Are Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner the NL's best pitching tandem?
Pitching wins championships, right? That's what we like to believe.
There's a reason for that, of course. An ace starting pitcher or a strong top two could very well make the difference in winning or losing a playoff series. Maybe that didn't quite hold true with the St. Louis Cardinals last year, though Chris Carpenter would surely disagree with that.
But pitching certainly carried the 2010 San Francisco Giants to a World Series championship. Cliff Lee almost pushed the Philadelphia Phillies over the New York Yankees in 2009. The tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling led the Arizona Diamondbacks to a championship in 2001.
Among this year's NL playoff contenders, we have several duos that could carry their teams on a long playoff run and maybe to a World Series trophy. These pitchers will probably have to come through against stronger AL lineups like the Yankees, Texas Rangers and possibly the Detroit Tigers.
As of right now, this is how we'd rank the top starting pitching duos in the National League. Did we underrate or overrate a particular pair? Do you feel we left anyone out? Leave your responses and suggestions in the comments.
Please check out Zach Rymer's top 5 American League pitching duos for the playoffs.
Boston Red Sox fans might chuckle at the notion of Josh Beckett being in one of the NL's top playoff pitching tandems.
However, Beckett was acquired to help out Clayton Kershaw at the top of the Los Angeles Dodgers starting rotation and he's done a decent job in his first two starts back in the NL.
In his past two appearances, Beckett has allowed four runs and 13 hits over 12.1 innings. He's struck out 15 hitters over those two games while walking four. That's the best pair of starts Beckett has strung together since May, when he allowed three total runs over three starts (covering 21.2 innings) from May 15-26.
But Kershaw is the reason this pair is on the list. In my view, he's the current leading contender for the NL Cy Young Award. His 201 strikeouts led the league, and he also ranks among the top three in the NL with a 2.79 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .215 opponents' batting average.
This is the guy no team wants to face twice in a playoff series. He can put an opponent behind zero games to one in Game 1 of a series and could be the difference in a decisive Game 5 or 7.
This pairing should probably be higher on the list. Johnny Cueto leads the NL with a 2.58 ERA and has been one of the best pitchers in the league all season.
Keeping the ball on the ground and not giving up fly balls has been the key for Cueto pitching well at Great American Ball Park. While he may give up a greater number of hits than other top pitchers because he pitches to contact, his 1.12 WHIP shows that he doesn't walk many batters and beat himself.
But one of the main reasons the Cincinnati Reds kept on winning while Joey Votto was out with a knee injury is the emergence of Mat Latos.
In eight of his past nine starts, Latos has allowed two runs or fewer. This is the pitcher the Reds hoped they were getting when they acquired him in the offseason from the San Diego Padres.
Latos had been more of a fly-ball pitcher but has apparently learned that he can't succeed pitching that way in Cincinnati. His game hasn't undergone the total transformation that Cueto's has, but Latos has reduced his fly balls to 36 percent this season. He's still more of a strikeout pitcher, however, which could be crucial in a playoff series.
This might seem like a curious pairing since Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson are considered the top two pitchers for the Atlanta Braves. But the back end of the rotation has been far more impressive in recent weeks.
Kris Medlen has given up a total of three runs in seven starts since the Braves moved him from the bullpen to the starting rotation. As a starter, he's compiled a 6-0 record and 0.54 ERA with 50 strikeouts in 49.2 innings.
The Braves tried to limit Medlen's innings in his first full season since Tommy John surgery. That cautious approach should keep him fresh for the postseason. With only 104 innings at this point, Medlen conceivably has more than 50 remaining for the season. He won't be overworked by the time the playoffs begin.
But how about Mike Minor? After an inconsistent first three months of the season that put him in danger of getting demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, something has clicked into place for the Braves left-hander.
His most recent start may have been the most impressive of the season. Minor held the Colorado Rockies scoreless for seven innings. He had no margin for error either, as the Braves lineup scored only one run for him.
In 10 of his past 11 starts, Minor has allowed three runs or fewer. During that span, his ERA has dropped from 6.20 to 4.58. He appears to be getting better, not tiring out, as the season progresses.
Based on recent performances, perhaps this pairing should be ranked lower. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner haven't pitched very well recently.
Since pitching eight scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts versus the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 20, Bumganrer has struggled. In each of his past three starts, he's allowed four earned runs and at least six hits. Bumgarner hasn't pitched beyond the seventh inning in any of those appearances.
Cain hasn't pitched as badly. In fact, up until his most recent start, he had been pitching very well. But against the Chicago Cubs—one of the worst offenses in MLB—on Sept. 2, Cain was roughed up for five runs and six hits over five innings.
Despite those recent efforts, however, we're still talking about two of the best starting pitchers in baseball.
Cain has a 2.98 ERA for the season while Bumgarner carries a 3.15 mark. Both are among the top three in the NL in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and top five in opponents' batting average. Cain and Bumgarner also rank among the league's top pitchers in strikeouts.
If both pitchers are beginning to tire out a bit—which seems doubtful, given that Cain and Bumgarner are 200-inning workhorses—they may get an opportunity for some rest if the Giants pull away from the Dodgers in the NL West.
How can the Washington Nationals be at the top of these power rankings when they're going to shut down Stephen Strasburg after Sept. 12?
Aren't the Nats—especially general manager Mike Rizzo—insane for voluntarily sidelining their best starting pitcher for the last half of September and the postseason that awaits?
Strasburg has been outstanding this season and the Nationals are undoubtedly a better team with him in their starting rotation. But if there's one team that can afford to sit Strasburg down and proceed ahead, it's the Nationals.
Both Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are in the NL's top 10 in ERA. Until Zimmermann gave up eight runs versus the St. Louis Cardinals, he was challenging Johnny Cueto for the league's ERA lead. The two Nats pitchers also rank among the NL's top 10 in WHIP.
Opposing batters are hitting just .208 against Gonzalez for the season. His 185 strikeouts are the fourth-highest total among NL starting pitchers. He's a tremendous weapon for to deploy in Game 1 of a playoff series, one who could be good for two to three wins in each round as the Nats contend for their first World Series.
This kind of starting pitching depth is why the Nationals are currently the best team in the NL and could give an AL opponent a serious run for a championship in October.
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