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Want to win World Series? Start with relievers

By Jerry Green, Special to The Detroit News
Guillermo Hernandez (then "Willie"), center, was such an important part of the Tigers' 1984 championship team that he was named AL Cy Young winner and MVP.

Once, way back, conventional wisdom declared that baseball was three-quarters pitching and all the rest consisted of the small segments hitting, fielding, running – and stealing the other team's signs.

That was the gospel according to Connie Mack, who was the game's leading philosopher a century ago.

"Pitching is 75 percent of the game," Mr. Mack stated, from above the starched collar he wore with his civilian suit as he managed the Philadelphia Athletics to several World Series victories.

Those of us baseball addicts, currently of a senior age, believed Mack in our earlier years. We believed -- in the same manner that cosmopolitan citizens used to believe that the world was flat.

Then along came an upstart named Chris Columbus and proved that the world was round. As round, well, as a baseball.

Myths were extremely difficult to eradicate.

Still are.

It is the objective of every Major League Baseball general manager to assemble the highest-quality starting pitching staff possible. The idea is to hoard starters. Pamper them. Baby them. Publicize them. Offer them multi-millions so as to lock them up for years into eternity.

It is – as the myth remains even in this era of Sabremetric gobbledy-gook – the major method of organizing pitching staffs for supposed World Series contenders.

Add a David Price to a stellar staff of Marvelous Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello, and the Tigers are a shoo-in to win … and oops!

And now the Washington Nationals are being considered shoo-ins to dominate baseball in this soon-to-open season.

National pride

Imagine, according to the overflowing punditry from the Florida and Arizona training grounds, how mighty the Nationals are now. How they have a clear shot through the National League with Scherzer added to this stupendous collection of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzales – plus an available sixth starter, Tanner Roark.

Former Tiger Max Scherzer helps make the Nationals unbeatable in 2015 -- or so the experts say.

"They could climb the ranks as one of the best starting rotations in the era (1969-on) of the lowered mound," glowed NBC's Hardball Talk website.

Best ever starting staff, say other baseball wizards from the training camps, adding to the winds of March.

By decree, the Nats' starting staff now is destined to replace the previous best starting staff ever, the Atlanta Braves' group of two decades ago. How we wowed then about the pitching dominance of the Braves with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Three imposing pitchers destined for the immortality of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

But the truth is that the world is not really flat. That myth exploded.

That immense starting staff of the Braves – that myth was exploded also.

Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz pitched the Braves of the 1990s to precisely one World Series championship. They contributed to the winning of five NL pennants. And they were involved in four World Series flops.

The finest starting staff in history managed to win this single World Series in 1995.

Ace in the hole

It's not that this glorified starting triumvirate was lousy. It was that the Yankees had Mariano Rivera.

It was that simple in the World Series of 1996 and 1999.

Out came Rivera climbing against the Braves – and slam, it was finished.

Bullpens are the most important ingredient to any championship baseball.

I have no idea how WAR and WHIP and the other contrived statistics factor into winning championships. It really doesn't much matter. Ever since that statistic about Quality Starts came into existence I have mused about quality finishes.

But ordinarily – unless Madison Bumgarner is involved – quality finishes are group efforts. The seventh-inning stopper. The eighth-inning holder. Then the ninth-inning closer.

The closer catches all the glory. Rivera with the Yankees. Koji Uehara with the Red Sox two years ago.

This is hardly a new phenomenon.

Guillermo Hernandez with the Tigers just 31 year ago. Cy Young Award! MVP!

Scherzer and his new cronies on the Nationals' starting staff are being ticketed for the 2015 World Series. No doubt.

But the Nats have the specter of the unknown. In their short history, they have been unable to close out victories in postseason games. Faulty bullpens.

The Dodgers, supposedly, will provide the Nats with ample pursuit. They have Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu as starters. A fine starting trio. Kershaw is unmatched. The best pitcher in baseball.

True, of course. With terrible postseason vulnerability.

And the Dodgers, with their proud starters and their feared hitting, have a dreadful bullpen. They are damaged much further because their reliable closer, Kenley Jansen, will be on the disabled list well into the season.

Then there are the Tigers, who were stopped last October by Baltimore. They entered the 2014 playoffs with the most revered starting five in all of baseball. Same as the year before.

During this past offseason, they allowed Scherzer to depart for Washington without a peep of protest. They dealt away Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes, a sometimes powerful hitter who created disenchantment playing in Oakland and then Boston.

The Tigers have yearning for a reliable bullpen for nigh onto a decade.

Connie Mack's words are still valued in much of baseball.

Brings to mind another slice of conventional wisdom from another Philadelphia manager. The aptly named Danny Ozark, who managed the Phillies back awhile ago.

"Ninety percent of baseball is half-mental."

So? Where have you gone Jose Valverde?

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.