come on. It's great if you have the guts to do that, but you're gambling like hell. I don't see where you possibly could. You have to have your ace pitch that game. If there's no tomorrow, why would you not?"
Although Smoltz's plan is more off-the-cliff than outside-the-box, it puts an intriguing slant on the challenges that managers face in trying to survive September and maximize their chances in October. Along with getting the troops rested and healthy and maintaining the proper winning edge, big league managers also try to set up their rotations in a way that's most conducive to making a deep run in October.
For four teams, the task is nine innings harder this year. Baseball added a twist in the form of an extra wild-card team and a one-game playoff, and managers caught unprepared might encounter some trouble with the curves.
Who's No. 1?
Much of the chatter revolves around the best candidates to pitch a one-game playoff. Do the St. Louis Cardinals go with Kyle Lohse, their most consistent starter this season, or Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter, pitchers with more impressive postseason résumés? Whom do the Oakland A's start now that Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and (most likely) Brett Anderson are out of the equation and manager Bob Melvin is left with an all-rookie rotation?
And what about the Orioles, whose most accomplished starter this season, rookie Wei-Yin Chen, is 12-10 with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP?
"You know what you do?" said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter. "You try to get in, and you live with what happens after that. We don't really have somebody where we say, 'Boy, he's got to pitch that game.'"
Showalter isn't the only manager who treats questions about his playoff and postseason pitching plans as if they're radioactive. It's anathema to big league managers to defy the baseball gods by taking anything for granted.
"I swear to you, I only worry about today," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, whose team is frantically chasing the A's and Los Angeles Angels in the wild-card race. "We've done our best to try to line this up going into the potential playoffs, but if that gets skewed in any way and we have to do something different, I'm fine with that too."
We don't really have somebody where we say, 'Boy, he's got to pitch that game.'
”-- Orioles manager Buck Showalter
Showalter previously encountered this dilemma during his first managing gig 17 years ago in New York. The 1995 Yankees were clinging to a small lead in the wild-card race, and owner George Steinbrenner was pressuring him to use staff ace David Cone and sew up a playoff berth. Showalter resisted the Boss and started Scott Kamieniecki and Sterling Hitchcock in the final two games of the regular season because he wanted to save Cone to pitch twice against Seattle in the American League Division Series.
"I said, 'George, at the very worst, if we lose the last game and it's a tie, we have a one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium with David Cone pitching to get in. But if we can somehow close it out without using him, he pitches Games 1 and 5 of the playoffs,'" Showalter recalled. "That's the only chance we had against the Mariners."
Cone did, indeed, pitch twice in the ALDS. But Randy Johnson came out of the bullpen to save Seattle, and the Mariners won the series finale 6-5 to end the Yankees' season.
From 2007 through 2009, Colorado's Clint Hurdle, Chicago's Ozzie Guillen and Minnesota's Ron Gardenhire had to scramble when they were forced to survive a 163rd game to advance to the playoffs. The results were a mixed bag:
• In 2007, the Rockies started Josh Fogg against Jake Peavy in an NL West tiebreaker and outlasted San Diego 9-8 to advance to the playoffs. They made it all the way to the World Series with a rotation consisting of Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales and Fogg before getting swept by Boston.
• In a 2008 AL Central tiebreaker, the White Sox went with 23-year-old John Danks, who had posted a 7.91 ERA in four regular-season starts against Minnesota. Danks combined with Bobby Jenks to beat the Twins 1-0, allowing Guillen to open the ALDS against Tampa Bay with veterans Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle on the mound. But the White Sox were eliminated by the Rays in four games in the first round.
• The following year, Scott Baker and seven relievers helped Minnesota beat Detroit in another AL Central tiebreaker. The Yankees shelled Brian Duensing in Game 1 of the division series and bounced the Twins in three.
It's conceivable that a team pushing to make the playoffs could be forced to exhaust its resources in a way that would have a carryover effect down the line. But a deep rotation helps minimize the stress. After Lohse, Wainwright and Carpenter, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny can run out 17-game winner Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia, who is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA in September. That smorgasbord of options leaves him with plenty of wiggle room.
Managers and pitching coaches who have lived through an entire postseason insist there are too many variables to think too far ahead. With the new wild-card playoff, a team might have to play 20 games to win a World Series this fall. Mix in a rainout or two and a stray achy elbow or oblique pull, and managers always need to be ready to change course on the fly. During the Braves' extended run of division titles, Mazzone learned that each new series brings a clean slate and an opportunity to take a deep breath and assess the big picture from scratch.
"Once you got through that best-of-five first round, you actually enjoyed the postseason," Mazzone said. "When it's a best-of-seven, you can roll over your rotation and the depth comes out."
Gonzalez did some juggling last week before Freddie Freeman hit a walk-off homer against Miami to clinch a wild-card berth for Atlanta. He reconfigured his rotation so that Hudson would be available to pitch the final game of the regular season and Medlen could pitch the play-in game on regular rest. Although the Braves haven't made an official announcement, it's a foregone conclusion that Medlen will start the wild-card playoff next Friday, most likely against St. Louis.
Both pitchers have their selling points. Hudson is a three-time All-Star with a career .657 winning percentage (197-103) and nine postseason starts. Medlen, 26, is 9-1 with a 1.64 ERA, 116 strikeouts and 22 walks this season. The Braves are working on a 22-game win streak in Medlen's starts, and his command has been so reminiscent of Maddux's that adoring Atlanta fans now refer to him as "Med-Dog."
Medlen and Hudson both project an air of calm on the mound that makes Gonzalez feel like either starter is a no-lose proposition.
"They pitch like they're pitching in their backyard," Gonzalez said. "There's not a big moment. They both command the baseball. They both throw it over the plate, and they're not scared of contact. They're not going to spook. Both those guys have that attribute."
Gonzalez hasn't had to worry about diplomacy in choosing his wild-card starter because Hudson is such an ego-free, team-first guy. Hudson recently told Gonzalez and Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell that he is happy to contribute in whatever manner they see fit.
"Medlen's been really good," Hudson said. "He would be my choice. Obviously, I want to pitch every important game we have. But if I had to pick anybody right now, hell, he's been throwing the ball as good as anybody in baseball. You would be foolish not at least to have him as an option to pitch."
Since Atlanta clinched a playoff spot so early, Gonzalez had the luxury of mapping out his pitching plans before Showalter, Melvin et al. But he is still a world removed from former Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose postseason planning sessions with Mazzone were brief, to put it mildly. Nothing simplifies October decision-making more than a rotation fronted by three future Hall of Famers.
"I'll give you a great ending to a story," Mazzone said. "One time we were getting ready to start the postseason, and I said, 'Bobby, who do you want to start in the first game -- Maddux, Glavine or Smoltz?' And he said, 'Whose turn is it?'"