The Punditocracy on MLB Network broached the subject last night and they just might be right. We are seeing an awful lot of great efforts especially by starting pitchers in these first weeks of the 2010 season.
Sure, if you remember the great Nike commercials from a decade ago, “Chicks dig the long ball”, but for real baseball fans, nothing beats a crisply-played pitchers duel where the outcome can be determined swiftly and suddenly and fate turns on a fielding miscue or a single swing of the bat.
This column, I’ll take a look at the prime-time practitioners of the craft on display in the National League. The NL has long been regarded as more of a pitcher’s league, and over the past decade especially pitchers who have moved over from the American League have prospered there.
Exhibit Number One of course is Roy “Doc” Halladay who has taken up residence in Philadelphia as the ace of the two-time defending NL champion Phillies’ staff. Roy was widely expected to carve up NL lineups and possibly post a 20-plus-win season for the powerful Phightins, and so far, he has delivered as advertised, living up to his Sports Illustrated cover-boy status. Yesterday he tamed a tough Cardinals lineup going seven innings en route to a 7-2 victory, boosting his record to 6-1 with a tiny 1.61 ERA. Doc already has three complete games, two of them shut outs.
Perhaps even more impressive is young Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies rode an incredible hot streak to the World Series in 2007, and put on another great run last year to capture the Wild Card. They’re not surprising anyone anymore. Jimenez, however, has been tremendous, going 6-0 in his first six starts with a microscopic 0.87 ERA and 44 strikeouts in a little over 41 innings pitched. He also pitched a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on April 17, the first such in Rockies’ history. He is fluid and powerful in his delivery and a pleasure to watch, unless you’re trying to bat against him.
Next we have two great comeback stories, the first being Livan Hernandez of the Washington Nationals. Livan was the 22-year-old hero of the Florida Marlins’ first World Series championship team in 1997. He is now 35 and for the past few years has knocked around teams and leagues, an itinerant “innings eater”. At 35, he has re-emerged as the anchor of Manager Jim Riggleman’s surprising Nationals, posting a 4-1 record with a 0.99 ERA. Livan actually has allowed more walks (13) than strikeouts (11) in his 36-plus innings pitched, but he has given up only 24 hits. The big story in Natstown, of course, is the imminent arrival of Stephen Strasburg, the heralded number one draft pick. His arrival is scheduled for sometime in June.
The other great comeback story (and does any game have better comeback stories than baseball? No) is Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants. Barry’s redemption has been especially gratifying to fans of the Giants, with whom he signed a seven-year, $126-million dollar contract after the 2006 season. Zito was the exception to the rule of AL pitchers prospering in the weaker NL, posting a tomato-can-worthy 31-43 won-loss record from 2007-09 and leading the league in losses with 17 in 2008. Late last season, though, Barry began to find himself again (especially his once-feared curveball), and this season he seems fully revived, going 5-0 in his first six starts with a 1.49 ERA and a fine WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched) of 0.921. He is joined by two-time and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (also 4-0 with an even better WHIP of 0.85), powerful righty Matt Cain and brilliant if erratic left-hander Jonathan Sanchez (who himself tossed a no-hitter in 2009) in what might be the best rotation in baseball this season.
Next we'll look at the American League.