If this was the latest Year of The Pitcher, then this has to be the latest Postseason of the Pitcher, and the Giants-Phillies surely will be the latest Postseason Series of the Pitcher. It will feature two starting staffs that have been dominant since at least Sept. 1, and largely unhittable in their respective division series. It will begin Saturday night in Philadelphia with a matchup for the ages, Tim Lincecum against Roy Halladay, who already this October have recorded two of the greatest performances in postseason history.
Here are five questions.
1. How good are the Phillies' Big Three starters?
Starting July 31, the Phillies have gone 30-5 in games started by Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. In the division series sweep against the Reds, the Phillies limited Cincinnati to four runs in three games, and held the highest-scoring team in the National League to a .124 average. Halladay threw the second no-hitter in postseason history, and Hamels threw a shutout in Game 3, making them only the second pair of teammates in the divisional era (from 1969 on) to throw shutouts in the same postseason series, joining Oakland's Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue in 1974 (the A's won the World Series that year). Starting Sept. 1, the Big Three is a stunning 15-1. But the Giants hit all three of them this year: Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels combined to throw 45 innings against San Francisco, and they allowed 51 hits and 24 earned runs (a 4.80 ERA). "I just saw those three guys," one scout said, "and you should not pay attention to anything that happened before September. All that matters is now. And they're all as good as I've ever seen them now."
2. How good are the Giants' Big Four starters?
They are almost as good as the Phillies' Big Three: In four games against the Braves in the NLDS, Giants starting pitchers posted a 0.93 ERA, the third lowest starters' ERA by an NL team in any postseason series. Lincecum pitched one of the greatest games in postseason history in Game 1 of the division series, a two-hit, 14-strikeout masterpiece in which the Braves swung and missed 31 times in a 1-0 loss. The only pitcher in baseball history to allow two or fewer hits, strike out 14 and walk none in his postseason debut was Big Ed Walsh in 1906. Little Tim has sharpened his slider to the point that it is now a swing-and-miss pitch, and his changeup is so good, it's a joke. Lincecum made one start against the Phillies this season, pitched 8 1/3 innings, allowed three hits, two earned runs, walked one and struck out 11. Matt Cain threw well in Game 2 against the Braves, but the bullpen betrayed him. Jonathan Sanchez has an ERA just above 1.00 in his past eight starts. Plus, in two starts against the Phillies this season, he is 2-0. In 13 innings, he has allowed only five hits, two runs, walked seven and struck out 13. Now the Giants have another weapon, left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who became the first rookie starting pitcher to win a clincher on the road since Dave Righetti and Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. Bumgarner has a 1.43 ERA in his past seven starts. The emergence of Bumgarner might mean the Giants won't feel the need to bring Lincecum back on short rest.
3. How confident are the Phillies?
You get the sense that they understand exactly where they are and what they're doing right now. Should they get past the Giants, they will become the first NL team to reach the World Series three years in a row since the 1942-44 Cardinals. But they also realize that to become a dynastic team, they will have to win the World Series again this year, then do it again in the next couple of years. They certainly are positioned well right now, with star players mostly in their prime, with pitching deep and plentiful, especially in their rotation. For the Phillies, the key beyond their great starting staff is their double-play combination. Second baseman Chase Utley hit a huge home run in Game 3 against the Reds. He is the leader of that team in every way, not just because of the way he produces, but because he never bails on the double play, he gets hit by pitches intentionally just to get on base and he will kill the catcher if he is blocking the plate. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is the other key. He has missed big portions of the season with assorted injuries, and he clearly is not running well coming back from a hamstring issue. He isn't hitting leadoff. If he can summon some of his greatness from two years ago, the Phillies will be even better.
4. How impressive is Giants catcher Buster Posey?
We can't say it enough times: Look at what this guy is doing. He catches -- and leads -- a staff filled with complicated personalities and violent stuff. He hits in the middle of the order, and seems to be in the middle of every important rally. He is doing all this at age 23 with less than a year of major league experience. The last rookie catcher to start for a World Series team was Yadier Molina for the 2004 Cardinals. The last rookie catcher to start for a World Series champion was Andy Etchebarren for the 1966 Orioles. The last rookie catcher to start for a World Series champion, and hit in the middle of the order, was Yogi Berra in 1947. That's what Posey is doing. And he doesn't seem fazed by anything.
5. Which team has the edge at closer?
Brian Wilson led the NL in saves with 48. He had a 1.81 ERA, walked 26 and struck out 93 in 74 2/3 innings. He is a fearless free spirit, a guy who recently told us that he became a ninja in "only 12 minutes" and said he was fined by Major League Baseball for wearing orange spikes because "there was too much awesome in them." He throws fastballs away, and when he paints, he is very difficult to hit. He threw four scoreless innings in the LDS, and struck out five. The Phillies' Brad Lidge has been here before, for good and bad. But he has been really, really good lately: Since Aug. 1, he has pitched 24 2/3 innings, allowed 10 hits, two runs and struck out 25. The key to the series might be the guys who bring the ball from the starters to the closer. The Giants' setup staff was sensational all season, but had a little trouble in the LDS against the Braves. The Phillies' setup group wasn't as good this year, but Ryan Madson was especially good in the LDS against the Reds.
PREDICTION: PHILLIES IN SEVEN
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.