Playoff contenders all get enough relief

If the playoffs started today, the teams with the six best bullpen earned-run averages in baseball would qualify. Maybe this really is the Year of the Pitcher – the relief pitcher.

San Diego, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Texas feature bullpens with ERAs of 3.27 or better. Last season, one team finished that low. The previous two years, it was two teams. While relief pitching alone will not win a pennant, the correlation between strong bullpen and strong team is stronger than ever.

It is reminiscent of the 2006 season, when the teams with the five best bullpens qualified for the postseason. St. Louis, ranked 14th, happened to win the World Series. In the last five years, however, the team with the second-best bullpen ERA in the regular season has won a championship three times.

If the standings hold, this season will be as much about low-payroll teams beating up on the big boys, and plenty of bargains come from their bullpens. Take the New York Yankees (and their ninth-ranked bullpen) out of the equation, and the highest-salaried playoff team today is San Francisco, tied with Philadelphia for the National League wild card and carrying a $98.6 million payroll. That's the game's ninth highest. Minnesota is 10th, Atlanta 15th, Tampa Bay 19th, Cincinnati 20th, Texas 27th and San Diego 29th.

Building a consistent bullpen is a near impossibility, relief pitching is far and away the most schizophrenic position in baseball. Good one year, bad the next – it's all part of the guessing game teams play, and it's why so many build their bullpens on the cheap. And with all that inconsistency, of course the only reliever on whom anyone can count …

1. Is the indomitable, unbreakable superman, Mariano Rivera(notes), who as a 40-year-old is doing things he never has done. His .156 batting average against is the lowest of his career. Same with the .224 slugging percentage of opponents. And the 1.06 ERA.

Most remarkable is the fashion in which Rivera, 40, continues to dominate with one pitch. Whether he sprinkles some sort of pixie dust on his cut fastball or attaches to it an invisibility spell, the pitch plays dodgeball with hitters' bats. And if they happen to touch it, only 13.5 percent of the batted balls against Rivera are line drives.

The rest of the Yankees' bullpen is good enough. David Robertson(notes) has turned into a machine since a rough start, with 11 2/3 scoreless innings and 17 strikeouts after the All-Star break. Kerry Wood(notes) looks good, Joba Chamberlain(notes) has settled down, and Boone Logan(notes) left his mental hang-ups in Chicago and Atlanta and is the left-handed reliever New York so desperately needs, especially in games down the stretch …

2. Against Tampa Bay and its deep pitching staff, which is getting only better with the emergence of Jeremy Hellickson(notes). If the Rays do stick to their plan and move Hellickson to the bullpen once Wade Davis(notes) and Jeff Niemann(notes) return from injuries, the prospect of Hellickson pitching important innings late – and perhaps Jake McGee(notes), the hard-throwing left-hander dominating in the minors, reprising the David Price(notes) circa '08 role – turns the Rays' bullpen into even more of a weapon.

Already they've got Rafael Soriano(notes) and Joaquin Benoit(notes), who combined have allowed 15 earned runs in just under 90 innings. As long as Grant Balfour(notes) promises not to have any more tickle fights with his pitching coach, the Rays will have some serious decisions to make in early October.

Then again, they've got an important one soon enough with Hellickson, who is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA and an 18-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings. The 23-year-old would be a top starter in nearly every other major league rotation. He is command-and-control incarnate …

3. While Tim Lincecum(notes), the two-time NL Cy Young winner, seems to have lost all semblance of both. Lincecum bombed out for the second straight start Sunday, dropping the Giants 3½ games back of the Padres and into a virtual tie with the Phillies.

Just as alarming as his problems with the strike zone is the continued deflation of his fastball. When Lincecum arrived in 2007, he touched 98 mph regularly. His fastball averaged 94.2 mph and 94.1 mph his first two seasons. In '09, it dipped to 92.4. It has gotten worse this year, particularly in the second half.

Lincecum's hardest pitch Sunday was 92.9 mph. The fastest he has thrown in his last six starts was a 93.7-mph fastball Aug. 5. Over those six games, he has sat around 90.5 mph, bottoming out in a July 20 start where his fastball averaged 89.3 mph.

He's tinkering. He's trying. He's doing everything he can to find the old Timmy. It's just not coming, and no matter how good Brian Wilson(notes), Sergio Romo(notes) and Santiago Casilla(notes) have been out of the Giants' bullpen – and it's quite excellent – the Giants will have a difficult time holding off the Phillies if Lincecum …

4. Continues to throw like Darren O'Day(notes) of the Texas Rangers. OK, it's not that bad. O'Day is a sidearmer. His average fastball flutters in at 85.5 mph. Only nine non-knuckleballers throw slower than O'Day. And yet before he blew a recent game in Boston, O'Day went on a 29-game, 26 1/3-inning scoreless streak that stretched more than two months.

In a bullpen with Alexi Ogando(notes) (average fastball: 96.3 mph), Neftali Feliz(notes) (96.2), Pedro Strop(notes) (94) and Frank Francisco(notes) (93.4), O'Day – left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft by the Los Angeles Angels in 2008, designated for assignment by the New York Mets to make room for Nelson Figueroa(notes) last year – is an anomaly. He has a 1.55 ERA despite above-average line-drive and below-average strikeout rates. If that makes him lucky, so be it.

One thing is undeniable: Right-handed hitters cannot figure out O'Day. They're hitting .170 against him with a .443 OPS, which ranks fifth in baseball, behind Benoit, Rivera, Sean Burnett(notes) and …

5. Padres setup man extraordinaire Mike Adams(notes), who personifies the best bullpen in baseball. Outside of San Diego, his name barely registers a blip. Like Heath Bell's.(notes) And Luke Gregerson's.(notes) Joe Thatcher(notes)? Edward Mujica(notes)? Ernesto Frieri(notes)? Tim Stauffer(notes)? Who?

Meet the guys with the collective 2.75 ERA as a bullpen, the best in baseball since the 2003 Dodgers, who were led by Eric Gagne(notes) and his bag of hypodermic needles. As good as the Padres' starters have been – their 3.50 ERA ranks third in baseball – their bullpen has ignited them to the best record in the NL.

That they're only 2½ games behind the Yankees for the best in baseball is crazy. While Bell is the typical oddball reliever, the 32-year-old Adams brings a counterbalancing intensity and seriousness to the Padres' bullpen. He missed the 2007 season and half of last year, only to come back in 2010 with a 1.94 ERA – which, by the way, ranks fifth among Padres relievers, behind Frieri, Stauffer, Thatcher and Bell. No bullpen matches San Diego's …

6. Not even the Matt Capps(notes)-led Minnesota Twins, the best in the AL. And Capps leads them not necessarily because he's the closer but because his last name comes first in the alphabet. You could just as easily cite Jesse Crain(notes), Jon Rauch(notes), Jose Mijares(notes), Matt Guerrier(notes) or Ron Mahay(notes). The Twins' bullpen operates as a microcosm of the team: succeed quietly.

So vital do the Twins believe relief pitching to their success, they traded catching prospect Wilson Ramos(notes) to nab Capps on July 29. Though no Joe Nathan(notes), he does strengthen a relief corps that lost Brian Duensing(notes) to the rotation upon Nick Blackburn's(notes) failure. Capps fits in well. He doesn't throw all that hard. He walks next to no one. And he's helping keep the Twins …

7. Ahead of the Chicago White Sox, whose seventh-ranked bullpen watched J.J. Putz(notes) spit the bit for the second straight game Sunday. The White Sox's relievers carried them back into the pennant race after a sluggish start. If they keep up their antics against Minnesota in a series starting Tuesday, they might torpedo the team before September dawns.

Chicago's bullpen is a treat to watch. It throws hard. Really hard. No one averages less than 93.9 mph on his fastball. All throw hard sliders. They've got modern-day Nasty Boys written all over them, especially with the recent meltdowns of Putz and Bobby Jenks(notes).

Manager Ozzie Guillen could turn to rookie Sergio Santos(notes) or Matt Thornton(notes) to close. He's got to do something. The season is slipping away, and there are no secret weapons coming to help …

8. Like Aroldis Chapman(notes) soon will in Cincinnati. The Reds are the only postseason team ranked outside of the top nine, with the 16th-best bullpen ERA. St. Louis, their rival nipping at their heels, is 10th.

So in will come Chapman, perhaps as soon as this week, to fortify a group without a single consistent reliever. Since shifting to the bullpen at Triple-A Lousiville, Chapman has struck out 40 in 25 2/3 innings while reportedly reaching 103 mph on the radar gun. When Stephen Strasburg(notes) gets shut down soon, Chapman's one- and two-inning appearances will become the must-see events.

Whether Chapman can survive at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park is another thing to watch. At home, the Reds have the 25th-best ERA in baseball, 4.46. On the road, their ERA is 3.40, led by starter Johnny Cueto(notes), who is being challenged …

9. By Atlanta reliever Jonny Venters(notes) for Johnny Damon's(notes) long-held title as the best Johnny/Jonny/Jhonny in baseball. As great as Atlanta's starting pitching has been – Tim Hudson(notes) is a very real Cy Young award dark horse, and Tommy Hanson's(notes) post-All-Star break ERA is below 2.00 – Venters is the pleasant surprise of the Braves' season.

A 25-year-old rookie, Venters has allowed 35 hits in 59 2/3 innings and strikes out more than a batter an inning. Whether it's him or Takashi Saito(notes) or Peter Moylan(notes) handing off to Billy Wagner(notes), the Braves' bullpen depth is staggering, the best in the game, with Craig Kimbrel(notes) (and his 1.08 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings) stranded at Triple-A for now.

Wagner, too, is back to his old self, striking out 12.54 per nine innings and joining a long line of closers …

10.Who try to dominate like Mariano Rivera but just can't. Carlos Marmol(notes) is striking out nearly two hitters an inning. Andrew Bailey's(notes) got an ERA of 1.56, Wagner 1.74, Soriano 1.77, Bell 1.78, Joakim Soria(notes) 2.02, Wilson 2.06.

They're still not Mo. They'll never be.

Because as good as he has been this season, Rivera's ERA is more than a quarter point higher than his career ERA in the postseason. It's easy to forget that Rivera has thrown the eighth-most innings in playoff history (133 1/3) and has an ERA of 0.74. The only pitcher in that vicinity with a similar number of innings is Christy Mathewson, who had a 0.97 in 101 2/3.

So, yes, Rivera is indomitable. He is unbreakable. He is a superman. And in a season when dominant relief pitching coincides with team success, he is the perfect showpiece.