One theme that came out of all four Division Series matchups was the importance of having a closer who can finish off games under postseason duress. All four series were decided at least in part because of a closer’s inability to seal the deal.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn’t allowed an earned run in 26 innings over 17 career postseason appearances, gave up three after retiring the first two batters in the top of the 9th inning Sunday, allowing the Angels to complete a sweep. Minnesota’s Joe Nathan added to his lousy postseason track record by blowing a two-run ninth inning lead in Game 2 against the Yankees and giving up a pair of crucial insurance runs in Game 3. While Cardinals’ left fielder Matt Holliday should have caught that fly ball that would have ended Game 2, Ryan Franklin melted down after that, allowing the Dodgers to take a 2-0 series lead that eventually became a sweep. And Rockies’ closer Huston Street denied his team a chance to play a winner-take-all Game 5 against the Phillies by blowing a two-out, two-run lead in the top of the 9th inning of Game 4….after the Phillies’ much-maligned pen had blown a lead the previous inning.
Just in case Mariano Rivera wasn’t appreciated enough for his remarkable consistency over the years.
Most baseball pundits say the starting rotation is more important in the playoffs, and for the most part, they’ve been right. But many teams with good rotations have lost series because their bullpens didn’t rise to the moment. The 1986 Angels in the ALCS (Dave Henderson’s home run off Donnie Moore), the 1993 Phillies in the World Series, the 1997 Orioles in the ALCS (Armando Benitez blowing two saves and being the losing pitcher three times)…the list goes on. Starters very rarely go the distance anymore, even in the postseason (yay pitchcounts!).
Which brings me to this year’s NLCS, which starts Thursday in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have an outstanding bullpen led by the likes of George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton, but a very ordinary starting rotation. The Phillies, on the other hand, have a very good 1-2 starting rotation punch in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and others like J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton and Pedro Martinez who can be good when they’re on. But getting the final outs of the game is an adventure every night.
So what will give in this series? The beginning of the game? Or the end?