Any number of factors can propel a team toward a deep postseason run, of course. The 2010 Giants marched to a championship on the strength of a dominant starting rotation, to the point that their bullpen pitched only 10 innings in a five-game World Series against the Rangers. Texas has found a great deal of success the past few years with a lineup capable of hitting the ball out of the park at any time. The Rays became an annual contender thanks to pitching and top-notch defense.
But last year, we were reminded that nothing wins, or loses, in October like a bullpen can. The Cards showed that a strong group of relievers, particularly wused in the right way, can help make up for shortcomings elsewhere.
Among this year's playoff-bound teams, who will have the best chance of picking up their starters and locking down close games in the final innings this postseason? Which teams should be more reluctant to rely on their bullpens, fearing the kind of late-game collapses that can shatter championship dreams faster than an Aroldis Chapman fastball?
• Speaking of Cincinnati's flamethrowing closer, the Reds' bullpen has been far and away the best in baseball and figures to be a continued strength in the postseason. Yes, Chapman recently dealt with shoulder fatigue, but he pitched well in his return Saturday, and after Cincinnati locked up the NL Central, he has plenty of time to ease his way back.
"I know he was anxious to get back out there, and it was a good position for him to kind of have a soft landing," Reds acting manager Chris Speier said Saturday. "We're going to need him down the stretch here or into the playoffs."
Cincinnati will certainly rely on Chapman and his incredible ability to pile up strikeouts, but right-handers Jose Arredondo (nine strikeouts per nine innings), Sam LeCure (9.5) and Alfredo Simon (7.8) and lefty Sean Marshall (11.3) all possess swing-and-miss stuff as well. Midseason acquisition Jonathan Broxton has further deepened a dominant group of relievers that owns by far the best bullpen ERA (2.61) in the Majors.
• If anyone can go toe to toe with Cincinnati in the final innings, it's Atlanta. It all starts with closer Craig Kimbrel, who's arguably been more dominant than Chapman this season. Kimbrel owns a 1.06 ERA, 0.67 WHIP and 39 saves while recording 16.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
But there's more to the Braves' bullpen, the only other group in the NL with a collective ERA below 3.00, than just Kimbrel. While he doesn't have the same eye-popping numbers, Eric O'Flaherty has been nearly as good at preventing runs, as the lefty owns a 1.75 ERA in 55 1/3 innings this year.
• It'd be impossible to get too far into a discussion about the Majors' best bullpens without bringing up the Orioles, as so much of their success has been possible thanks to their shutdown bullpen. Their relievers have worked the fourth-most innings in the Majors yet own a 3.06 ERA, playing a significant role in Baltimore's unprecedented success in extra innings and one-run games.
That group is headlined by closer Jim Johnson, who leads the Majors with 48 saves. Like Johnson, none of the O's relievers' peripheral numbers look particularly impressive on paper, but they've been exceptional at stranding runners, resulting in low ERAs across the board. Whether that brand of run prevention can hold up in the playoffs remains to be seen, but if it's worked this long, who's to say the Orioles can't do it October?
• The A's have also quietly assembled a lockdown bullpen, from veteran closer Grant Balfour to rookie strikeout machine Sean Doolittle. Currently clinging to the second Wild Card spot, Oakland owns a 3.06 bullpen ERA, tied with Baltimore for second in the AL -- Tampa Bay's 2.85 mark ranks first. That group has helped the A's emerge as another surprising postseason contender.
• For all the potentially dominant bullpens likely heading to the playoffs, there isn't a truly shaky one in the bunch. The Rangers weathered Neftali Feliz's move to the rotation and subsequent injury, and Rafael Soriano has mostly thrived for the Yankees in Mariano Rivera's absence. The White Sox (3.78 bullpen ERA) and Tigers (3.81) have been two of the worst statistically, but both have looked better in September as they battle it out for the American League Central title.
The Cardinals (4.02 bullpen ERA, 23rd in the Majors and the highest among contending teams) have settled on a late-inning trio in Edward Mujica, Mitchel Boggs and closer Jason Motte, and that group has proven to be reliable, albeit somewhat overworked of late.
There's also the Giants and Nationals, both of whom will enter the postseason with some uncertainty about who will be on the mound in a save situation. With Brian Wilson sidelined and Santiago Casilla an unreliable option, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy has opted to mix and match right-hander Sergio Romo and lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Bochy expertly managed the Giants' bullpen in 2010, and he's been on the mark so far this season.
Washington, meanwhile, will be using either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard in those situations. Storen missed a few months early this season with an elbow injury but has rounded back into form, while Clippard -- who took hold of the job in Storen's absence and picked up 33 saves -- has struggled in the second half. Sending Clippard back to a more versatile setup role might actually work out best for the Nats, who own a 3.27 bullpen ERA to back up baseball's best starting rotation.
And what the Giants and Nationals lack in having one go-to closer, they make up for in depth. San Francisco's bullpen will likely be reinforced in the postseason with a member of its starting rotation, and Washington manager Davey Johnson likes to point out that nearly all of his relievers have finished games and pitched in high-leverage moments this year.
"They've really adjusted, and I think they're in pretty good shape," Johnson said recently. "Every one of those guys is very valuable."
That's especially true, as we're about to find out, in October.