Too soon?

When the Angels clinched the Western Division crown on Sept. 12, it marked the seventh time since the beginning of division play that a team secured a title that early.

It’s presented a dilemma for Mike Scoiscia and his crew: Do they keep their lineup and starting rotation intact for the rest of the season, or do they give their players an extended period of rest? How much down time is enough before the rust begins to show, potentially undermining their charge through the postseason? Will playing what amounts to 20 meaningless games dull their desire?

We won’t know the answers for at least another month. But until then, here’s a look at those six other early-clinching teams and how they handled themselves.

1998 New York Yankees
Date of clinch: Sept. 9
Record after clinch: 12-7
Postseason result: Won World Series

It was business as usual for the Yankee juggernaut after they clinched the AL East with a 7-5 win against the Red Sox on Sept. 9. Joe Torre’s lineup for the 144th game of the year (Sept. 10) was the same as his lineup for game nine right down to his starting pitcher, save Ricky Ledee taking the place of Chad Curtis in left field and batting seventh.

The top of the order remained static throughout September with Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez batting in that exact order for 11 of the final 19 games. In fact, Jeter and Williams started 18 of those 19 games, sitting only for the second game of a doubleheader against the Indians the final Tuesday of the season. Martinez sat only in day games.

Pitching-wise, Torre decided to keep his rotation intact. Orlando Hernandez started the clincher and he was followed by Andy Pettite, Hideki Irabu, David Wells and David Cone. This group started 142 games that year. The only concession the manager made was going to a six-man rotation by inserting Mike Jerzembeck into the mix. He also skipped Pettite’s final start of the year, instead choosing to work him three innings (45 pitches) out of the bullpen on the final Friday of the regular season.

What’s notable is the Yankees closed out the year with a seven-game winning streak.

They stayed hot in the playoffs, sweeping the Western Division champion Texas Rangers in three. In that series, the pitching was the story as the Yankees held the Rangers to a single run over 27 innings, with Wells, Pettite and Cone all posting strong starts. The Yankees then pushed aside the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS in six games.

They steamrolled the San Diego Padres in four on their way to their 24th World Championship.

Speaking of those Padres…

1998 San Diego Padres
Date of clinch: Sept. 12
Record after clinch: 4-9
Postseason result: Lost World Series

The Padres had an odd schedule the final week of the season, with off days on both the final Monday and Thursday of the year. That allowed manager Bruce Bochy even more wiggle room in setting his rotation for the postseason. But in a somewhat curious move, he kept his ace, Kevin Brown, on his regular rest for the remainder of the season. That meant he started the final Friday of the year and then opened the NLDS on four days rest instead of his normal five. However, Bochy kept his ace on a short leash in that final regular season start, allowing him to throw only 65 pitches over five innings.

Like Torre, Bochy didn’t tinker much with his batting order. He took the opportunity to give third baseman Ken Caminiti an extended break by playing him in only four of the final seven games, but Caminiti was battling a plethora of injuries. Otherwise, it was business as usual.

The Padres were tied with the Braves for the best record in the NL as late as Sept. 6, but a dismal month in which they finished with a 9-15 record saw them limp into the playoffs with the third best record among the four qualifiers. That’s because their offense went into dry-dock, averaging just 2.6 runs per game over their final 13. And it was a consistent stretch of offensive futility as well—they didn’t score more than four runs in any of those games.

Of course, the records and recent cold streak didn’t matter once the calendar flipped to October; San Diego vanquished Houston (which had a 15-9 September record) in four games. The Padres then slipped past the Braves in six in the NLCS to set up the World Series with the Yankees. It was pitching that took San Diego that far. The offense continued to struggle, averaging just 3.8 runs per game in the 10 games prior to the World Series.

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1975 Cincinnati Reds
Date of clinch: Sept. 7
Record after clinch: 13-7
Postseason result: Won World Series

As the Big Red Machine rolled through the 1975 season with a 12.5 game lead at the All-Star break, Sparky Anderson used his team’s huge lead as an opportunity to expand his rotation. For most of the final two months, he went with a six-man starting staff. With a little juggling over the final week of the season, he got his ace, Don Gullett, five innings of work on the final Saturday so he was well rested for the opener of the NLCS seven days later.

Once the Reds clinched, Anderson also used the opportunity to rest Johnny Bench. While Anderson continued to use Bench in other roles besides catcher (he played in 21 games in left in ’75), the innings behind the plate were beginning to take their toll. His production fell in the second half of the season and in August, Bench hit just .225/.304/.413. In an effort to get ready for the playoffs, Bench started just nine of the Reds’ final 20 games.

Anderson did the same, but to a lesser extent, to outfielder George Foster, who was slumping, hitting just .265/.306/.412 in September. He started just two games the final week of the season for the Reds. Otherwise, it was business as usual for the Machine.

After wrapping up the NL West at home on a Sunday, the Reds traveled to the West Coast. Perhaps it was the jet lag coupled with celebration, but Cincinnati won only three of eight games against the Padres, Giants and Dodgers on the Pacific swing. The hangover didn’t last long; the Reds won 10 of their final 11 games of the year to enter the postseason on quite a roll.

In those days, there was a six-day layoff between the final Sunday of the regular season and the beginning of the postseason. The down time between games failed to derail the Reds; they rolled the Pittsburgh Pirates in three games, outscoring them 19-7 on their way to a classic World Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox.

1995 Cleveland Indians
Date of clinch: Sept. 8
Record after clinch: 14-7
Postseason result: Lost in World Series

With a postseason drought of more than 40 years, Cleveland fans were thrilled their team was heading for October baseball. And they were downright giddy about the manner their team was tearing through the AL Central. The Indians took possession of first place on May 9 in their 12th game of the year (the ’95 season began late because of the players’ strike) and then immediately flipped on the afterburners. They lead by 5.5 games by the end of May and were up 12 at the All-Star break. Winners of 13 of their final 14 games in August, they were 21.5 games ahead of their rivals.

After the Indians clinched, Mike Hargrove continued to play his starters down the stretch. The only notable tinkering was in the final week of the season when he started Eddie Murray at first base for two games, which represented his second and third starts in the field since mid-June. Murray, 39 that year, had been used primarily as the DH. He logged only 156 innings at first, his fewest since breaking into the league almost 20 years prior. The starts were clearly a move to get him to dust the cobwebs off his mitt, because if the Indians made the World Series, they would have at least two (and maybe four) games without a DH. With a .323/.375/.516 line in 436 at bats, his bat was more valuable than their normal first baseman, Paul Sorrento.

While Murray was old, so were two of the workhorses at the top of the Indians starting rotation. Anchored by Dennis Martinez (40) and Orel Hershiser (36), the Tribe was leaning heavily on experience. While Hargrove bought his duo an extra day of rest here or there down the stretch, he mostly pitched them as normal. In three starts post-clinch, Hershiser threw 113, 99 and 75 pitches. Martinez made four starts during that time throwing 109, 24, 113 and 82 pitches. (The 24-pitch start came on Sept. 17. Martinez went only one inning, allowing two hits, two walks and two runs.)

The pitching setup worked beautifully: The Tribe swept the Red Sox in three in the ALDS. Martinez went six strong innings while Hershiser and Charles Nagy both pitched through seven.

Maybe it was because the season was only 144 games, but the pitchers seemed just a little fresher in the ’95 postseason. The Indians pitchers posted a 1.74 ERA in the ALDS, a 1.64 ERA in the ALCS and a 3.57 ERA in the World Series. They lost the series in six games not because of their pitching, but because their bats went stone cold, mustering a line of .179/.273/.303.

1999 Cleveland Indians
Date of clinch: Sept. 8
Record after clinch: 11-12
Postseason result: Lost in NLDS

When the Indians locked up their invitation to the ’99 postseason, their fifth consecutive division title, they had 86 wins and a .619 winning percentage. After securing the pennant they posted a .478 winning percentage and ended the year on a three-game losing streak.

The Tribe took advantage of a weak Central Divsion that year; the second-place White Sox finished 11 games under .500. A full one-third of Cleveland’s wins came against their division rivals. Despite their running away with the Central, things weren’t so peachy, as their weak finish would indicate. Injuries hit the Indians hard all year—they used 25 different pitchers in ’99 and used the disabled list 22 times.

With his staff seemingly under siege, Hargrove kept his top starters on schedule with Nagy, Bartolo Colon and Dave Burba all making starts on normal rest. With Colon slated to start the opener of the ALDS, Burba started the final game of the year with Nagy, who made a start three days prior, coming in for an inning of relief. It was a strategy that largely worked as Colon and Nagy both pitched extremely well in their ALDS starts to push the Indians to a 2-0 series lead. Burba was going strong in his start as well in the third game, allowing just two baserunners over four innings before leaving the game with a forearm injury.

Then, disaster struck. The Cleveland bullpen couldn’t hold the Boston hitters, and with a lack of options for the rotation, Hargrove sent Colon back out for Game 4 on short rest for the first time all year. Colon was rocked, forcing Hargrove to do the same with Nagy in the deciding Game 5 with the same results.

2002 Atlanta Braves
Date of clinch: Sept. 9
Record after clinch: 11-8
Postseason result: Lost in NLDS

By 2002, the postseason was old hat in Atlanta, but never before had the Braves clinched the division so early.

In setting his rotation for October, Bobby Cox started Tom Glavine on the final Saturday on three days rest instead of his normal four. While it was the only time Glavine pitched on three days rest during the regular season, he threw only 44 pitches in two innings of work. The purpose behind the shuffling was to ensure Glavine would start the opener of the NLDS for the Braves on normal rest. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Glavine wasn’t sharp in his first start of the series. He surrendered three runs in the second and three in the fourth as the Braves dropped the opener.

The Braves rallied to win the next two and held the edge as Cox again decided to send Glavine back to the mound on short rest to try to close out the series. This time, the results were even worse: He couldn’t get beyond the third inning, ultimately allowing seven runs in 2.2 innings while walking five. The Braves lost the game and the series in five.

2008 Angels
Date of clinch: Sept. 12
Record after clinch: 3-2 so far
Postseason result: ???

As Scioscia preps his team for October, question marks abound. Vladimir Guerrero hasn’t played since the Angels clinched, sitting out with a bum knee in the last days of the worst season of his professional career. John Lackey has battled arm problems, has a 4.92 ERA since the start of July and skipped his turn in the rotation before the Angels clinched. Francisco Rodriguez has had a nice year, setting a record for pitching in the final inning of the game when his team has led by three runs or less, but he’s appeared in a career high 71 games and his strikeouts are down while his walks are up.

In the weak AL West (like the ’99 Indians in the AL Central), almost a third of the Angels’ wins have come against the Athletics, Mariners and Rangers.

With Lackey needing extra rest, it would make sense if Ervin Santana opened the postseason for the Angels. Santana has been great this year with a 3.33 ERA and 3.27 FIP and has emerged as a quality starter. The problem is, Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver and Jon Garland all have struggled in the second half. However, all three have shown signs of snapping out of their collective funk. In his last three starts, Weaver has a 2.12 ERA while Saunders is at 3.48 over his last three and Garland has posted a 3.79 during that same stretch. With Lackey struggling, the Angels will need someone from this group to step forward.

The ’75 Reds, ’98 Yankees and ’95 and ’99 Indians all led their league in scoring. With an offense that scores only 4.6 runs per game, the Angels currently rank 10th in the AL. But the Angels limit the opposition to 4.2 runs per game, the third best in the league, which is how the ’98 Padres and ’02 Braves found success. With their lack of offensive firepower, they will need their starters to continue their recent form if they hope to advance through the postseason.

References & Resources
Thanks to Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star for the idea. As usual, Baseball Reference and provided the key information.

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