Rotations shrink in October. There’s no call for a No. 5 starter, which means the useful Anibal Sanchez probably won’t make the Braves’ 25-man roster for the Division Series. (The customary caveat: They’ve clinched nothing yet – but they’re 3-1/2 games clear at the top of the National League East, and Baseball Prospectus assigns an 87.4 percent chance of finishing there.)
Mike Foltynewicz would be the Game 1 starter. (Division Series are best-of-five.) Off the strength of recent results, Julio Teheran – he worked three consecutive quality starts before yielding four runs in 5-2/3 innings Tuesday – could be given Game 2. But who’d get Game 3?
Kevin Gausman has done exactly as the Braves wanted. His worst start of the five since arriving from Baltimore was his first, when he yielded three earned runs in five innings. His ERA as a Brave is 1.69. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 2.94, which is excellent. His WHIP (walks/hits per inning pitched) is 0.875, which is great. He has 22 strikeouts against seven walks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s the reason the Braves have built a working lead in the East.
If the playoffs started tomorrow – they won’t, but just play along – I’d say Gausman would get the Game 3 nod, which leads us to Game 4, which can be a different animal. Teams in a Division Series sometimes skip a fourth starter. (If they’re ahead 2-1, they’re more inclined to use one, thereby saving their ace for a Game 5. That was how the young Madison Bumgarner came to make his playoff debut in 2010 at Turner Field.)
The name not yet mentioned is a mighty big name – Sean Newcomb, nearly an All-Star, nearly the worker of a no-hitter on July 29. In his five outings since, he has twice been very good; the other three were awful – 15-1/3 innings, 18 runs, 29 hits, seven walks.
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Newcomb is 25. This is his second season in the majors. He has logged 145 innings. His professional high came last year, when he worked 157-2/3 (100 in the bigs). This regular season has a month to go, and then comes October. Newcomb’s two good starts in August suggest his struggles aren’t entirely born of fatigue, but the three bad ones – the most recent came Wednesday against Tampa Bay – do make us wonder.
The Braves have been good about giving starters an extra day between starts here and there, but this isn’t a team that will enter September with nothing to win. There’s a division title to be taken – and a wild-card game to be avoided – and then it gets really serious. The guess is that the Braves will need to see better from Newcomb in the month ahead for them to feel comfortable with him starting a Division Series game. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be of October use.
With Arodys Vizcaino on the disabled list and his status for September/October unclear, this bullpen has become a mix-and-match entity. The Braves’ past three saves have been recorded by three different pitchers. Brad Brach and Jonny Venters have done nice work since being acquired in July; A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler are more than serviceable. But pitching changes in postseason: Starters are pulled at the first sign of trouble, meaning four (or so) relievers are expected to work every game.
Newcomb has never worked a professional game in relief. Then again, Adam Wainwright had had only one big-league save until the Cardinals lost closer Jason Isringhausen in September 2006, and all Wainwright – ex-Brave prospect, you’ll recall, traded for J.D. Drew – did in those playoffs was save four games, including the NLCS and World Series clinchers. (Those were his last career saves, FYI.)
Newcomb throws hard and strikes people out, which is what you’d want from a reliever in October. He also walks guys, which isn’t. But the Braves are a month from the playoffs and don’t yet know what they’d do with the ninth inning, and maybe not the eighth. There could be a spot for Newcomb to step into a limited-but-key role for the NLDS.
This wouldn’t be a permanent assignment. If there’s an NLCS/World Series in the offing (both being best-of-sevens), the Braves would need a fourth starter, and Newcomb would surely be it. But we’ve seen in recent Octobers how out-of-the-box thinking can profit teams, and even in some Octobers less recent.
John Smoltz’s first career save? It came in Game 2 of the 1999 NLCS. Greg Maddux’s only career save? Came in Game 5 of the 1998 NLCS on a crazy night in San Diego that saw Kevin Brown summoned in relief, John Rocker score a run and the Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman not used at all.