It’s not Johan Santana against Roy Halladay, but it’s still ace-of-the moment versus ace, and there’s no shame in the Mike Pelfrey-Halladay matchup this afternoon.
The history of ace-versus-ace in Metsdom dates back to the earliest days of the team. Roger Craig was initially the Mets top pitcher, but Al Jackson evolved into their best big-game performer, at least in terms of the kinds of big games that a team that lost 100-plus every year could have.
Jackson’s best claim to acehood came in his ability to match up with St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, whom he twice beat, 1-0, including once in the final days of a frantic 1964 pennant race.
In the 1970s, the preeminent matchup of aces pitted Tom Seaver against fellow future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, and Seaver got the better of that pairing on just about every occasion. When Seaver was a Met and Carlton was with the Phillies, the two met eight times. Seaver posted six wins and two no-decisions. That’s partly how the Mets beat Carlton 36 times, more than they beat any other pitcher.
Flash forward to the 1980s and the Dwight Gooden era, in which some of his most famous matchups were with Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela. They met six times from 1984 to 1989 and Gooden rose to the challenge. In those six starts, five of which came when Gooden was in his first two seasons in the majors, he was 3-1 with a 1.47 ERA, 57 strikeouts and seven walks. Valenzuela couldn’t even beat Gooden on a day in which he pitched 11 shutout innings against the Mets (he settled for a no-decision in a 2-0 loss on September 6, 1985).
With the Mets' fade in the early 1990s, they spent much of the decade lacking an ace pitcher with any staying power. One didn’t really arrive until Al Leiter came in a trade prior to the 1998 season. From 1998 to 2004, when the Braves dominated the Mets, Leiter was the one pitcher who regularly gave them a chance to win against Atlanta. He went 9-8 against the Braves, who basically threw an ace against them almost every time out. In the rest of the games, the Mets were 34-62. Braves co-ace Greg Maddux went 12-4 as a starter against the Mets in that span. Cohort Tom Glavine, before departing Atlanta, was 7-3. John Smoltz, who battled through injuries and also worked in the bullpen (where he saved 24 straight against the Mets) was 4-1 as a starter in the regular season.
The best ace-ace matchup of recent Mets vintage was the one that produced Willie Randolph’s first win as Mets manager on April 10, 2005. Smoltz and new Met Pedro Martinez dueled to a 1-0 score through seven innings before the Mets broke through on a go-ahead home run by Carlos Beltran on the way to an eventual 6-1 win. Smoltz finished with 15 strikeouts in defeat. Martinez had perhaps his best start as a Met, a nine-strikeout two-hitter.
Expecting Halladay-Pelfrey to live up to that kind of matchup might be too much to ask, but given the way things have gone for the Mets these days, it’s starting to seem like the improbable is becoming much more possible.