Baseball's league championship series will feature pitching at its peak

Tim Lincecum whiffed 14 batters in his playoff debut against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.
Tim Lincecum whiffed 14 batters in his playoff debut against the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 11:17 PM

History may someday show that the two league championship series of 2001 represented the pinnacle of modern pitching. Spread among three of the four teams, battling for the right to advance to the World Series, were eight potential Hall of Famers: Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling of the Arizona Diamondbacks; Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees; and John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves.

Occasionally, some of them went head-to-head - never more memorably than in Game 7 of the World Series, in which Schilling and Clemens dueled to a near-draw, with Johnson getting the win in relief, and Rivera was tagged with the loss.

Nine years later, baseball has finally produced a final four that can compare to 2001 in terms of pitching star power. On the heels of what was, statistically, the best-pitched division series in history (pitchers combined for a 2.63 ERA in the 17 games), the two LCS hold the promise of more domination by the men on the mound.

"They said it's the Year of the Pitcher, didn't they?" San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum told reporters this week. "So it's still continuing."

Virtually every night for the next 10 to 14 days, the stage will be graced by at least one elite hurler:

On Friday night, in the American League opener, New York's CC Sabathia, the 2007 AL Cy Young winner and a leading candidate this year, faces off against the upstart Texas Rangers.

On Saturday night at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, the opener of the NLCS will feature one for the ages, as San Francisco's Lincecum, winner of the last two NL Cy Youngs, faces the Phillies' Roy Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy Young winner and the favorite to win the NL award this year. In the Division Series opener against Cincinnati, Halladay threw just the second postseason no-hitter in history; a day later, Lincecum struck out 14 Atlanta Braves, tied for the seventh-most all-time in a single postseason game.

On Sunday night, Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt, a two-time 20-game winner and five-time top-five finisher in Cy Young voting, pitches in Game 2, fulfilling the role the Phillies envisioned when they traded for him in July.

On Monday night, the stage belongs to Texas's Cliff Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young winner and the premier October pitcher of his era, with a 6-0 record and 1.44 ERA in seven career postseason starts. He faces veteran Yankee workhorse Andy Pettitte, the second-winningest active pitcher in baseball (240 wins) and the winningest postseason pitcher (19 wins) of all-time.

"He's as good as they get," Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said of Lee, who beat the Yankees twice in last year's World Series as a member of the Phillies. "You talk about having patience [in the batter's box], but if you try to be patient with him, a lot of times you're down [in the count] 0-2."

Finally, on Tuesday, the Phillies will deploy the third member of their so-called "Big Three" - lefty Cole Hamels, who was the MVP of the NLCS and World Series in 2008, when the Phillies won it all. Only one team in baseball this season beat Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, and it was the Giants.

"We've heard a lot of talk about how good the Phillies' pitching is," Giants rookie catcher Buster Posey said. "And we have the guys to match up with them."

Do the math: Five of baseball's most recent 14 Cy Young winners (including Lincecum twice) will be represented in the two series - and if veteran lefty Barry Zito makes the Giants' roster (he was left off it for the NLDS), that will make six of the last 16.

The four closers, too, all are (or were, or will be) among the game's elite. The Rangers' Neftali Feliz hits triple digits on the radar gun and is a leading candidate for AL rookie of the year. The Giants' Brian Wilson and the Phillies' Brad Lidge are both two-time all-stars.

And of course, the Yankees' incomparable Rivera - the only one of those eight potential Hall of Famers from 2001 still pitching - is simply the greatest closer of all-time, and the owner of a 0.72 career ERA in the postseason. At age 40, he is still good for an occasional five- or six-out save, and he is the only pitcher left in this postseason who, right now, can be considered a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

How will it all play out? Can either series replicate the 1905 World Series, which remains the only postseason series in history in which every game was a shutout - all of them thrown by Hall of Famers: Christy Mathewson (who threw three of them), Chief Bender and Joe McGinnity? Highly unlikely.

There are certain to be plot twists and unforeseen developments. Already, the Giants have revealed that Lincecum is battling a blister problem. Halladay may actually give up a hit. Someone may be tempted to throw one of their aces on short rest in a subsequent game. Heck, even Rivera blows an occasional save - though he hasn't done so in the postseason since 2004, 23 successful saves ago.

But if the rest of this postseason is anything like the opening round, this could be one of those historical convergences of pitching talent, the likes of which come around all too seldom.

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