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MLB 2014 Postseason: Playoff Pitchers To Watch

Andrew Schultz |
October 1, 2014 | 11:36 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

As we enter October baseball, pitching is placed at an even higher premium than usual. All ten teams in this year’s playoffs have their strengths (and some weaknesses) in their staff, and it’s how they use those advantages and exploit their opponents’ disadvantages that could determine who enters the offseason as World Series champions.

That being said, here are the most important pitchers for each playoff team. These will not all be the aces of the staff, although quite a few are, but they’re the pitchers that need to step up for their team to celebrate at the end of the month.

Angels: RP Huston Street (41 saves, 1.37 ERA)

Huston Street was the biggest trade acquisition of the season for the Angels, helping to completely turn around a bullpen that was among the league’s worst at the beginning of the year. The bullpen has turned into a strength, which is good for the Angels because their best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards (13-4, 2.61 ERA) is done for the year after surgery in his left knee.

The Angels will still be able to throw out a three-man rotation of Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59 ERA), C.J. Wilson (13-10, 4.51 ERA) and Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04 ERA), but they’ll need their bullpen more on their way to the World Series. They could face the two best bullpens in baseball in the Royals, and possibly the Orioles in the ALCS, so Street and the rest of the bullpen will need to be lights out to keep the Angels close late into games. They have the offense with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols to make a splash, but they'll need their pitching to match their offensive production.

Cardinals: SP Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA)

Normally, any match involving Wainwright would favor the Cardinals, but unfortunately, Clayton Kershaw (21-3, 1.77 ERA) is his opponent for Game 1 of the NLDS. Wainwright and Kershaw were fighting for Cy Young consideration, but a couple rough starts after the All-Star Break helped push Kershaw to the top of the pack.

There will be extra pressure on Wainwright to perform well in Game 1, as the playoff rotation is an unknown for the Cardinals after him. If Wainwright and the Cardinals are able to take Game 1, it could go a long way to putting St. Louis back on their way to the World Series.

SEE MORE: Dodgers Vs. Angels: Imagining The Freeway Fall Classic

Dodgers: SP Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-7, 3.38 ERA)

It’d be extremely easy to throw Kershaw in here, who is pretty much guaranteed to win the Cy Young award, and likely to win MVP, since he has such a huge impact on the team. He’s been lights out in just about every start this season, ignoring a May 17 start where he gave up seven earned runs in 1 2/3 innings, and is a likely candidate to win any game he pitches in the postseason. Considering he’s followed by Zack Greinke (17-8, 2.71 ERA), the Dodgers have the best 1-2 punch in the majors.

Unfortunately for Dodgers fans, the rotation falls off after that with Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’s coming off a shoulder injury, is hoping to start Game 3 of the NLDS. While Ryu is a good pitcher in his own right, he’s still a question mark coming off his injury, and he’ll be thrown into Busch Stadium trying to either sweep the Cardinals, win a pivotal Game 3, or keep the Dodgers from being eliminated.

Giants: SP/RP Tim Lincecum (12-9, 4.74 ERA)

“The Freak” has been a vital part of both the 2010 and 2012 World Series championship teams, compiling a 5-2 record with a 2.47 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings as a starter and reliever in the postseason. His 2014 season has been all over the place, as he went from throwing his second no-hitter against the Padres to losing his spot in the rotation.

Despite having less than freaky stuff, the Giants will likely have to rely on Lincecum if they hope to make it three World Series championships in five years. Because Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.96 ERA) is starting the Wild Card game against the Pirates, he will be unavailable until Game 2 at the earliest if the Giants advance. With Matt Cain (2-7, 4.18) out for the playoffs after ankle surgery and Tim Hudson (9-13, 3.57 ERA) finishing September with a 0-4 record and 8.72 ERA in five starts, Lincecum might have to be called up to the rotation in a make-or-break game.

Stephen Strasburg may be the lynchpin to Washington's all-star rotation. (dbking/Creative Commons)
Stephen Strasburg may be the lynchpin to Washington's all-star rotation. (dbking/Creative Commons)
Nationals: SP Stephen Strasberg (14-11, 3.14 ERA)

With Strasberg, Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57 ERA), Jordan Zimmerman (14-5, 2.66 ERA) and Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85 ERA), the Nationals have the deepest rotation in the National League. This will be Strasberg’s first time pitching in the postseason, and, with Roark likely going to the bullpen, he’ll be the only one in the rotation without any experience.

If Strasberg can overcome the jitters with pitching in the postseason for the first time and continue his successful season, the Nationals are a strong choice to make the World Series. Otherwise, they’ll lose the dominance of one of the better pitchers in baseball, putting more pressure on the other pitchers in the rotation.

Orioles: SP Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34 ERA)

The Orioles have the most balanced pitching staff in baseball, with all five starters having an ERA between 3.20 and 3.70 and an excellent bullpen led by closer Zach Britton (37 saves, 1.65 ERA). This gives them an advantage in terms of having consistent starting pitching throughout a series. Unfortunately, this also means they lack a true #1 who they can have on the mound to challenge other teams’ aces, such as Scherzer, Kershaw, or Shields.

The Orioles have decided to remedy this by starting Tillman in Game 1 in the NLDS against Detroit. He’ll have to thrive in his new role if the Orioles hope to get deep into the postseason, although the consistency of both the team’s rotation and bullpen provide some extra breathing room.

Pirates: SP Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA)

Pittsburgh went all-in to try and steal the NL Central from St. Louis, starting Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole in the final two games of the regular season. However, the plan didn’t work out, so the Pirates are forced to start #3 starter Edinson Volquez against Giants ace Madison Bumgarner in Wednesday’s NL Wild Card game.

The “oversight” will pay off if the Pirates can pull out the victory at home, as Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole will be available to start Games 1 and 2 against the Nationals. However, Volquez will be relied on for either Game 3 or 4, and will have to be on top of his game against a deep Nationals rotation. Pittsburgh’s rotation is considered one of the weakest in the playoffs, but some strong efforts from their top three can push them deep into the playoffs.

SEE MORE: 2014 Kansas City Royals Playoff Preview Q&A

Royals: SP James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA)

As was the case with the A’s and Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 ERA), the Royals traded a promising young outfielder in Wil Myers for a potential ace in James Shields. While the Athletics went all-in for a World Series title (and fell short), the Royals were focused on simply making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, then working from there. Shields has been exactly what the Royals had hoped for, leading them to the playoffs and helping mentor rookie sensation Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20 ERA) and a shut-down bullpen.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Shields is set to become a free agent at the end of the season, and it’s unlikely the Royals will be able to afford to bring him back on another contract. Kansas City will need to get as much out of their all-star as they can. The Royals have added momentum after winning a long-awaited postseason game, but they have to hope that Shields, and the team as a whole, does well enough in the postseason to convince Shields to resign with the Royals, or convince the Royals to offer Shields more money.

Tigers: RP Joe Nathan (35 saves, 4.81 ERA)

The Detroit Tigers have the best rotation in the American League, with Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA), David Price (15-12, 3.26 ERA), Justin Verlander (15-12, 4.54 ERA), Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43 ERA) and Anibal Sanchez (8-5, 3.43 ERA) available either to start or in relief for the postseason. Having that extra breathing room is important for the Tigers, as their biggest weakness is their bullpen. So much so, that Brad Ausmus kept Price in for longer than he needed to in a game late in the season, adding more wear and tear to a vital part of their postseason roster, and showing that even he can’t trust his bullpen. Closer Joe Nathan has struggled in his first year with the Tigers, finishing the regular season having converted 35-of-42 save opportunities with a 4.81 ERA and 1.53 WHIP.

If the Tigers hope to capitalize on their win-now mentality, they’ll need their bullpen, led by Nathan, to perform a lot better than they did during the regular season. It’ll be harder to protect leads in the postseason, and the games matter a lot more.

Reach Staff Reporter Andrew Schultz here or follow him on Twitter.



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