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Contenders leaning on 40-somethings

Contenders leaning on 40-somethings

Baseball's latest Golden Era is being stood on its ear by pitchers in their golden years.

In 2008, the grand old game will again live up to its name on the mound, where no fewer than 15 pitchers aged 40-plus will play important roles in their teams' pennant hopes.

Is the golden sunset of a World Series curtain call at the end of their trail?

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Six relievers. Nine starters. All critical spokes in contenders' wheels.

As Greg Maddux, baseball's oldest teenager, would say, "That's cool."

This is virtually a Hall of Fame waiting room. A couple of closers (Trevor Hoffman, Todd Jones) with 825 saves between them. A total of 2,097 wins among those nine starters, led by a couple who have already reached 300 (Tom Glavine, Maddux) and another (Randy Johnson) who is close.

And none of them are just taking up space. They will all be taking the ball in big games, counted on by contenders which they hope to pitch into the real October in the symbolic October of their careers.

Just as they have done in the recent past. Eight of those nine starters -- the focus of the preceding age-old question (or is that old-age question?) -- have appeared in either of the last two postseasons (in some cases, both).

It isn't surprising for these veteran arms to all be in the service of bona fide contenders. At their age and with their accomplishments, they wouldn't stay on the treadmill merely for the ride, they need to pitch for a carrot. And their value is highest to teams needing veteran leadership and savvy.

The Detroit Tigers have four young pitching studs in Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson -- but there are no doubts who must be the lead horse: Kenny Rogers, 43.

"Regardless of the overall talent the rotation has, Kenny's going to be the leader of the staff," Robertson said. "He just is. That's the bottom line."

Rogers helped lead the Tigers out of the wilderness of 12 consecutive losing seasons by going 17-8 in 2006 as a 41-year-old. The lefty donated much of his 2007 season to arm problems, and as he went 3-4 the Tigers faded.

"Only time will tell if he is able to hold up," realistic Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "We'll watch him in Spring Training real close. At the same time, we have to get him ready."

Two teams will be on savvy-overload.

The Red Sox slot 41-year-old twins Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield into their rotation. The two right-handers, with 384 wins between them, will occasionally be replaced on the mound by Mike Timlin, the 42-year-old setup reliever.

The Atlanta Braves are reuniting the 42-year-old Glavine with 41-year-old John Smoltz and adding up their career wins totals 510.

Smoltz -- the only 40-something, by the way, to have missed both of the past two playoffs (he'd made the prior 14) -- is delighted to no longer be the oldest Braves player, but he is not surprised. Smoltz always expected his golf buddy to return to where they'd formed two of the strongest links in Atlanta's chain of titles for 12 years (1991-2002).

"I've always truly believed he needed to finish his career as an Atlanta Brave," Smoltz said of Glavine's five-year side trip to Flushing, N.Y.

Braves manager Bobby Cox has no reservations about Glavine being able to rinse out the bitter aftertaste of his 2007 season -- 17 runs allowed in the 10 1/3 innings of the last three starts, ending with his last-day meltdown.

"Tommy's going to be a tremendous addition," Cox said. "He's just one of those class pitchers who can win, who doesn't miss turns, who's ready to go all the time. He's a guy you can rely on all the time. I think Tommy's got a lot of pitching left in him."

In 2007, Glavine logged 32-plus starts for the 12th straight season, but reliability is a trademark of the entire senior set. All made 30-plus starts, with the exceptions of Rogers and two others also sidelined part of the season by injuries, Schilling and Johnson.

"Reliability" has been Maddux's middle name since he reached 13 wins in 1988 -- for the first of an MLB-record 20 straight seasons, which have nudged his lifetime tote board to 347. The one they call "Mad Dog" has also started 33-plus games in 18 of those seasons.

Upon being informed that his 20th consecutive season with 13-plus wins broke a record held by Cy Young, Maddux had said, "I didn't know that. That's cool."

A little later, he set another record by earning his 17th Gold Glove for fielding excellence. He said, "It's cool to win again."

San Diego manager Bud Black thinks it will be cool to still see Maddux warming up in the bullpen before every fifth game.

"He's still a very successful pitcher," Black said. "But what he brings in stability, leadership, wisdom -- those are the intangibles that we notice inside the clubhouse that we feel is also a great attribute that Greg brings to the club."

Philadelphia's Jamie Moyer, 45, is the epitome of the "late-blooming lefty." He has made 353 starts and won 158 of them in the second 11 years of his career -- after 72 wins and 198 starts in the first 11.

Although Moyer couldn't prevent the sweep in last October's National League Division Series, he did unfurl the Phils' best effort against the Rockies, holding them to a run in six innings of Game 3.

No wonder young Philadelphia pitchers such as Kyle Kendrick consider him their "baseball dad."

Maddux has done his own parenting with the Padres' Jake Peavy and Chris Young.

"He does have that ability to rub off on others just by what he does on a daily basis," Black said. "His preparation, what he does the course of the day ... players watch these type of players. When that occurs, other players get better."

Near the end of last season, giving advice wasn't enough for Woody Williams. He had to give his September starts to some of the young pitchers being auditioned by the Astros.

Williams, 41, did so comfortable in the belief he had made enough second-half points to protect his role in Houston's 2008 rotation. He went 4-5 after the All-Star Game, compared to 4-10 before, while shaving nearly a run off his ERA.

"I think I've proven to a lot of people that I'm healthy [and that] I can go out there and put up quality innings," Williams said at the time. "I'm going to leave this year with a very positive attitude. I did the best I can. I left it all on the field."

David Wells merely left the field, at least for the moment. The 45-year-old southpaw is not included in our 40-something nine, because retirement is implied in the absence of any reported interest to sign him.

But the wily lefty went 4-1 down the stretch for the Dodgers.

"It showed I still got a little life left in the tank," he'd said.

So, as Spring Training raises some concerns about the younger arms in their camps, some teams may try grabbing Boomer's.

Go for it, former Dodgers manager Grady Little would encourage them.

"He's an amazing human being," Little said of Wells. "Anything he does wouldn't surprise me."

Nor should fans be surprised to see any of these 40-something masters still doing their thing in October, still holding off the dropping curtain.

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

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