Thrown A Curve

Jeff Francis, Brandon Webb
Colorado's Jeff Francis, left, and Arizona's Brandon Webb square off in Game 1 of the NLCS. (AP/Getty)
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 11, 2007

That loud crashing sound you hear is probably baseball's brain trust banging their heads against the nearest brick wall.

Obviously, baseball doesn't have a game-fixing problem. The sport is so honest it hurts. In the past two weeks, almost all of its mega-market, superstar-studded teams have bombed out of the postseason. If they didn't choke in the last days of the regular season, like the Mets and Padres, they lost quickly in the first round, like the Yanks, Cubs and Phils. So much for ready-made story lines, competing curses, passionate fan bases and astronomical TV ratings.

Now, those at the top of the sport who dreamed up the current "elongated" postseason schedule are down on their knees, begging that the two League Championship Series don't end in four-game sweeps, producing a week-long hiatus before a World Series between Arizona and Cleveland.

That, at least, is the commonplace wisdom.

Many think that baseball should be holding its head because Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter can now get a nice tee time at Bethpage Black with David Wright and Jose Reyes. Lou Piniella can't throw a base at an ump in the Series. Nobody from the Los Angeles market made the party. Big sluggers such as Ryan Howard and Vladimir Guerrero are gone. Now, if the Boston Red Sox bomb out in the ALCS, why hold the World Series at all? Who'd watch? Especially because so many postseason games now end around midnight. At least two NLCS games won't start until 10:18 p.m. on the East Coast. How can the kiddies stay up on school nights? For that matter, how can adults?

All these complaints are absolutely true. In addition, imagine if Cleveland makes it to the Series. Game 7 is scheduled for Nov. 1 at the AL site. Check the forecast for Lake Erie in November, then root for global warming.

Nonetheless, this postseason already has a dominant story, a common thread and theme. It's just not the one we expected.

The Diamondbacks, Rockies and Indians are three of the cheapest teams ever to reach the playoffs -- and now they're all in the final four. It would be remarkable if one team constructed of homegrown players, and held together by crucial rookies, made it this far. But, except for the $143 million, buy-a-title Red Sox -- who now look so much like the Empire they claim to hate that they should consider switching to pinstripes -- this October is going to be a tale about how less can be more.

How frugal are Cleveland, Colorado and Arizona? All three have smaller payrolls than the supposedly pauperized Kansas City Royals. In fact, they're all huddled at the bottom of the salary pack, like so many low-budget teams that couldn't compete in the last 30 years. The Indians, Rockies and D-backs rank 23rd, 25th and 26th in salary out of 30 teams with an average payroll of only $56 million. That's $7 million less than the '06 Nats and $39 million less than the '07 Orioles.

How have these three teams transcended expectations so spectacularly? By relying on kids like Troy Tulowitzki, Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales and Manny Corpas in Colorado. By building a contender around homegrown Fausto Carmona, Rafael Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera in Cleveland. By trusting their farm system with prospects such as Chris Young, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, Micah Owings and Tony Pe¿a at the heart of a pennant race in Phoenix.

If you don't know those names yet, you will. They are the same type of build-from-the-bottom players that the Nats hope they will unveil in the future in Justin Maxwell, Jesus Flores, Ross Detwiler and all their young power arms now in the minors. Make no mistake, the surprise teams of this month all use their own version of the Washington Plan, except the Nats may eventually feed off a richer market and add free agents, too.

Though many fans, even devoted ones, don't know much about the players mentioned above, every one is an essential key in the LCS series that start today and tomorrow. The Rockies have perhaps the most eye-popping of the entire bunch -- Tulowitzki, who turned 23 yesterday. He's acrobatic, is an innate leader and may have the most powerful shortstop arm of the last 30 years. For comparison, Derek Jeter has averaged 16 errors and 82 double plays a season for the Yanks. In his first year, Tulowitzki had 11 errors and 114 double plays. Jeter can't hold Tulowitzki's glove. And the Colorado kid had 99 RBI and 24 homers: Cal Ripken-type numbers.

As vital as Tulowitzki is, three almost unknown pitchers will probably determine how far the Rockies go in October. Jimenez (age 23, career 4-4 record) and Morales (21, 3-2) both finished the year in the starting rotation while Corpas (24, 5-4) is already Colorado's closer. Only the slender southpaw Morales looked rattled in the division series against the Phils.

In Cleveland, in just 159 at-bats since his summer debut, Cabrera has stabilized the infield and provided a No. 2 hitter. He had only one error at second base, hit .283 and played with a fundamental soundness that makes it seem impossible he's only 21. The 6-foot-4 Carmona, 23, was 1-10 last year as a rookie, but 19-8 this season. Make all the deal-with-the-devil jokes you want; Fausto was also the beneficiary of the plague-of-insects attack at Jacobs Field last week. At the moment, Carmona is as dominant on his best nights as anybody who's left in the postseason, including Boston's 20-game winner Josh Beckett.

Finally, Indians southpaw reliever Perez (1.78 ERA) has electric sidearm stuff, can work two innings at a time and will probably be bothered less by facing Boston than he was by the Yanks. And the Yanks didn't faze the 25-year-old at all.

One reason the Diamondbacks have been given little chance by pundits is that the left side of their infield, as well as their leading home run hitter, a starting pitcher and a top reliever, are either rookies or in their first full season. Young, an outfielder sometimes confused with the 6-foot-10 Padres pitcher of the same name, led Arizona in homers (32) and also stole 27 bases. How many rooks are almost 30-30 men? Drew, still a light hitter, is a polished shortstop. Of the group, third baseman Reynolds, who didn't debut until May 16, may be the secret weapon. His mere 366 at-bats mask his production. As a rookie, he was a statistical clone -- in batting, slugging and on-base average -- of Ryan Zimmerman's career numbers thus far in Washington.

While Pe¿a, who worked 75 efficient games, may not be noticed much in middle relief, the burly 6-foot-5 Owings may make a splash in the NLCS. He's a solid 8-8 pitcher with a 4.30 ERA, but as a hitter, he's ridiculous -- a .683 slugging percentage and four extra-base hits last month in the same game. On an Arizona team with only one hitter with more than 68 RBI, Owings probably ought to bat fifth. Okay, just kidding, sixth.

Perhaps it was shallow to hope for a Yankees-Red Sox rematch and a Curse Cage Match in the NL between the Cubs and Phils with one world title between them in the last 99 years. Instead, we're seeing the October of the discount underdog and the emergence of a new generation of stars. You're allowed to enjoy it even if it wasn't your first choice on the menu.

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