Halladay-Johnson simply classic

Roy Halladay has the best ERA in the majors since 2008. Josh Johnson has the best winning percentage in the majors among pitchers with 45 decisions since 2008. Guess what? These guys are pretty good. So let’s sit back and watch two artists at work.

First inning

It’s 83 degrees, clear and sunny in Miami as Johnson warms up. For some reason, a lot of Marlins fans are dressed up as orange seats on this beautiful evening. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino are retired on routine grounders to second base and tough-out professional hitter Placido Polanco fouls off two two-strike pitchers before tapping back to Johnson on a half-hearted checked swing on a 96-mph fastball, Johnson’s hardest pitch of the inning.

Halladay doesn’t throw quite as hard as Johnson, and is more effortless in his delivery than Johnson, whom you can imagine grunting as he fires off his weapons. Johnson usually sits 92-95, while Halladay thows 90-92, although he may ramp it up a notch a couple times a game. He works quickly, throws 12 pitches in the inning, only two balls, and while Emilio Bonifacio singled to center on the first pitch, Halladay gets Hanley Ramirez on a strikeout with Bonifacio caught stealing. It won’t be a perfect game like Halladay’s start against the Marlins last May when he beat Johnson 1-0. I’m not disappointed. OK, maybe a little.

* * * *

I think my favorite pitching duel of all time was July 2, 1963, when Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn hooked up at Candlestick Park. Marichal was a 25-year-old Dominican on the way to his first big season. He was 12-3 with an ERA a bit over 2.00 and had thrown a no-hitter a couple weeks before. Spahn was now a 42-year-old living on brains and guile with an 11-3 record, having his last great season.

The two were scoreless through nine. And 10. They pitched on and on, through 13, 14, 15 innings. Both stayed in the game. In the top of the 16th, Marichal retired Frank Bolling and Hank Aaron. Denis Menke singled, but Marichal remained on the mound and got Norm Larker on a comebacker. Finally, in the bottom of the 16th, Willie Mays won it with a home run.

“Not even Carl Hubbell would deny that the Giants have a new Meal Ticket -- Juan Marichal,” intoned the AP the next day. It seems that exactly 30 years to the day, Hubbell had pitched his greatest game -- a 1-0 victory in which he went 18 innings.

“I said to myself three times, 'This will be my last inning,'” Marichal said after the game. “Each time I went out there again. When Willie Mays was in the circle waiting to bat, I called to him ‘Hit one now.’ Everyone laughed at me, but Willie did it.”

Spahn said he hung a screwball to Mays. It was his 201st pitch of the game. Marichal threw 227 pitches. “That was the greatest game I’ve ever seen by two pitches,” Giants manager Alvin Dark said.

Marichal was given an extra day of rest -- four instead of three -- before his next start. He pitched seven innings and allowed two runs.

Second inning

Ryan Howard leads off and punches a towering fly ball to left field that clears the high wall (the Teal Monster?). The orange seats groan. Johnson tried to go outside corner with a fastball but the ball was down the middle. Raul Ibanez drills the next pitch off the wall, Johnson hits Ben Francisco on a 1-2 riding fastball and then Pete Orr walks. The bases are loaded and it feels like this game could be over quickly. Backup catcher Dane Sardinha, recently called up after hitting .105 in Triple-A, fans on a 1-2 slider. Halladay takes a called third strike, bringing up Rollins. Johnson falls behind with two balls and I write “BIG PITCH” on my notepad. Johnson cranks up a 96-mph fastball that Rollins fouls off. After a slider for strike two, Rollins pulls a two-hopper to second. The Phillies may have missed their big chance. But Johnson did throw 29 pitches in the inning, meaning unless he’s very economical the rest of the way, he’s unlikely to go the distance. He’s also thrown 117, 117 and 114 pitches his past three starts, so I don’t think Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez would want to go much past 110 pitches.

Third inning

Johnson again finds himself in trouble, as Victorino and Ibanez both single up the middle and Francisco walks on a 3-2 slider. But Pete Orr swings at the first pitch and grounds out to short. Bases left juiced yet again.

Shockingly, Halladay walks Johnson, only Halladay’s eighth walk of the season and first ever to an opposing pitcher. One of those little unexpected quirks that makes baseball so crazy. Chris Coghlan then hits a hustle double to right-center and Johnson scores on Bonifacio’s fly to medium-deep center.

Fourth inning

Both pitches settle down with 1-2-3 innings, with Halladay striking out the side.

* * * *

Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson would overlap in the major leagues for eight seasons. In that span, Koufax would start 38 times against the Cardinals. Gibson would start 26 times against the Dodgers. But they faced each other just five times. For some reason, Koufax always seemed to draw Larry Jackson or Curt Simmons.

The first time Gibson and Koufax met was May 25, 1961. Gibson wasn’t quite yet Bob Gibson and Koufax wasn’t quite yet Sandy Koufax, although the latter would lead the NL in strikeouts that season. He was brilliant in front of 6,858 fans at Busch Stadium, and I’m pretty sure 6,858 fans didn’t realize they were witnessing a duel of two future greats. Koufax pitched a three-hit shutout, Tommy Davis hit a seventh-inning home run and the Dodgers won 1-0.

Later that year, both got knocked around in an 8-7 game, although Gibson got the win. They squared off again on June 18, 1962, at brand-new Dodger Stadium, and again Koufax was brilliant. So was Gibson. It was 0-0 in the bottom of the ninth when Tommy Davis hit a game-winning home run. Davis actually didn’t hit Gibson well -- .167 career -- but I’m guessing Gibson still remembered those two home runs.

In 1963, Koufax again got the upper hand, pitching a three-hit shutout in a 5-0 victory. The two met for the final time on April 26, 1966. It wasn’t as memorable as the earlier matchups. Koufax went the distance despite allowing 13 hits. Gibson gave up four runs in the first inning and lost 4-2. Nobody knew Koufax would retire at season’s end. The two would have plenty more occasions to do battle, it seemed. But Koufax gave indications of his future. “I had a lot of pain in my elbow,” he said after the game. “My fastball was the only thing that saved me. My control wasn’t good and I was having trouble with my curve.”

The pain would be too much and Koufax called it quits after the Dodgers lost the World Series. Gibson would reach new heights as a pitcher in 1968. Five starts against each other.

I hope we see plenty more duels between Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay.

Fifth inning

Another easy frame for Johnson, as he blows a fastball by Polanco (only the eighth time he’s struck out all season). Halladay is in an easy groove, gets two ground balls and strikes out Johnson. This is now looking like the matchup we expected.

Sixth inning

With one out, Francisco hits a sinking liner to Coghlan in center that bounces off the heel of his glove for a base hit. A tough play, but catchable. A groundout sends Francisco to second and Sardinha is intentionally walked to bring up Halladay. Ah, the comforts of pitching in the National League. Halladay takes his hacks, but he goes 0-for-3 and the Phillies leave two more on.

Halladay gets Bonifacio, Ramirez and Gaby Sanchez. Quite easily done. He’s cruising, looking like the best pitcher in baseball right now. What makes him so effective is he’ll throw mostly fastballs early in the game -- relying on location and movement, but keeping almost everything down in the strike zone -- and then start mixing in his off-speed stuff as the game progresses. Is pitching really this simple? No, it’s not. Ten in a row.

* * * *

With more teams and interleague play, aces don’t often get to face each other much anymore. Halladay and Johnson have faced off twice last season, and that seemed like a special treat.

One of the great rivalries of the past 25 years was Dave Stewart and Roger Clemens. Stewart turned it into his own personal vendetta. He hated that Clemens got more media attention and won the Cy Young awards, even though Stewart won 20 games four straight seasons. (In truth, Clemens was the better pitcher, and did deserve his Cy Youngs.) But when they faced each other, Stewart tugged his cap a little lower, maybe focused a little more, and kicked Roger’s behind. From 1986 through 1990, including the postseason, Stewart went 8-0 when matched up against Clemens.

The final two of these wins came in the 1990 ALCS. In Game 1, Wade Boggs hit a fourth-inning home run off Stewart and the Red Sox led 1-0 after six. But Clemens was battling shoulder tendinitis -- he had pitched just once since Sept. 4 -- and he was removed after 97 pitches. The A’s went on to win 9-1. Oddly, Clemens didn’t speak after the game -- but team physician Arthur Pappas did, quoted in the Boston Globe saying, “His shoulder was fine. No problems at all. He and Joe [Morgan, the team's manager] apparently had a mutual decision, and he didn’t seem to have any problem with it.”

Four days later, Clemens was the surprise starter in Game 4, with the Red Sox down 3-0. This was the famous game in which Clemens came out wearing eye black and got ejected in the second inning by umpire Terry Cooney. All Stewart did was pitch eight innings of a 3-1 victory. “I can’t imagine what he was thinking, but I know the things Roger was saying were worth being thrown out for,” Stewart said.

Clemens blamed the ump, but maybe he was just tired of getting beat by Dave Stewart.

Seventh inning

Johnson has 101 pitches to start the inning and Rollins leads off with a bouncer into right for a base hit. Victorino takes three balls and you wonder if Johnson is hitting the wall, much like he did in his previous start against St. Louis, when he led 3-2 going into the eight but gave up three singles in a row and ending up with the loss. Victorino takes a strike and then flies out to left. Polanco grounds into a 6-4 force play, bringing up the Big Guy. Johnson is at 110 pitches, the number I cited earlier. Randy Choate -- who struck out Howard on Monday night -- is warming up. Johnson stays in, Howard fouls off a 1-1 fastball and then Johnson cranks up a 96-mph heater that Howard stares at for strike three. I think the Big Guy was looking for something slower.

Halladay retires Greg Dobbs on a fly ball, and Mike Stanton and John Buck on grounders. That’s 13 in a row and just 90 pitches through seven innings. Including the postseason, Halladay has made 44 starts since joining the Phillies and pitched at least seven innings in 36 of them. Did we mention that he’s pretty good?

Eighth inning

Johnson is done. No surprise there. The Marlins’ TV broadcast actually interviews him on the way to the clubhouse and asks if he was surprised he was left in to face Howard. “I looked over there to make sure, but didn’t see anything. I was pretty excited,” Johnson says. Aces don’t come out, Josh. Get used to it.

After Mike Dunn tosses a 1-2-3 top of the frame, Omar Infante leads off with a groundball to Rollins, who throws it away for an error. Ozzie Martinez hits for Dunn and squares around to bunt, but Halladay uncorks a rising fastball that glances off Sardinha’s glove for a wild pitch. Could have been ruled a passed ball. Ozzie bunts two pitches foul, fouls off a tough curve and then grounds to second, moving Infante to third. The other Ozzie would be pleased with that execution. Halladay falls behind 2-0 to Coghlan, who fouls off the next pitch, and then bloops a single to center on 2-1 fastball that didn’t have much movement.

Ninth inning

Leo Nunez comes in and gets the save. Halladay gets the loss on a night in which he deserved better. Rollins and Sardinha let him down. The Phillies left 10 runners on base and will regret that second inning. At least until Wednesday, when they get to play again. More than 21,000 Marlins fans go home happy (didn’t think the announced crowd was that big).

Another duel in the books. Let’s do it again, guys.