In October, an ace needs an accomplice. And on this front, some of our current contenders are better situated than others.
Certainly, an intimidating one-two combo alone isn't enough to advance (just ask Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma all about that). And certainly, it's not always the Nos. 1 and 2 who pitch like the Nos. 1 and 2 when it matters most (just ask Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito all about that).
But there is something to be said for holding a prominent pair, as these five contenders can attest:
1. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Dodgers
You can pair Kershaw with a wet paper bag and Los Angeles would probably still make this list. Kershaw is just that good. Entering his Saturday start in Philly, he's carrying a Major League-best 1.88 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP, making him not only the odds-on National League Cy Young Award favorite but a strong NL MVP Award candidate as well.
The Dodgers are particularly dangerous, though, because they have a glut of worthy No. 2s beyond Kershaw.
You can bet your last Dodger Dog that Don Mattingly will go with Greinke as his No. 2 in an increasingly likely postseason scenario, and Greinke is, indeed, on a roll, having allowed two runs or fewer in six of his past seven starts. But if not for the notion of breaking up the left-handers, rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu (12-3, 2.91) would be a worthy candidate as well, and don't forget about Ricky Nolasco, who has a 4-1 record and 2.97 ERA since coming over from Miami.
Yes, the Dodgers, in case you hadn't noticed, are stacked. They have the best pitcher in the game today and a trail of No. 2s.
2. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, Tigers
Like Mattingly, Jim Leyland will have his own difficult decision to make atop his rotation, assuming the Tigers finish the formality of locking up the American League Central.
In isolation, we know Scherzer has had a sensational season. If he wins his next decision, he'll become the first pitcher to get the "W" in 18 of his first 19 decisions since Roger Clemens in 2001. On most clubs, he'd be regarded as the outright ace of the staff.
But I find it hard to believe Leyland would use anybody other than Verlander in a playoff opener, even in a year in which Verlander has shown only brief glimpses of his past AL MVP Award-type stuff. It was Leyland, remember, who added Verlander to the All-Star roster, noting that his ace's status going into the season as perhaps the best starter in baseball ought to count for something.
It counts for something on the postseason stage, too. Verlander has clout, and when he's on -- as he was in a recent start against the Indians -- he's as nasty as they come. While his postseason track record (6-4, 4.22 ERA) fluctuates from dominant to dismal, I would expect Leyland to give Verlander the No. 1 nod, then unleash the not-so-secret weapon known as Scherzer.
Oh, and here's the scary thing about the Tigers: Likely No. 3 Anibal Sanchez has an even better ERA or advanced ERA than either Scherzer or Verlander.
3. Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, Rangers
Back to those FanGraphs adjusted ERA rankings: Only two clubs have two guys in the top 12 -- the Tigers, with Sanchez and Scherzer, and the Rangers, with Darvish and Holland.
The Rangers could have regressed considerably this season, and not just because of the different dynamics of their offense. After all, Colby Lewis hasn't thrown a pitch this year, and Matt Harrison has worked just 10 2/3 innings. Such setbacks could have derailed a club without the Rangers' level of depth.
Darvish assumed the ace role, as advertised. It's not just the near no-hitters against the Astros that stand out; it's the total package. Darvish's arsenal is deep and deceptive enough that he can deliver just about any pitch in any count, and he's used those pitches to put together a 12-5 record and a 2.64 ERA, with a whopping 207 strikeouts in 153 2/3 innings. We were told, over and over again, that Darvish was going to be different than the litany of Japanese pitching imports who had flamed out stateside. We were not lied to.
But the oft-overlooked reason the Rangers could once again be an October force is Holland. We expected so much of him last season, after his 2011 postseason breakout, and he took a significant step back in '12. Holland has rebounded considerably, though, amassing an adjusted ERA that, according to Baseball Reference, is 38 percent better than the league average, while also averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.
4. A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, Pirates
While admitting that Burnett is coming off a couple clunkers, including Thursday's rough outing in the series finale in St. Louis, the fact of the matter is that, on measure and when healthy, Burnett (5-8, 3.15 ERA) and Liriano (13-5, 2.68 ERA) have been two of the more effective starters in the NL this season.
The Pirates expected their rotation to be fronted by Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, but Rodriguez has missed the majority of the season with a forearm injury from which he is still recovering. The Buccos didn't see that coming, and nobody could have foreseen Liriano, who missed the start of the season recovering from a broken (non-throwing) arm suffered while banging on a door trying to startle his kids on Christmas morning, pitching himself into the fringes of the NL Cy Young Award discussion.
Hey, whatever the specifics, the Pirates do, indeed, have one of the best one-two punches in baseball, and you're seeing the benefits of it, especially, when the stakes are raised. The Pirates took four of five at home from the Cards two weeks back, with Liriano and Burnett posting stellar starts in succession. In a game of adjustments, St. Louis adjusted well against Burnett on Thursday, but Liriano was sensational in his complete-game gem Wednesday night.
How legit are the first-place Pirates? Well, as with the Tigers, there's an argument to be made that the No. 3 in the Buccos' setup has been even better than Nos. 1 and 2. In this case, that No. 3 is All-Star Jeff Locke, whose adjusted ERA is among the top 10 in baseball, according to FanGraphs.
5. Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller, Cardinals
Let us first take our requisite moment to acknowledge that for the Cardinals to make this list and post one of the top five starters' ERAs in baseball in a year in which they lost both Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia to injury is amazing. It's proof yet again of what a scouting and development machine the St. Louis organization is.
But now, let's also acknowledge that as much as Wainwright and Miller are no-brainers for this particular list, there is also the obvious concern about how well Miller will hold up as his innings accumulate in his first full Major League season. The Cards are going to be asking a lot of him as they try to overtake the Pirates (and fend off the Reds) and win the NL Central. They certainly don't want to wind up in the one-and-done setting of the Wild Card game for the second straight year.
To that end, Miller's scare last week, when he took a liner off the elbow just two pitches into a start against the Dodgers, could be a blessing in disguise, as it provided him with a little extra rest. This, combined with his 13-day shutdown around the All-Star break as he made mechanical tweaks, should have Miller in position to finish the season strong, somewhere in the 175-inning range (assuming an average of six innings per start).
The question is how far the Cards will push him come October, should they reach the playoffs.
There are no such questions about Wainwright. He's a stud, plain and simple, and he's proven this season to be back to full strength and effectiveness after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011.
Honorable mention: James Shields and Ervin Santana have reinvented the reputation of the Royals' rotation, which has been as good as any in the AL this season. … David Price, with a 1.77 ERA over his past nine starts, has returned to his AL Cy Young Award form since coming off the disabled list. And whether it's Chris Archer, Alex Cobb or Matt Moore, the Rays have the goods to potentially pair him with a noteworthy No. 2. Right now, Moore is shut down indefinitely with elbow soreness, Archer has had a rough August in which he's endured forearm tightness, and Cobb just came back from that scary hit to the head (Cobb looked awfully strong in his first start back Thursday night against the Mariners). We'll have to see how it all plays out. … We'll also have to see what the Red Sox get out of Clay Buchholz when he comes back. But if Buchholz and Jon Lester can reach the level they showed in the first two months of the season, the Red Sox will be awfully dangerous.