The Washington Times - June 10, 2008, 01:58AM

By SEAN RAPOSA
June 10, 2008

At this point I’ve already put my neck on the line with my Fave Five starting rotations and 3-4-5 hitting combinations. Some are holding up and others aren’t, but definitely check them out and post a comment to get involved (users with hotmail and yahoo e-mail addresses might have trouble registering; our tech folks are working on that). Anyway, let’s get to the point. Great starting pitching and a solid meat of the order are important components of a winning ballclup, but to really compete in the majors you need a solid bullpen to seal the deal. This week I’m in search of a back end that would make Jessica Biel proud. Needless to say, that’s not going to be easy, but in the interest of keeping this clean I’ll get back to baseball talk. Fans and managers alike lose countless hours of sleep each season as a result of butchered would-be victories by incompetent relievers - take a bow, Eric Gagne. Speaking of whom, should we asterisk those 84 straight saves now, or sometime later on? It’s too bad this isn’t the NBA, or we’d have the pleasure of referring to him as “Eric Gagne’s contract”. There hasn’t been a worse investment since Enron. I could go on and on.

I’ve narrowed down the league’s bullpens to my Fab Five, resulting in another winner to add to my all-MLB “Super Team,” if you will. Statistical analysis of bullpens as a whole is somewhat unreliable due to the mop-up jobs and token clunkers that can be found in any MLB ‘pen. In my quest for baseball’s top relief corps, I’ll focus on the closers, set-up guys and specialists. The top units in today’s column come complete with old favorites and comeback stories of epic proportions. Let’s get to it.

No. 5: The New York Yankees

This ranking pays homage to one of the greatest talents of the last 15 years, as Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is truly a rare gem. His 459 career saves and his claim to ownership of the cut fastball should rocket him into the hall faster than any reliever to date. Back when the Yanks were actually good, during their glory days from 1996 to 2000, Rivera posted a 3-0 record with a 0.65 ERA and went 18-for-18 in save chances in the postseason. His numbers so far this year are ridiculous; 16 saves in as many chances with a 0.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts and just 2 walks in 29 innings. At 38 years old (44 in Dominican years - just kidding, blame Miguel Tejada), he continues to defy father time.

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Most would argue that the Yankees pen is a mess now that the Talking Head has moved Joba “the Hutt” Chamberlain into the rotation, and it’s hard to disagree. With Joba in the ‘pen, the 1-2 punch they had going in the eighth and ninth could possibly have lifted then into the top two in My Five, and it’s possible the Bronx Bombers could’ve emulated the success bitter rival Boston had last year with Hideki Okajima setting up fellow 2007 All-Star Jonathan Papelbon. Now that Joba is trying his hand at starting, they’ll have to rely on Kyle Farnsworth (eight home runs allowed) and LaTroy Hawkins (6.08 ERA) to get the lead to Big Mo. That’s a big problem, but no other pitcher gets it done in the ninth like Rivera, and he LeBron James-ed the Yanks into My Five. Done and done.

No. 4: The Chicago Cubs

This is truly remarkable. Seriously, imagine turning on “Family Guy” only to see that Joe Swanson had miraculously regained the use of his legs through some strange alien treatment. Now imagine that instead of a cartoon we’re talking about a real person, a right arm instead of legs and no aliens. And there you have it - the return of Kerry Wood as an effective major league hurler; it’s the equivalent of a cured paraplegic … cartoon. For real, it’s like the Josh Hamilton story, you know, without all the drugs. The one-time phenom starter has excelled in his experimental crack at the closer’s gig. His 40-to-7 K-to-walk ratio reveals a drastic improvement in his control and all the electric stuff still appears to be in place. Wood can make it interesting, as evidenced by his four blown saves, but so far, so good with his health, and that’s the most important element here.

Wood’s tag-team partner is Carlos Marmol. ESPN might have created their “that’s nasty” bit on Baseball Tonight just for this guy. His breaking pitches are the baseball equivalent to the ankle-breaker in basketball. Marmol has been binging on knee-bucklers and frozen pizza to the tune of 60 K’s in 40 innings - told you he was nasty. He has also been successful in three of his four save chances, which is great insurance if the “real” Wood ever stands up - or falls down, that is.

No. 3: The Chicago White Sox

2008 has been quite a year for baseball thus far in the Windy City. The Cubs and Sox are both in first place in their respective divisions, and now the South Siders have made their first appearance in My Five! The White Sox make this column with their depth and the diversity of arms coming out of the ‘pen. Anchoring the unit - literally - and weighing in at a not-so-trim 290 pounds is closer Bobby Jenks. In a pinch I might take division rival Joe Nathan of Minnesota, but Jenks isn’t far behind. He exhibited his dominance and mental toughness in 2007 by tying the record for consecutive batters retired with an astonishing 41. Jenks was also a big part of the White Sox’ World Series championship run in 2005, saving four postseason games. So far this season, he’s saved 15 games and is sporting a 2.05 ERA.

The Sox are the first group on the list to have all the pieces in place. Scott Linebrink was given big money (four years, $19 million) this offseason to serve as the team’s eighth-inning guy. So far he’s been worth every penny, showcasing a 1.33 ERA and a tidy 24-to-5 K-to-walk ratio. Octavio Dotel was never really cut out to be a closer but he saved 11-of-15 games last year and provides the Sox with insurance for Jenks. Matt Thornton is the left-hander who completes the pen. He has filthy stuff that’s resulted in two relief wins, a 2.92 ERA and 29 K’s in 24 2/3 innings. As a unit, the Sox’ relievers are second in the American League in ERA and have allowed the fewest home runs.

No. 2: The Philadelphia Phillies

“Lunar station to Houston, we found Pujols’ homer.” Yes, I know it’s crazy to see Brad Lidge as the closer of my No. 2 ‘pen, and believe me when I say I didn’t expect this either. You have to love baseball for the kinds of comeback stories it provides. Lidge can join Jon Lester, Zack Grienke, Cliff Lee, Ervin Santana, Hamilton and fellow My Fiver Wood among the feel-good early-season surprises. Until this season, it looked like Albert Pujols had doomed Lidge’s career with one mighty swing of the bat. He lost three games in those 2005 playoffs and proceeded to blow 14 saves over the next two seasons, but it appears that a change of scenery and maybe a new shrink have done the trick for Lidge. He’s been lights out so far this year, converting all of his 17 save opportunites while sporting a silly 0.96 ERA, and is once again resembling the guy fantasy players everywhere fell in love with oh so long ago.

Tom “Flash” Gordon handles the eighth inning duties for the Phillies. The former closer is in his 20th year and getting up there in age, but he can still be effective. He has five relief wins and has converted his lone save opportunity this year. The Herculean effort the Phils have received from Chad Durbin has also been vital to the team’s success. The former starter has excelled in relief, with a 1.67 ERA to this point. He also provides the team with flexibility with his ability to pitch multiple innings when it’s needed. J.C. Romero is the left-handed relief specialist in the City of Brotherly Love. Much like his fellow ‘pen-mates, he’s having a great year. Romero is 4-1 with a 1.59 ERA, and lefties are hitting just .083 off him.

No. 1: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The big winner this week is the Angels. They don’t have the most relief wins or the greatest ERA, but no big league bullpen hammers down a victory better than the Halos. They currently lead the league with 31 saves. If I’m hand-picking a bullpen, I’m going to need to be supremely confident in the guys handling the eighth and ninth. Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez - better known as “K-Rod” - have been the most consistent 1-2 knockout punch in the game for years. This duo combines to make the most stressful parts of the game as comfortable Tiger with a lead on Sunday.

Rodriguez burst onto the MLB scene in the 2002 postseason, going 5-1 with a 1.93 era and 28-to-5 K-to-walk ratio in 18 2/3 innings as the Angels won their first World Series title over one Barry Lamar Bonds and the Giants. Since taking over the team’s closing duties full-time in 2005 following the departure of Troy Percival, K-Rod has yet to deliver less than forty saves or register an ERA over 3.00. This season, he’s 26-for-27 in save opportunities with a 2.17 ERA and is holding opponents to a paltry .178 average. As Jack Nicholson’s Joker would say, “Frank you’re my number one man.”

Do you think Papelbon and the Red Sox ‘pen should have Riverdanced their way into My Five? Is the Baltimore bullpen for real? Do the Dodgers or Blue Jays have the weapons to bump Big Mo and the Yanks? Post a comment below and share your perspective.

Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at sraposa33@gmail.com.

All photos by The Associated Press

Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys.