September 28, 2006
The Playoff Picture Is Clearly Uncertain
By MURRAY CHASS
Is anyone around here ready to pitch in the playoffs next week? Other than Johan Santana, that is. What about Pedro Martínez, Randy Johnson, Brad Radke, Justin Verlander, Chris Carpenter?
Carpenter may be ready to pitch, despite his poor performances in his past two starts, but he may not have a team to pitch for. St. Louis hasn’t yet guaranteed itself a spot in the postseason. The Cardinals have a shockingly shrinking game-and-a-half lead over Houston.
The playoffs begin Tuesday, but even the teams that have confirmed playoff reservations don’t know whom they will play. Both Central Division races and both wild-card races remain undecided.
The Yankees know they will play Detroit or Minnesota, whichever one is relegated to the wild card. The other team, which will win the American League Central, will play Oakland in the division series.
The Mets have the National League’s best record, so they will play the wild-card team, assuming it is not Philadelphia. If the Phillies, a game behind Los Angeles, win the wild card, the Mets will most likely play the Central winner — the Cardinals, the Astros or the Cincinnati Reds — because it would have a worse record than the West winner, San Diego or Los Angeles.
•Until last Thursday, the Cardinals had a better record than the Padres. But the Cardinals lost seven straight and the Padres won six straight, giving the West-leading Padres a four-and-a-half-game lead over the Cardinals. Both streaks ended last night when the Cardinals defeated the Padres, 4-2.
Carpenter, a Cy Young award winner last year with a 21-5 record, has been directly involved in the Cardinals’ collapse. He allowed six runs in a 6-5 loss to Houston that triggered a four-game Astros’ sweep last week, and six runs in a 7-5 loss to San Diego on Tuesday.
At least he’s healthy. The health and/or strength of some of the other notable playoff pitchers isn’t so certain.
Last night, Martínez made his third start since missing a month with a strained calf muscle. The results of his first two starts were mixed, and what had once seemed a certainty — Pedro pitching the Mets’ playoff opener — became questionable.
Martínez magnified the question because the Atlanta Braves battered him for seven runs in two and two-thirds innings.
If Tom Glavine pitches as scheduled Saturday in Washington, he would not be able to start the playoff opener. If Manager Willie Randolph decides not to use Martínez, that would leave Orlando Hernández as the first-game pitcher. But if Randolph wanted Glavine to open, he could scratch him from the Saturday start.
Hernández, the seemingly ageless Cuban, has a 9-3 postseason record, all of the decisions gained with the Yankees. In one inning of relief in the World Series for the Chicago White Sox last year, he created a bases-loaded situation with walks, then worked out of it.
The Yankees have their own pitching question. Johnson, who would nominally be the team’s No. 1 starter, had back spasms in his last start and is forgoing his scheduled start tonight. He is now scheduled to pitch the third playoff game after Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina.
The Tigers, who are fighting off the Twins for first place in the A.L. Central, plan to skip Verlander’s next start Saturday so he can have additional rest for the playoffs. Verlander, who has already been rested once this season, has pitched 186 innings this season after throwing 118 2/3 last year in his first professional season. A 23-year-old right-hander, Verlander was 14-4 on Aug. 1, but has struggled since with a 3-5 record.
The Twins could have had the strongest corps of starting pitchers in the playoffs, but now they are certain of having only Santana, a 19-game winner and a lock for his second Cy Young award.
The rookie Francisco Liriano joined Santana in giving the Twins the best 1-2 pitching punch in the major leagues. Liriano is finished for the year because of an elbow ailment. With his 12-3 record, the Twins can only ask, “What if?”
The Twins will learn something about Brad Radke tonight. Their veteran No. 3 starter, Radke has missed more than a month with a pair of tears in his right shoulder, and a strong return against Kansas City would buoy the Twins’ postseason hopes.
The Oakland Athletics have already had their playoff hopes buoyed with the strong return of Rich Harden. A disabled-list resident twice this season, Harden came back a week ago after missing 15 weeks with a sprained elbow ligament. In two starts, he has allowed one run and four hits and struck out 12 in eight innings.
Given that they are 8-0 in Harden’s abbreviated number of starts, the Athletics are delighted to have him available for the playoffs.
•Although the Mets won’t admit it, they would be delighted to see the Phillies miss the playoffs. Vulnerable the past two months to left-handed starters, the Mets would do well to avoid the Phillies, who have three left-handed starters — Cole Hamels, Randy Wolf and Jamie Moyer.
Since July 31, the Mets have a 23-9 record in games started by right-handers, 7-15 in games started by left-handers. The other teams the Mets could play aren’t nearly as left-handed. The Cardinals, in fact, have no left-handed starters. If they hold on and win the division title, their quasi collapse could benefit the Mets more because the Mets would not have to face a left-handed starter.