Bounty of aces in the National League

Never mind that the American League and National League have split the last four World Series, alternating championships between the two. The point can hardly be argued: This season, and the last several as a matter of fact, the AL has been the superior league.

"If you listed the five best teams, on paper," says one baseball executive, "I think the Cardinals are the only team from the National League that cracks that list.'"

Which isn't to suggest that a National League team -- the Cardinals, or someone else -- can't win the World Series next month. But it's undeniable that the balance of power -- literally and figuratively -- now favors the American League.

Except, that is, when it comes to starting pitching. If the AL has better clubs overall and far better offenses, then the NL gets the nod when it comes to starting pitching.

As the 2003 Florida Marlins, 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks and, let's face it, most World Series winners have shown, starting pitching is the single biggest determinant in October.

Among prospective American League playoff teams, dominant, and (this is key) experienced starting pitching is hard to find.

Boston can only hope that Curt Schilling's performance Saturday is some sort of signpost of what's to come. But they also understand that given Schilling's mostly lost season and physical concerns, there are no guarantees.

Chicago? As good as Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland have been, they haven't done it in October, and they're not "stuff" guys -- pitchers who can overpower lineups and change series.

Oakland has Barry Zito, who's pitched better this season, but still isn't the pitcher he was when he won the Cy Young Award three seasons ago. When Zito was surrounded by Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, the A's couldn't get out of the first round of the postseason. Is that going to change now that Zito is augmented by younger, less experienced starters such as Danny Haren and Rich Harden?

Even Randy Johnson -- inarguably the game's most dominant pitcher over the last five seasons -- is no guarantee, though, much to the Yankees' relief, he's throwing the ball far better in his last three starts than he has all year.

Cleveland has a deep rotation, with as many as four pitchers capable of quality starts: C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook and Kevin Millwood. But only Sabathia, with exactly one postseason start on his resume, is capable of taking charge of a playoff series.

That leaves Bartolo Colon as the lone bona fide No. 1 starter among the AL contenders.

Compare that to the National League, where some staffs have two, and sometimes three honest-to-goodness aces.

Begin with Atlanta, which boasts Hudson and John Smoltz, two pitchers with similar approaches, featuring exploding stuff that they keep at the knees. It's worth noting that during the 1990s -- when the Braves featured the Big Three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz -- only Smoltz was consistently successful in October. Maddux and Glavine, who relied far more on finesse, weren't the forces they had been in the regular season.

Houston and Florida have the two best rotations in the game, yet only one will make the postseason as the NL wild card while the other goes home.

The Astros have three pitchers capable of drawing a Game 1 assignment: Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and the ageless Roger Clemens.

"I don't care how bad their lineup is," said a rival general manager. "There's no way I would want to face them, especially in a short series."

The Marlins aren't any more inviting, with Dontrelle Willis, perhaps the game's best lefty, and two power righties in A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, the latter of whom has already won a World Series MVP.

The Cardinals, the league's best team, can't match the Astros or the Marlins for sheer number of starters, but they can roll out Chris Carpenter, the likely Cy Young Award winner.

Even the San Diego Padres, struggling to stay over .500 as they stagger to the finish line in the NL West, would be a handful if they could get two starts out of Jake Peavy (2003 NL ERA leader, currently among the NL leaders in strikeouts) and another from Adam Eaton, who's fresh after spending a good chunk of the season on the DL.

Argue, if you'd like, that some of the gaudy numbers compiled by pitchers in the National League have been built up by the sometimes anemic lineups they face, which don't feature the DH, and have weak bottom thirds.

But former American Leaguers Clemens, Hudson and Pettitte have already proved themselves against stronger, deeper AL lineups, and no one doubts that Burnett, Peavy and others could do the same, given the opportunity.

So laugh if you must about the NL's inferiority. See if the hitters on the AL champs are doing the same in late October.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.