Pinning hopes on young pitchers is often more miss than hit

Youth is not always wasted on the young.

The Florida Marlins won the 2003 World Series with a rotation headed by 25-year-old Brad Penny and 23-year-old Josh Beckett, and the New York Mets won the 1986 World Series with a rotation led by Ron Darling, 25, and Dwight Gooden, 21.

So, there is precedent for the Dodgers and Angels pinning their 2010 hopes on their young guns: Chad Billingsley, 25, and Clayton Kershaw, 22, of the Dodgers and Jered Weaver, 27, Joe Saunders, 28, and Ervin Santana, 27, of the Angels.

But youth at the front of the rotation rarely leads to champagne-soaked victories at the end of October.

Those 1986 Mets were the only World Series winners in the last 30 years whose top two starters had a combined age younger than Billingsley and Kershaw.

And the 2003 Marlins, with Carl Pavano, 27, as a No. 3 starter, and 1986 Mets, with Bob Ojeda, 28, at No. 3, are the only World Series winners since 1986 whose top three starters had a combined age younger than Weaver, Saunders and Santana.

For every late-October pitching whiz, there are far more grizzled veterans such as the New York Yankees’ Andy Pettitte, 37 in 2009; the Boston Red Sox’ Curt Schilling, 40 in 2007; the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Contreras, 33 in 2005; and Boston’s Schilling, 37, and Pedro Martinez, 32, in 2004.

“The guys with more experience, they’ve been in the trenches and they know it’s going to be a battle; they know how to take the emotion and adrenaline and channel it the right way,” Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said.

“Sometimes young guys with great stuff can ride that adrenaline all year. But sometimes when you’re a younger guy without much experience, you might have the stuff, but you might not be able to control the adrenaline, and you come out of your game a little bit.”

The Dodgers witnessed such extremes with Kershaw and Billingsley in 2009.

Kershaw was 8-8 with a 2.79 earned run average in 30 regular-season starts and gave up two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings of a National League division series Game 2 win over St. Louis.

But in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series against Philadelphia, Kershaw was pounded for five earned runs in 4 2/3 innings of an 8-6 loss.

Billingsley appeared on his way to a breakout season, going 9-3 with a 2.72 ERA in 14 starts through June 14 and making the All-Star team.

Then the right-hander unraveled, going 3-8 with a 5.21 ERA from June 19 on and getting left out of the playoff rotation.

Billingsley still can’t provide a definitive explanation of what happened, but he thinks a hamstring injury might have affected his mechanics, and that once his performance slipped, he couldn’t overcome the doubts that crept into his head.

Dodgers Manager Joe Torre hopes the struggles of Kershaw and Billingsley will benefit them in the long run.

“I hope every experience they have is going to help them,” Torre said. “You hope you can grow from it. You try to approach them, reason with them, get them to understand what they need to do. I think we’ve made some strides.”

Weaver, Saunders and Santana have had mixed results in the playoffs, Weaver going 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA in six games, Santana going 2-2 with a 5.56 ERA in eight games and Saunders going 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in three games.

“When you’re young and you’ve never been in that atmosphere, it kind of takes its toll your first couple times,” Weaver said. “Now that we’ve been to the playoffs every year, you get used to that feeling, that environment, and you start treating it more like the regular season. I think that gives us an advantage.”

Just pitching into September and October, learning how to thrive without your best stuff or despite nagging injuries, was a learning experience.

Saunders, for example, pitched most of 2009 with an irritation in his shoulder before going on the disabled list and getting a cortisone injection in early August.

The left-hander was 7-0 with a 2.55 ERA in his final seven decisions and finished with a 16-7 record and 4.60 ERA.

“September is a whole different thing,” Saunders said. “It’s almost like a mini-season when you get to the big leagues. In the minor leagues, after August, you have a few more games and you’re done. In the big leagues, after August, you have to get your legs back under you, get your second or third wind. It’s tough.”

Weaver, who will start Monday night’s season opener against Minnesota, emerged as a potential ace in 2009, going 16-8 with a 3.75 ERA in a career-high 211 innings.

He gave up one run and two hits in 7 1/3 innings of a 4-1 victory over Boston in Game 2 of the American League division series and three runs in five innings of a Game 3 start in the AL Championship Series against the Yankees.

And Santana, who may have the best stuff of the three, appears sound after an elbow sprain sapped him of his 96-mph fastball last season. The right-hander was an All-Star in 2008, going 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA.

“They’ve proven they can win, and now they can lead a rotation,” Butcher said of Weaver, Saunders and Santana. “And I think beating Boston in the playoffs last year got a lot of our guys over the hump. Once you start breaking through barriers, guys start to believe they can make it to the next level.”

Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.