Commentary

Once-in-a-lifetime pitching matchup

Phillies, Giants set for one of the greatest rotation showcases in baseball history

Updated: October 17, 2010, 2:27 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Somewhere out there on this great planet of ours, there might be a tougher gig than being a hitter in this Phillies-Giants NLCS.

Lindsay Lohan's Nobel Prize campaign chairman comes to mind. Door-to-door LeBron James Cavaliers jersey salesman comes to mind.

But that might be pretty much it -- because we're about to witness a National League Championship Series featuring more aces than the World Series of Poker.

In one corner: Roy HalladayRoy OswaltCole Hamels.

In the other corner: Tim LincecumJonathan SanchezMatt Cain.

Has there ever been a postseason series featuring six starting pitchers this dominating? We ran that question, and others, past two of the great October starters of modern times -- Curt Schilling and Orel Hershiser. And Schilling used a word to describe this series that just might say it all:

"Unprecedented."

What October is all about, he said, is "stuff." Pure, untouchable, power stuff. Stuff so good that the guy on the mound is "walking off the field between innings, going, 'Oh my God. They have no chance,'" Schilling said.

"And there are five guys who are going to pitch in the Phillies-Giants series, or possibly six, who could get there," said the man who started Game 7, against Roger Clemens, in the 2001 World Series. "It's unprecedented, really."

This series kicks off Saturday night with one of the most charismatic Game 1 duels ever -- Cy Lincecum versus Cy Halladay. We'll tell you just how rare that heavyweight title bout is shortly. But after them comes one unhittable arm after another. Think about this:

• Of the 10 pitchers in the NL who struck out more than 190 hitters this season, this series features five of them (Lincecum, Halladay, Hamels, Sanchez and Oswalt). It's the first series to line up five of the top 10 whiff-masters in any league, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, since the 2003 American League Championship Series (Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Clemens, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte).

• Of the 20 qualifying NL pitchers who had ERAs under 3.50 this year, six of them (that group above, plus Cain) will start in this series. It's the first series involving six starters who made the top 20 in both ERA and strikeouts, according to Elias, since the 2001 A's-Yankees AL Division Series (Mussina, Clemens, Pettitte, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito).

• All six of the Game 1-2-3 starters in this series also finished in the top 25 in the league in WHIP, opponent OPS and strikeout ratio. So does anybody feel sorry for the hitters yet? We do.

"I think the over-under, if Vegas is doing something, would be like two out of seven shutouts," said Hershiser, who once threw two shutouts in the 1988 postseason on the way to a title his Dodgers wouldn't have won without him. "And I think if the thing goes five games, you might have MORE shutouts, because the reason it only went five was because somebody just lit it up pitching-wise."

The arms are so special in this series, in fact, that it will be an upset if we don't get at least one epic duel, or at least one indelible performance, that people talk about for, oh, the next three or four centuries.

"I don't think that's a leap," Schilling said, "that you'll see another box score where people will go, 'Holy crap.'"

And that box score might be coming right up, too, in a Game 1 matchup that Bob Gibson and Denny McLain would be proud of. So let's start our discussion there:

THE DOC VERSUS THE FREAK

How often does a Game 1 like this come along -- in any year, in any series? You know the answer. Just about never. But thanks to the help of the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN Stats & Information whiz Mark Simon, we can put this in even more precise perspective:

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay and Tim Lincecum
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAnd so they meet again, the pitcher who won the past two NL Cy Youngs and the one who is in line for this year's.

• It's the first time, according to Elias, that Game 1 of either a division series or league championship series has featured one starter who had just led that league in strikeouts (Lincecum) versus another starter who had just led that league in wins (Halladay).

• It's only the second time since the invention of Cy Young Awards in 1956 that Game 1 has matched two Cy Youngs who also once started against each other in an All-Star Game. Lincecum and Halladay both started the 2009 All-Star Game, so they join a club that includes only Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux. That dynamic duo started the '97 All-Star Game, then had a rematch in Game 1 of the '01 NLCS.

• Assuming Halladay wins the NL Cy Young this year, this will be just the fourth Game 1 of any series, Elias reports, to line up a pitcher who had won the previous year's Cy Young (Lincecum) against the pitcher who was about to win that current year's Cy Young. The other Game 1's on that list: Tom Glavine versus Doug Drabek (19991 NLCS), Dwight Gooden versus Mike Scott (1986 NLCS) and Mike Cuellar versus Jim Perry (1970 ALCS).

• And it's only the third time since 1900, if you include the regular season, that a pitcher who has just thrown a no-hitter has had to duel a pitcher, in his next start, who was coming off a one-hit or two-hit shutout. The other two: April 20, 1917 -- Ed Cicotte (White Sox) against Allen Sothoron (Browns), and May 17, 1996 -- Al Leiter (Marlins) against Jim Bullinger (Cubs). But Lincecum's last masterpiece was a 14-strikeout shutout. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that neither Sothoron nor Bullinger came close to matching that.

We've had 14 other Cy Young-versus-Cy Young Game 1 battles through the years, according to Elias. But this one ranks with any of them -- Sandy Koufax-Whitey Ford in '63, Gibson-McLain in '68, Jim Palmer-Vida Blue in the '73 ALCS, Gooden-Hershiser in the '88 NLCS or just about any other you could nominate.

"Oh my gosh," Hershiser said. "You've got a two-time Cy Young Award winner and another Cy Young Award winner. You've got a guy who's thrown two no-hitters in the same year. You've got a guy who's got no-hit stuff on the other side any time he takes the mound. So I think it's going to take some deep research to find a better matchup. The only thing they don't do is throw left-handed."

But we'll forgive them for that -- since one thing we now know is that both of these men can find another floor on their elevators this time of year. And Schilling expects a classic that inspires each to rise above what he's already done -- somehow.

"If it's possible, they'll be taking it up another notch," said Schilling, the man with the highest career winning percentage (11-2, .846) of any pitcher in history with more than six postseason decisions. "I don't know what notch is above a no-hitter. I don't know what notch is above a 14-punchout game. But there'll be another gear to both their games.

"It's a game," he said, "where you know a runner on first base, with two outs in the first inning, is the winning run, in your mind as a pitcher. So every baserunner is the winning run, from the first inning on. And it has nothing to do with your offense or whether you're struggling to score. It's all about the guy who's got the ball in his hand for the other team."

And these two guys holding that ball are so spectacular, Schilling joked, that "I would argue that, after Game 1, they should just do a taped replay of Game 1 and play it every night, and all the fans will be satisfied. They don't have to play another game in the series. Just to replay that game over and over again would be enough for me."

Well, that would take care of the ESPN Classic programming challenge. But since there's an excellent chance baseball will insist that the rest of this series go on as scheduled, let's take a look at the bigger picture.

HOW GOOD IS H20?

Here's exactly what the Giants have to deal with in Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels: the likely Cy Young (Halladay) in Game 1, the pitcher who led the league in WHIP (Oswalt) in Game 2 and a former World Series MVP who happens to own the lowest ERA among all left-handed starters in baseball since the start of July (Hamels) in Game 3.

So … that ought to be fun.

[+] EnlargeRoy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Roy Halladay
AP Photo/Rob CarrThe Phillies have their three aces -- and they are all aces -- lined up for this NLCS with the Giants.

Oh, and one more thing. Have we mentioned that in the past 23 "meaningful" games those three have started (i.e., not counting two abbreviated tuneup starts by Oswalt and Hamels after the Phillies clinched first place), the Phillies have gone 21-2?

"Give me some team that's ever gone into October with three pitchers with that stuff and are on that kind of a run," Schilling said. "I can't think of anybody. Ever. Those are three aces. You can tell me about the '71 Orioles. Those were not all power guys. … So I can't think of it. In the last 50 years, you tell me a team like this.

"There are four or five teams I can think of that ran out two studs," Schilling went on. "That's awesome, to have two studs. But three? Three legitimate No. 1s? Power No. 1s? Who? You kind of know the answer to the question already, because it hasn't happened before. You would remember … if it had happened before. There might be three guys who threw well in the postseason. There might be a team that went out there with three starters who did well. But I don't remember a team that went into October with three bona fide Cy Young-type power No. 1s on a roll."

And how powerful is that roll? How 'bout this: The combined ERA of these three men since Sept. 1 is 1.99. So how do the Giants attack three dominators like that?

"The hill is so big that you have to take it one shovel at a time," Hershiser said. "If they get down in Game 1 and then look at who they've got to face in Game 2 DURING Game 1, they're going to get depressed. If they get down in Game 2 and look at who they've got to face in Game 3, they're going to get depressed. So they're going to have to have a really short-term focus on winning very small battles, because it's something that's almost like haunting. It's like a rainy day and you're looking for the sun. And there's no sun coming in this series for them."

But now comes the on-the-other-hand portion of this discussion. First off, only one team in baseball beat Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt this season -- and that would be the Giants. And second, luckily for the Giants' hitters, there's going to be another half of the inning in every one of these games. And this isn't going to feel like a week in Aruba for those Phillies hitters, either -- because here's what they're about to face:

LINCECUM, CAIN AND SANCHEZ

You want domination? How's this for domination:

In their NLDS against Atlanta, Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez threw 23 innings, gave up one earned run and struck out 31. Add in Game 4 starter Madison Bumgarner, and the Giants' rotation racked up an ERA of 0.93 in that series -- the third-lowest by an NL team in any postseason series ever.

But this group didn't start putting up these ridiculous numbers just last week. Since Sept. 1, the Giants are 18-4 when Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez have started. And their combined September-October ERA (1.85) is even lower than that of the Phillies' big three.

Lincecum might be the big name on the Giants' marquee. But Sanchez and Cain finished ahead of him this year in ERA, WHIP and opponent OPS. So for those Phillies hitters, it won't get any easier once they get past Game 1.

[+] EnlargeLincecum, Cain & Sanchez
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuSure, the Giants have to deal with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels. But look at who's waiting for the Phillies.

"I think Cain is ready for this because of the frustration he's been through in his career," Hershiser said. "He's gotten some of the least run support of anybody. So what Cain is going to face in this playoff coming up is a lot of what he's already built calluses for. … He's going to look up in the fifth, and if it's 0-0, he's going to go, 'What's new?'"

And Sanchez, Hershiser said, has true "upper-echelon stuff. It's lights-out breaking ball, lights-out fastball and a pretty deceptive delivery. … Just get it in the strike zone."

The Phillies have had a little success against Cain through the years, going 4-1 against him and averaging 6.6 runs a game in his five career starts against them. But against Lincecum and Sanchez? Total ugliness. They hit a combined .113 against those two in three starts this year and .189 lifetime.

"So if Sanchez is on, which he could be, the Giants have to feel pretty good," Schilling said. "Let me tell you, the Giants have to know that they're underdogs. But I guarantee you they're looking around in that clubhouse going, 'OK, if I have to go up against those three guys, these are the three arms I want going up against them.'"

PULL OUT THOSE OUIJA BOARDS

And now the answer to the only question that matters: Who wins this battle of the aces?

Hershiser and Schilling both pitched for teams that sprang monumental postseason upsets -- namely, the '88 Dodgers (over the Mets and A's) and '93 Phillies (over the Braves), respectively. So they know the power that supersonic arms possess to rewrite the popular scripts in any given October.

Schilling I don't think that's a leap, that you'll see another box score where people will go, 'Holy crap.'

-- Curt Schilling

"I think about our Braves-Phillies series in '93," Schilling said. "I strike out the side in the first. We score a run in the bottom of the first. And immediately, the momentum, in a seven-game series, is totally on our side in Game 1. That was all we needed to believe we could make it happen. … We weren't supposed to be on the field with the Braves. The question was: Could we pitch with them? In one inning, we believed everything was OK.

"And that can happen [in this series]," he said. "You could have Halladay go out in the first inning of Game 1 and give up three ground-ball singles and somebody hits a bloop. Then Lincecum comes out and punches out the side, and now you've got the Giants feeling pretty sexy."

But now that we've got that anything-can-happen preamble out of the way, both of these October warriors pick the Phillies. Not that they expect that to be the Giants pitchers' fault.

"I think it's a mismatch because of the Phillies' offense," Hershiser said. "I don't think it's a mismatch because of the pitching. … I just think it will be a bigger challenge for the Giants' pitchers than it will be for the Phillies' pitchers."

The Giants' hitters do so much hacking, Hershiser said, that their starters "could look up in the fifth inning, and the game could be 0-0, and they could have 85 pitches. And they could look across the diamond, and Halladay or Oswalt might only have 40. It might be, 'It's only the fifth inning, and I'm at 85 because I'm battling my butt off to get through this Phillies lineup, and I'm grinding out counts, because these guys are better than my lineup.'"

Meanwhile, Schilling said, if you're projecting beforehand what these pitchers are likely to do, you go with track record. And that track record favors the Phillies.

"You know, this is going to be a great series, but I've said from the beginning of the playoffs I didn't see anybody beating the Phillies," Schilling said. "The Giants, I think, have three starters that can potentially pitch with them. I love Matt Cain. And Sanchez, on a good night, can get you through seven and punch out 14 guys. But I'm EXPECTING it from Oswalt, and I'm EXPECTING it from Hamels. And I'd be surprised if Sanchez did it. Know what I mean?

"I really hate talking like that because I don't mean to be disrespectful. But I just don't see how the Giants are going to be able to beat them, because these guys are clearly feeding off each other. And when you get into that mindset, the other team's not going to get you out of it."

Maybe he's right about that. Maybe he's wrong. But there's one prediction about this NLCS that seems 100 percent safe: This will not be a bunch of 14-11 games.

"Here's what I see," Hershiser said with a laugh. "Maybe the Phillies win in seven, and the total runs scored in the series is nine. And how about: Halladay throws a perfect game -- 100 pitches, 87 strikes -- in Game 7, against Lincecum, who throws 120 pitches and gives up an unearned run in the ninth, and the Phillies win 1-0.

"How great," Hershiser wondered, "would that be?"

Oh, it would be great baseball theater, all right. But when you look at these two rotations, why would we expect anything less?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com