- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ten years ago Monday, St. Louis was the center of the sports world. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were nearing the apex of a home run race that captured national attention and fully resurrected baseball from an ugly strike that canceled the World Series four years earlier.

When McGwire punched his 62nd homer of the season over Busch Stadium’s left-field wall that night, hugging Sosa as he surpassed Roger Maris’ 1961 record, the game’s new pecking order was clear. Sluggers ruled the game, and pitchers, important as they were, couldn’t match up with the behemoths swinging 34-ounce bats like they were tennis rackets.

How fitting, then, that a decade later, McGwire’s legacy is nowhere to be found. Both his and Sosa’s accomplishments, alluring as they were, were built artificially. In the pennant race of 2008, the environment they helped create is gone with the wind.

As of Sunday, 11 teams either were in position for a playoff spot or within 2 1/2 games of one. All have one thing in common: depth in their pitching staff.

Whether it’s the Tampa Bay Rays’ quintet of double-digit winners or the New York Mets’ group of young starters complementing their offseason acquisition of Johan Santana, every team in contention has enough pitching to carry it.

And the era of hurlers forming the bedrock of a contender is back. It’s at least partially because the elimination of steroids has tilted some of the balance of power back to the mound and also because of teams following Boston’s lead and being smarter with how they develop their young pitchers.

However many factors you credit to the change, there’s little question pitching is the key element that’s shaping the current pennant race.

Now the question is what it will mean for the teams trying to hang on to that pitching.

The years following McGwire and Sosa’s historic chase, combined with a free agent market spiraling drastically out of control, brought hitters some of the largest contracts in the game’s history. Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Todd Helton are still living off the bounties they landed in 2001, and Alex Rodriguez’s 2001 contract (10 years, $252 million) helped him land even more money when he opted out of the deal last fall.

This is another one of those escalating markets, and pitchers’ salaries are seeing a similar hike. The San Francisco Giants, however foolishly, gave Barry Zito $126 million over seven seasons in 2007, and Santana got $137.5 million for six years from the Mets this year.

Those two deals were the biggest ever given to starting pitchers, and they unquestionably will mean bigger paydays for CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets this winter.

But as salaries escalate, teams that survive can replenish their rotations from within, and the Milwaukee Brewers have an ace-in-waiting in Yovani Gallardo.

It’s a counter measure necessary for many teams as the premium on pitching gets higher every year. And if the link between pitching prowess and the playoffs stays as strong as it is this year, the price will continue to jump.

In the wake of McGwire’s and Sosa’s accomplishments ringing hollow, it makes some strange sense.

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