Now, this little tidbit doesn’t mean much, but it’s a good place to start as we prepare for one of the most exciting pitching matchups in postseason baseball history, Saturday night’s game between Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay and San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum. I cannot begin to tell you how psyched I am for this game. Well, actually, I will tell you quite a bit about that.
But let’s start with this bit of obscurity …
There have only been nine postseason matchups ever between multiple Cy Young Award winners. They are as follows:
— 1966, World Series Game 2: Jim Palmer vs. Sandy Koufax.
Comment: What I did here was look for any match-up between pitchers who EVENTUALLY were multiple Cy Young winners. In 1966, Jim Palmer was only a rookie and it would be seven years before he won even his first Cy Young. Koufax, meanwhile, was fully formed, having just finished his last and perhaps greatest season. In other words, this game would only be seen as a great pitching match-up years later. And, so of course, it did not go at all like expected. Palmer flashed some of his future brilliance throwing a four-hit shutout while Koufax, not exactly helped by four of the six errors the Dodgers committed, was pulled after only six innings (and having allowed four runs, one of them earned).
— 1968, World Series Games 1 and 4: Bob Gibson vs. Denny McLain.
Comment: In this case, neither of the pitchers were multiple Cy Young winners while the Series was going on. Neither had won a single Cy Young yet. Gibson would win the 1968 award after the World Series and then win his second Cy Young in 1970. And while people tend to remember McLain for his 30-win season and the various legal troubles he had afterward, he did win back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1968 and 1969. McLain at 25 had already won 114 games and two Cy Young Awards, pretty amazing.
Their match-up was wildly hyped in ’68, of course. Both had just come off seasons for the ages. McLain had won 30 and Gibson had finished with a 1.12 ERA. Anyway, both of their games turned out to be pretty terrible pitching matchups. In Game 1, Gibson had one of the most dominating performances in World Series history, he threw a shutout, and he struck out 17 which is still a World Series record. McLain, meanwhile, only lasted five innings and gave up three runs — walks to Roger Maris and Tim McCarver, back-to-back singles by Mike Shannon and Julian Javier, an error thrown in, and that was the end.
Game 4 was even more lopsided. Gibson allowed one run and struck out 10. McClain could not even get out of the third inning. Lou Brock, one of the great postseason performers by the way, led off the game with a homer off McLain. The Cardinals added an unearned run in the inning — that run coming on a McLain error — and then battered McLain in the third.
McLain came back to pitch a brilliant complete game in Game 6. And Gibson battled — and lost — the seventh game to the Tigers and the irrepressible Mickey Lolich.
— 1995, NL Division Series Game 4: Greg Maddux vs. Bret Saberhagen.
Comment: There wasn’t a lot of hype about this one because by 1995, Saberhagen was a shell of his younger self. He had won his second Cy Young way back in 1989, and though he had pitched reasonably well since then (he was terrific in the strike-shortened 1994 season for the Mets) he had not pitched a lot. Injuries had drained much of his young brilliance.
Maddux, meanwhile, was about to win his fourth straight Cy Young Award and was at the height of his powers. He would still have, I figure, four excellent seasons, and a handful of good ones, but he would never again have as good a year as he had in 1994 and 1995. Over those two seasons, Maddux was 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA, a 266 ERA+, 337 Ks to 54 walks, six shutouts, the master of everything. I have never enjoyed watching a pitcher more than I did Maddux in those years.
Neither pitcher threw well in this game. Maddux got rapped around a bit, allowing 10 hits, two homers and four runs in seven innings. Saberhagen got the worse of hit, lasting only four innings and giving up six runs, five of them earned.
— 1999 ALCS Game 3, Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.
— 2003 ALCS Games 3 and 7, Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens.
These should have been the most anticipated pitching matchups in recent postseason history — perhaps the two most dominant pitchers of the era and two powerful personalities going at it — but for whatever reason I don’t remember them that way. Maybe it’s because none of the games turned out to be remarkable pitching duels.
The 1999 game turned into a joke and fast. Clemens lasted only two innings, he gave up a homer to John Valentin in the first, gave up a couple of doubles, a single and a walk in the second, got pulled after one batter in the third. Pedro, meanwhile, cruised for seven shutout innings, striking out 12.
The third game of the 2003 ALCS was better, but still hardly a classic. Pedro gave up four runs in seven innings — the Derek Jeter homer and Hideki Matsui’s run-scoring ground-rule double are what stand out — and Clemens gave up two runs in six innings. What I really remember about that game is what I tend to remember about many Yankees postseason triumphs: Mariano Rivera threw two perfect innings to close it out.
The seventh game of the 2003 ALCS is a classic, but only because everyone remembers Grady Little refusing to take out Pedro in the eighth and Aaron Boone’s 11th inning homer. It’s easy to forget — I DID forget — that Clemens actually started that game for the Yankees. He got pulled after three ineffective innings. Over his career, Roger Clemens had one of the greatest postseason performances ever — his 15 strikeouts, one-hit shutout against Seattle in the 2000 ALCS — and his two-hit, no-run performance against the Mets in the 2001 World Series was both controversial (throwing the bat toward Piazza) and indisputable. But he did start 32 other postseason games and throw 182 other postseason innings, and his ERA in those was 4.10.
— 2001 NLCS Game 1, Greg Maddux vs. Randy Johnson.
This could have — maybe even should have — become the Ali-Frazier pitching matchup of the era, two utterly dominant pitchers doing it two completely different ways. Unfortunately, this was the only time they matched up in the playoffs.
The game was indeed a bit of a pitching classic. The Diamondbacks scraped a run in the first helped along by a Marcus Giles error — it was not an unearned run, but the error clearly played a role. Craig Counsell singled, moved to third when Luis Gonzalez reached on the Giles error. Then Reggie Sanders singled in Counsell.
Counsell scored the Diamondbacks second run too, that was in the fifth when he doubled and scored on Gonzalez’s single.
That was it — two runs for Arizona. It was plenty. Unit threw a complete game, three-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.
— 2001 NLCS Game 5, Tom Glavine vs. Randy Johnson.
Different multiple-Cy-Young winner for the Braves facing Unit, same story. Glavine was 35 by the time of this game, and though he would still have some good moments left, he was no longer quite as great as he had been. He allowed a run in the fourth, but the Braves tied it in the bottom of the inning when 498-year-old Julio Franco homered off Unit — the first run the Braves managed against Johnson. But as Braves fans will remember clearly, the next half inning Craig Counsell reached on an error, and pinch-hitter Erubiel Durazo homered off Glavine to give the Diamondbacks a lead that they would not lose.
OK, so that’s all of them. As you can see, these match-ups have been a mixed bag. If you want to go to the time before the Cy Young Award, yes, there certainly were some remarkable postseason pitching match-ups … you have Koufax against Whitey Ford, you have Lefty Grove against Burleigh Grimes, you have Lefty Gomez against Dizzy Dean, you have Christy Mathewson against Eddie Plank and so on. But the truth seems to be this: Two truly great pitchers, both in their prime, facing off in the postseason … it’s a rare, rare thing.
And we get it tomorrow night in Philadelphia.
At the moment, this is NOT YET a match-up of multiple-Cy Young winners. But it will be — Tim Lincecum has already won two Cy Youngs, and when the voting is announced in a few weeks we’ll get official confirmation that Roy Halladay will win his second Cy Young in 2010. It will be, I believe, the first ever matchup between last year’s Cy Young winner and this year’s.
And more than the awards, this is a matchup between perhaps the two most striking pitchers in the game. The best of rivalries — Ali-Frazier, Brady-Manning, Evert-Navratilova, Watson-Nicklaus, Magic-Bird, Sampras-Agassi, Tom-Jerry — offer something beyond ferocious competition, something beyond compelling games. They offer clashing styles, interlocking pieces, thrust-parry, point-counterpoint.
And here you go. Halladay personifies persistence, mind-numbing persistence, he pounds the strike zone again and again and again with similar pitches, a fastball that cuts and a cutter that’s fast, over and over, almost always on the inside corner or the outside corner, over and over, fastball and cutter three-quarters of the time, with an occasional change-up or curveball to throw a wrench into the machine and send the hitter’s body into convulsions. Halladay set a career high in strikeouts this year — he did throw his swing-and-miss change-up more than ever before — and he walked just THIRTY batters, and more than anything he kept on coming at hitters relentlessly. No starter in the game throws a heavier pitch; when you see how the ball thuds off the bat you would swear Halladay is throwing billiard balls. Boxing (like chess) has become more of an example than spectator sport — that is to say it’s more fun to compare stuff to boxing than to actually watch boxing — but it does seem true that Halladay works the body, scoring points and wearing down opponents with every pitch. He’s remarkable to watch because he’s so unremarkable to watch. He’s a master craftsman. He pitches older than his 33 years.
Tim Lincecum, meanwhile, personifies youth, excitement, genius. There’s nobody QUITE like him. There has never been anyone QUITE like him. He has that weird windup that inspired people to call him Freak, the mid-to-high 90s fastball that seems to be thrown out of a sling shot, the absurd curveball that at times still seems to move like one of those toy remote control helicopters, and the even more absurd change-up that flutters around erratically, even emotionally, like an 8-year-old child in Toys R Us. And, of course, he’s maintaining that skateboard-dude vibe (as an editor pointed out to me, he is kind of the spitting image of the skateboard bully Dolph from the Simpsons), and so you are never entirely sure what he’s going to do.
Halladay is a classic black and white movie starring someone like Humphrey Bogart — you could see him pitching in a tux.
Lincecum is a 3D comedy adventure starring Adam Sandler — you could see him pulling out a guitar and singing a funny song on the mound.
And this takes the match-up to new heights — I can never remember being so fired up for a postseason pitching duel. Of course, pitching duels can fizzle quickly — a bad early inning by either pitcher more or less ends the fun. But I don’t think this one will fizzle. They are both breathtakingly good, at the height of their powers, coming off legendary performances. The scene will be crazy in Philadelphia. Everything lines up.
And the beautiful thing is we could see the duel again in San Francisco. As I’ve written before, I never entirely bought into the idea that 2010 was “The Year of the Pitcher.” Go back and look at the numbers from 1968 … THAT was the year of the pitcher. There was plenty of offense this year. But Saturday should be the night of the pitcher. For a night, we might just go back to 1968.