By KIRBY ARNOLD
NEW YORK – Boxers have corner men to nurse their cuts.
Stock car racers have pit crews with duct tape.
The Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees have relief pitching specialists who make the seventh, eighth and ninth innings a never-never land of run support.
Two of baseball’s best late-inning pitching staffs will clash in the American League Championship Series beginning tonight at Yankee Stadium, where the mantra on both sides may be this:
Score early or don’t score at all.
“If anybody can have a big inning in the first five innings, they’ve got a huge advantage,” Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price said. “It very easily could be the key to the series.”
Beyond the fifth, both the Mariners and Yankees have been spectacular on the mound when they’ve called on their bullpens.
Mariners relievers pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed only three hits in their three-game sweep of the White Sox in the first round of the playoffs. If their starters can carry the game into the sixth inning, the M’s believe right-handers Jose Mesa and Jose Paniagua, left-hander Arthur Rhodes and right-handed closer Kazuhiro Sasaki are more than able to finish the job.
The Mariners’ bullpen went 2-0 in the three-game sweep of Chicago with two saves and a 0.00 earned run average. The relievers stranded all nine runners they inherited.
“We’ve got experience and we’ve got good arms out there,” Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. “We’re going to need our bullpen to pitch well. We need to throw strikes and stay away from the high-scoring games.”
Because the Mariners, who don’t exactly light up the scoreboard offensively, know they won’t go far if they must score late in the game to beat the Yankees.
The Yankees finish with right-handed closer Mariano Rivera, who had 36 saves in the regular season and recorded his record 16th postseason save in Sunday’s 7-5 victory over Oakland to win New York’s first-round series.
“Mariano has been dominant, there’s no question,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “The confidence he has in the postseason games is felt by everybody around him.”
Everybody, that is, who Torre has deemed worthy enough to use.
Torre used only six pitchers in the five games against Oakland, including two relievers – left-hander Mike Stanton and righty Jeff Nelson – besides Rivera. He says he’ll try the same approach in this series, mostly because a trio of ineffective former starters – Dwight Gooden (6-5, 4.54 ERA), David Cone (4-14, 6.91) and left-hander Randy Choate (0-1, 4.76) – comprise the remainder of the bullpen.
The Mariners are a giant leap ahead of the Yanks in middle relief, with Brett Tomko having proven himself in that role with 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1 against the White Sox after inheriting a bases-loaded, one-out situation.
The idea, of course, is not to need middle relief at all.
Right-hander Freddy Garcia will get the ball tonight coming off some solid regular-season numbers, 9-5 with a 3.91 ERA, but a two-week period of great concern. In his last two starts, Garcia has allowed six earned runs in 9 1/3 innings, including four runs in 3 1/3 innings last Tuesday in Game 1 against the White Sox. He didn’t face the Yankees this season, and went 1-1 against them last year.
“He’s had a few rough outings lately, but I think he knows what he has to do to be successful,” Price said. “It’s a matter of being aggressive in the strike zone with his stuff. If he’s in and around the zone, he matches up well with everybody (in the Yankee lineup) as far as I’m concerned.”
The Yankees have their worries as well with their Game 1 starter, Denny Neagle. The left-hander (7-7, 5.66) has allowed 10 earned runs in his last two starts, neither of which went past 5 1/3 innings. Torre avoided using him in the Oakland series, instead starting Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte on three days of rest.
“The only thing that I’m a little cautious about is the fact that sinkerball pitchers, when they are a little strong (because they haven’t pitched in a long period), tend not to have good sinkerballs,” Torre said.
And when a sinkerball doesn’t sink, it usually flies long and far the other direction.
The Mariners can only hope that’s what happens early in tonight’s game, because the fate that awaits them in the late innings – Stanton, Nelson and Rivera – hasn’t been pleasant to opponents.
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