MLB Playoff Schedule 2010: Ranking the Pitching Matchups
Marquee pitching matchups are what playoff baseball is all about. Men like Curt Schilling and John Smoltz built their legacies in the harsh crucible of October, and now a new set of aces is ready to take center stage and make that sort of impact themselves.
Some, like Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee, have already established their postseason prowess. For others, like the Giants' Tim Lincecum and Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, 2010 will mark a long-awaited playoff debut. The intensity of duels like these put butts in seats, and draw those watching at home up onto their feet to pace the living room. When runs are as scarce as they may be in these contests, every pitch is crucial.
What follows are the five best playoff pitching matchups of the first round. Baseball connoisseurs, bon appetit.
5. Derek Lowe V. TIm Lincecum
Lincecum adds obvious glamor to this Game 1 showdown in the Atlanta-San Francisco NLDS. He finished the season with a flourish, going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September as the Giants came back to win the NL West.
It takes two to make a great pitcher's duel, however, and the really great potential story belongs to Derek Lowe. Lowe is 37, but managed a 3.47 ERA from mid-May onward and won 16 games—making it nine straight season with 12 or more victories. Lowe is 5-5 in his long postseason career, with a 3.33 ERA and an impressive 1.17 WHIP.
4. James Shields V. C.J. Wilson
Like Lowe, Wilson is a converted closer who will see postseason action in his first year as a starter. Wilson won 15 games, threw 204 innings and helped anchor a Texas staff that has been the talk of the baseball world since team president Nolan Ryan began turning the team's pitching methodology upside-down.
Wilson led the league in walks, though, and his ERA is probably a bit lucky. Lucky is not a word anyone would use to describe James Shields, the erstwhile Rays ace who racked up a star-crossed 5.18 ERA this season. Shields set a career high in strikeouts and whiffed 3.67 times as many batters as he walked, but saw opposing hitters notch a .354 BABIP against him and hit almost 14 percent of their fly balls out of the park. Shields is a very good pitcher, though, and Game 2 of the Ranger-Rays series ought to be a barn-burner.
3. Tim Hudson V. Matt Cain
Because Lincecum has been slightly more mortal than usual this year, Matt Cain has finally gotten the recognition he deserves as one of baseball's great No. 2 starters. Cain walked a career-low 2.46 batters per nine innings this season, the first time he had even been under three free passes per nine frames. He finished the season with a career-high 223.1 innings pitched.
Hudson, who has appeared in the playoffs five times but never on a team that won even a Division Series, enjoyed a typically stellar season in his first full year since 2007. He fired 228.2 innings of 2.89-ERA baseball, and took his previous predilection for ground balls to an extreme: 64.1 percent of opponents' batted balls were grounders, a career high for Hudson. Game 2 will be a battle of much less heralded studs, but the result should be an equally taut pitcher's duel.
2. Cliff Lee V. David Price
Lovers of pitching need not wait long for an elite showdown: Price and Lee clash in the very first game of the AL playoffs.
Do you want efficiency from your starting pitcher? How about seven complete games and 212.1 innings without ever exceeding 120 pitches in one contest? Do you favor command? Witness 185 strikeouts against 18 walks during those aforesaid innings. Cliff Lee has been so good this season that the Rangers are widely considered a dark horse to emerge from the junior-circuit side of the bracket, despite being out-classed at most other positions by Tampa Bay, New York, and Minnesota.
Price has been no slouch himself, as evidenced by his 19-6 record and 2.72 ERA. His 3.41 walks per nine innings make him a slight underdog against Lee's superhuman skill set, but he is a top-tier ace in his own right.
1. C.C. Sabathia V. Francisco Liriano
After Lee, the American League hurler with the best fielder-independent pitching is Liriano. The Twins ace is no innings-eater, but he managed a 3.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio when he was on the mound this season. He allowed just nine homers all season, and four of those came in the two starts he made after the Twins clinched their division.
Sabathia, a leading Cy Young candidate, led the AL with 21 wins this year. He tossed a remarkable 237.2 innings with a very good 3.18 ERA, and is back in the playoffs for the fourth straight season. His career numbers in October are not pretty, but Sabathia has a chance to start building a Hall of Fame legacy by leading the Yankees through another title run.
Matt Trueblood is a student at Loyola University Chicago and B/R College Writing Intern. Follow him on Twitter.