Sunday night in San Francisco, rookie left-hander Noah Lowry tossed 7 2/3 innings of solid baseball against the Cubs in the Giants’ 6-3 win. It was Lowry’s second consecutive good start since his recall from Triple-A last week, and his fourth quality start in five attempts this season. The win pushed the Giants to within 6 1/2 games of the Dodgers in the NL West, and within two games of the Cubs in the wild-card race.
With the trade deadline past and the Giants hurting for starting pitching, Lowry has to continue to be effective if the Giants are going to leapfrog the many teams ahead of them in the standings.
Of course, The Giants have been here before. On June 4 of last season, hurting for pitching and needing to replace the injured Kurt Ainsworth, they turned to a 21-year-old right-hander named Jerome Williams. Williams, who had made just one start in his career, would go on to post a 3.05 ERA in 20 starts from that point forward, helping the Giants make their second straight postseason appearance.
Williams and Lowry are just two examples of a baseball phenomenon. Each year, at least one contending team searching for mound help calls up a young man, sometimes highly-regarded, sometimes unknown, and rides him to a playoff spot. Just since the three-division format was instituted in 1994, more than 20 rookie starters have made major contributions to winning teams after starting the season in the minors.
Just across San Francisco Bay last year, the A’s had their own midseason magic. Rich Harden, brought up on July 21, went 3-0 with a 1.69 ERA in his first five starts. A couple of brutal poundings elevated his ERA, but he stayed in the rotation through the end of the season, providing an upgrade over John Halama and Aaron Harang and helping the A’s make their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
The A’s had seen this act before. Back in 2000, meandering along with a 52-44 record, the A’s called up 1999 #1 pick Barry Zito. Zito handcuffed the Angels in his first start on July 22, allowing just two hits (and six walks) in five innings. He made 14 starts, putting up his career-low 2.72 ERA and helping the A’s catch the Mariners to win the AL West.
While neither Williams, Harden nor Zito managed to pitch their teams into the World Series, a number of midseason call-ups did. John Lackey, brought to the majors on June 24, 2002 by the Angels, was a workhorse for the team in their torrid second half. He pitched at least six innings in 11 of his first 12 starts, posting a 3.23 ERA in that span. He capped the year by picking up the win in Game Seven of the World Series.
Back in 1997, both World Series teams featured important midseason call-ups. The Marlins had Cuban refugee Livan Hernandez who, while best known for his 15-strikeout complete game in the NLCS, was a huge contributor to the Marlins’ 92-70 regular season. Joining the rotation for good on July 19, Hernandez ripped off a 12-start stretch in which he posted a 1.84 ERA, helping the Fish lock up the NL wild-card slot with a week to spare.
The Marlins’ opposition in the Fall Classic, the Indians, had a phenom themselves in Jaret Wright. The tenth overall pick in the 1994 draft, Wright was reliable, if unspectacular, for an Indians’ squad that just needed its starters to not be terrible, for it would score lots of runs for them. Wright, like Hernandez, is better remembered for a postseason in which he beat the Yankees twice in the Division Series and left Game Seven of the World Series with a 2-1 lead.
One year later, another Hernandez from Cuba was pitching deep into October, only this time it was Livan’s half-brother Orlando. “El Duque” spent just a brief time in the minors before joining the Bronx Bombers in June. He made 21 starts, 14 of them quality starts, as the Yankees set an American League record (since broken) with 114 wins. Hernandez’s two postseason starts–14 innings, one run allowed–capped a great rookie season.
As successful as they may be at the time, not all midseason call-ups go on to have successful careers. Wright struggled with injuries and his control in nearly every season after ’97, and is only this year tasting success in the major leagues as another Leo Mazzone reclamation project. Chad Ogea, a teammate of Wright’s in Cleveland, went 8-3 with a 3.51 ERA as a starter for the 1995 Indians, a team that won 100 games in a strike-shortened, 144-game season. Ogea never again had an ERA below 4.79, and was out of the majors after 1999. The Cardinals won the NL Central in 2000 thanks in part to the right arm of Britt Reames. Reames, called up on August 20 to replace Andy Benes, allowed three earned runs or less in all seven of his starts down the stretch. His ERA since then? 5.89.
Perhaps the best performance since 1994 by a midseason call-up belongs to Roy Oswalt in 2001. Oswalt, who didn’t get to the majors until June 2, built a reasonable case for the Cy Young Award in his four months in the majors. Oswalt posted a 2.82 in 20 starts, while playing his home games in the cozy confines of Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), and was just huge down the stretch: a 1.89 ERA in ten starts in August and September, a stretch that includes allowing five runs in five innings over his last two starts while battling a strained right groin that would keep him out of the postseason.
Noah Lowry would like to follow in the footsteps of these guys, solidifying a rotation and providing quality innings to a team headed for the playoffs. If last week is any indication, the Giants could be on their way to a third straight postseason appearance.