SAN FRANCISCO – In a perfect playoff world, Stephen Strasburg might be on the mound in the nation’s capital, Mariano Rivera closing it out in the Bronx and Melky Cabrera delivering a timely hit by the bay.
Bartolo Colon would be starting for Oakland, Ryan Madson pitching the ninth in Cincinnati.
Call this the depleted postseason. American League, National League, the division winners and the wild cards, almost every club headed to the playoffs has dealt with a devastating loss of some sort.
Workload, injuries and performance-enhancing drugs – there are all kinds of reasons teams are playing several men down.
Many are left saying ouch in October as the new-look playoffs begin.
The Bay Area took the biggest hit – with a long list of absent players on the Giants and Athletics. Each club seemingly moved forward unfazed, with San Francisco winning its second NL West title in three years and Oakland capturing the AL West crown on the regular season’s final day against the two-time reigning AL champion Texas Rangers.
“Twenty-nine teams are going to finish with a loss, and I’d say the No. 1 reason is health, which makes it more spectacular where we are,” Oakland’s Jonny Gomes said.
Both teams also lost a key player because of PEDs, both to positive testosterone tests exactly one week apart. First it was Cabrera on Aug. 15, then Colon on Aug. 22.
“I think every team, when something like that happens, they try to make a statement, to bring the best they can bring, because they still have a job to do,” Giants center fielder Angel Pagan said. “And it’s about believing if you have enough, too. All these teams, they believe that they can get it done. They have enough to go out there and compete and win. That was our mentality since Day 1. We knew that we didn’t have our closer, but we also knew that we had a great bullpen.”
Ending Strasburg’s season early was a front-office decision. Washington made the call to shut down its prized pitcher based on workload after 159 1/3 innings and a 15-6 record. Since early May, the New York Yankees have coped without career saves leader Rivera, who underwent right knee surgery in June.
Cabrera tested positive for testosterone and received a 50-game suspension in mid-August. The Giants since decided not to bring him back at all in the postseason if they’re still playing when he’s eligible – happy with the current roster and certain their public image would take another hit because of PEDs.
Cincinnati missed Madson, who’s out for the year with a torn ligament in his elbow, and fellow relievers Nick Masset and Bill Bray also were lost before the year began. Even manager Dusty Baker spent a stint away from the team for 11 games – including the NL Central clincher and Homer Bailey’s no-hitter recently while healing from a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat.
Texas trudged along after starter Neftali Feliz underwent elbow-ligament replacement surgery this summer and is without former postseason star Colby Lewis.
Then, there’s 2011 World Series star Lance Berkman of St. Louis recovering from his second knee surgery of the season Sept. 11, and long-gone Tigers All-Star Victor Martinez is healing from his own knee operation.
The Yankees won the AL East and earned the AL’s No. 1 seed with a rout of the rival Red Sox in Game 162, but they might have been in a far more favorable position and resting the regulars with Rivera still around.
“It’s hard to say. You don’t know where you would be at,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Injuries are hard to predict, when you’re going to have them and how you overcome them and what the guys do. ... Obviously we’re all a little bit curious, but I don’t think it’s anything you can predict. But it does seem like we’re getting healthier.”
Baltimore manager Buck Showalter lost three leadoff hitters to injury. Nolan Reimold and Brian Roberts both underwent season-ending surgery, and Nick Markakis broke his left thumb last month when hit by a pitch from New York’s CC Sabathia.
The Braves lost starter Brandon Beachy, who was tied for the best ERA in the majors when he went down in June and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg’s last start came Sept. 7, when he lasted only three innings and allowed five earned runs against Miami. While the Nationals were expected to let him pitch one more time, he was shut down the next day.
He was out on the field, celebrating with teammates Monday night when the Nationals clinched the NL East title. Strasburg sported his white uniform pants yanked up to his knees and flip-flops, saying, “Just a great feeling, to be a part of this.”
“We’re not here without Stephen,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s the No. 1 starter on the team with the best record in baseball and the National League East champs, so he’s a huge part of what’s going on here and will be for a long time to come.”
In San Francisco, the Giants lost All-Star game MVP Cabrera to the 50-game drug suspension after already playing without All-Star closer and 2010 major league saves leader Brian Wilson since he underwent Tommy John surgery in April.
“The dynamic hasn’t changed. It shows a team’s character and how resilient they are with taking a loss like that,” Wilson said. “The system is what works here, no single player is the reason. You can take key players out but the system works because we all pull for each other, and we all play for one common goal.”
Wilson, with that big bushy black beard, was a star face of San Francisco’s improbable championship run two Octobers ago.
“We lost Wilson as the closer; I was out for two months and on the DL twice; we lost Melky,” Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval said. “That was a big deal. He was one of the best hitters for the team. We’re fighting. We never lost the faith. We came here, and we were patient to win the games. When you lose guys like that, your teammates get your back.”
Across the bay in Oakland, the A’s are without several starters in what became an all-rookie rotation. Brandon McCarthy was hit in the head with a line drive from the Angels’ Erick Aybar on Sept. 5 and underwent surgery for an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture.
He is back with the team, and his jersey hangs in the dugout.
As the A’s celebrated Monday night, McCarthy and Brett Anderson stood in the back and watched. They did their part, too, and might still return in 2012 if all goes right. Oakland erased a 13-game division deficit from June 30.
“It really is starting to defy any explanation, where if you even thought about writing a movie about this team I don’t know where you would even pick the narrative to go with this,” McCarthy said. “Things keep going wrong, day after day, game after game, homestand after homestand something happens that we shouldn’t be able to overcome. It just doesn’t seem to happen, whether September and a nightmare schedule or losing three pitchers and having rookie after rookie come through, and unheralded guys step up over and over and over again. It’s just past the point of being resilient. It’s become the norm.”