NLCS skippers thrown a curve

NLCS skippers thrown a curve

PHOENIX -- Even before any of the pitchers break one off, the 2007 National League Championship Series has thrown a curve at the managers. Whether Bob Melvin and Clint Hurdle lay off or offer at it could have a not-so-subtle impact on the outcome.

The altered NLCS agenda provides an extra break in the customary game schedule. And the off-day oasis between Games 4 and 5 is Temptation Island for the respective skippers.

The quandary is pretty basic:

You throw your best pitcher in the opener -- something neither the D-backs' Melvin nor the Rockies' Hurdle have any trouble lining up, given the luxury of time due to their Division Series sweeps over the Cubs and the Phillies, respectively.

But do you bring back your No. 1 hurler on short rest to pitch Game 4, and then have him available on regular rest for a third start in a potential Game 7? Or, stay in rotation and call on him for Game 5, which he thus would pitch on an additional fifth day's rest and be unavailable to start again in the series? Either way, that second start will be outside of his normal routine.

For Melvin, the decision, at this stage, proved easy. He will roll out his regular rotation of Brandon Webb, left-hander Doug Davis, Livan Hernandez and Micah Owings.

Hurdle may be a little more flexible. Although the Colorado manager has yet to formally announce his rotation beyond Game 1 starter Jeff Francis (albeit team insiders expect Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales to follow), he does have one unique element to weigh.

The Rockies' variable is Aaron Cook, their Opening Day starter who hasn't pitched since Aug. 10, shut down by a strained oblique muscle. Cook is scheduled to throw a simulated game on Wednesday in Tucson and, if he comes through that healthy and hungry, could be added to the NLCS roster and step into the Game 4 assignment.

Like the D-backs, the Rockies are wary of any dramatic breaks from their routine.

Colorado pitching coach Bob Apodaca said the most important aspect of the Game 4 decision is "being consistent," even citing as an example Cleveland manager Eric Wedge's firmness in throwing his fourth starter, Paul Byrd, against the Yankees in Monday night's Division Series clincher.

"I think you can say the same about us," Apodaca said, "that we've stayed very consistent in our decisions, and I don't see any reason that we're not going to stay consistent in our decisions.

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"That's what's gotten us here. We've put these players in position to win. We haven't tried to manipulate it. Nobody this season has pitched on less rest. They've pitched on more rest, but they haven't pitched on less rest."

Melvin gave little consideration to his two available wrinkles: Bringing Webb back on three days' rest for Game 4, which would also allow the still-reigning Cy Young Award winner to pitch a possible Game 7 on regular rest; or shuffling Hernandez, considered most effective on short rest, into the No. 1 slot.

"Livan can do it [go on three days' rest], because he's not a maximum-effort guy," Melvin said prior to his club's Tuesday afternoon workout at Chase Field. "But we're staying in our regular rotation. We don't want to do anything differently."

Having Webb come back in Game 4 would certainly be different. During the regular season, none of his 34 starts came on short rest. Considering his top gun was the NL's leading workhorse, pitching 236 1/3 innings, Melvin isn't about to start tinkering now.

"His workload is part of it, but there are other considerations [for not bringing Webb back for Game 4]," Melvin said. "If we want to change, we can always do it on the fly. But we'd rather err on the side of caution."

Furthermore, Webb would appear to be perfectly suited to pitch that Game 5 with an extra day's rest. Ten of his starts came on long rest, including eight on five days in which he allowed 15 earned runs in 58 1/3 innings, an ERA of 2.30.

"I'd rather have him go with extra rest. He's done that," nodded Melvin.

Still, Melvin had to resist the temptation of maneuvering Hernandez into the top of his series rotation, which would have also had him available for a Game 7 on regular rest. Besides everything else pushing for Hernandez -- the staff's cool veteran, a team leader, a former postseason hero (MVP of Florida's 1997 World Series title) -- was the fact he had pitched seven shutout innings in his only start of the season on three days' rest -- against the Rockies.

The "doughnut" scheduling, incidentally, is MLB's way of achieving two objectives: Provide flexibility for weather postponements, which did play havoc with 2006's postseason, and help defer the World Series to a midweek (Wednesday, Oct. 24) start.

"Starting the World Series in the middle of the week, when television viewership is historically higher, will provide more fans with the opportunity to watch the games," said MLB president and chief operating officer Bob DuPuy. "The additional off-days throughout the postseason will give us greater flexibility to facilitate travel and protect against poor weather."

Those concerns aside, it's not an optimum arrangement as far as the managers are concerned.

"Would you want to play through without the additional off-day? Yeah, we'd rather do that," Melvin said. "But it is what it is. We'll have no problem keeping sharp and getting ready."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.