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Who'll Be the Fall Guys?

The Cardinals aren't the only playoff team with pressing issues as baseball goes through a change of seasons

WELCOME TO baseball in October, when runs, comfortable leads and normal resting-pulse rates are hard to come by. From 1995 (the start of the three-round playoff format) through last fall, postseason games averaged 14% fewer runs than regular-season games. At the same time the number of games decided by one run increased by 14% in the playoffs, with nearly one out of every three postseason games decided by that slimmest of margins. It's a whole new ball game, in which closer, lower-scoring games put a premium on pitching. And that's why pitching dominates these key questions for the postseason.

1. Is Johan Santana unbeatable?

The Twins' ace is what Orel Hershiser was in 1988: the game's hottest pitcher, one who can extend his domination into October. (Hershiser was 3--0 with a 1.05 ERA that postseason, helping the otherwise unremarkable Dodgers win the World Series.) Through Sunday, Santana was 13--0 with a 1.18 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break. Because the lefty can start twice in the five-game Division Series, "no one wants to play Minnesota," one American League scout says. "As long as [the Twins] don't tighten up if they play the Yankees, they can win it all." In 33 starts through Sunday, Santana had allowed only 19 hits with runners in scoring position. And with righties Brad Radke and Carlos Silva following him, Minnesota won't offer its playoff opponents any gimmes. Radke, Silva and Santana ranked second, fourth and seventh, respectively, among AL pitchers in fewest walks per nine innings.

2. Do the Yankees have more than four reliable pitchers?

This is the thinnest New York staff among the nine that manager Joe Torre has taken to the playoffs. Righthanders Orlando Hernandez and Mike Mussina are his only trustworthy starters and righties Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera his only battle-proven relievers. New York is in trouble if it doesn't get at least six innings from its starting pitchers, especially with righty reliever Paul Quantrill's getting lit up like Times Square. (Righthanded hitters have batted .340 against him this year.) Where do the Yankees turn for those big innings? Torre still expects righthander Javier Vazquez to contribute, though he was 1--4 with a 7.59 ERA in his last eight starts. The pivotal pitcher is righthander Kevin Brown, who lasted just two thirds of an inning on Sunday in his first start since breaking his left hand in a fit of rage on Sept. 3. New York acquired Brown to be an ace, but he has made only 21 starts and pitched seven or more innings in only nine of them.

3. Are the Red Sox built for October?

Righthanders Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez can be formidable, but Boston has had trouble all year winning in two critical areas: on the road and in close games. The power-reliant Red Sox are a different team away from cozy Fenway Park. At week's end they were 38--36 on the road while hitting 45 points worse (.259) than in Boston. As the likely AL wild card the Red Sox won't have home field advantage unless they reach the World Series. (Don't rule it out: Three of the past four Series entrants were second-place teams.) The Red Sox were 4--11 in one-run games on the road and 16--17 in close ones overall. Only one team with a losing record in one-run games has reached the World Series in the wild-card era: the 2001 champion Diamondbacks. The other 11 such playoff teams went 3--11 in their postseason series combined.

4. Can the Braves get the ball to John Smoltz with a lead?

The former clutch starter has made little impact as a closer in October. In its past 16 playoff games Atlanta is 6--10 and has gotten only one save from the righty Smoltz, who has struggled down the stretch this season (5.40 ERA, .344 opponent batting average since Aug. 3 ). It's up to righthanders Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright and lefthander Mike Hampton (combined 6.0 innings per start) to put Smoltz in a save situation, while J.D. Drew and Chipper Jones lead a versatile offense. "The Braves just find a way to win," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien says. "They're not a team that sticks to a formula. On any given night they can beat you several different ways. With their playoff experience they could surprise people."

5. Can a one-game playoff victory propel a team to the World Series?

Not likely. The possibility of a fourth tiebreaker game in the past 10 seasons remained as three races--the AL West, NL West and NL wild card--were whisker-close heading into the final week of the season. None of the previous one-game playoff winners (1995 Mariners, '98 Cubs and '99 Mets) reached the World Series. --Tom Verducci