Friday, November 19, 2010

When Sports Collide -- Part 3

Originally posted on Facebook -- 10/23/10

It's a saying that is prevalent at every level of baseball -- "Good pitching will stop good hitting."

In Major League Baseball's postseason, offensive contributions are already at a premium when compared to the regular season. Every pitch and its location takes on an additional level of importance, and a couple of inches can make the difference between "precision" or "mistake," "hero" or "goat," "champion" or "also-ran." When an elite pitcher is on the mound, mistakes are usually few and far between. When two elite pitchers are on the mound -- opposing each other -- there is the potential of an epic contest.

Last Saturday night presented such an opportunity. On a chilly October night in south Philadelphia, two of the league's best went head-to-head. Game 1 of the National League Championship Series pitted Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies. Two former Cy Young Award winners, two pitchers who had already posted magnificent performances in the NL Division Series, two pitchers who are vastly different in both their appearance and demeanor, were facing off in a potential matchup for the ages.

In Game 1 of the NLDS vs. Atlanta, Lincecum dominated with a complete game, 2-hit shutout -- striking out 14 Braves' hitters along the way. The shaggy-haired Lincecum, listed at 5'11," 172 lbs., has an electric fastball, curveball, changeup and slider. The 26-year-old right-hander has won 56 games during his brief career with the Giants, already having captured two NL Cy Young Awards -- in 2008 and 2009.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Roy Halladay's career took a different path to the playoffs. His first 12 seasons were spent with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he was named an All-Star six times, and took home the AL Cy Young Award in 2003. Last December, Halladay was traded to the Phillies, where he instantly became the main cog in their rotation. Featuring a heavy sinker, curveball, cutter and changeup, the 6'6," 230 lb. right-handed hurler went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA for Philadelphia during the regular season. He tossed the 2nd perfect game in Phillies' history, against Florida on May 29th. His last start, however, may have been even more dominant. In Game 1 of the NLDS vs. Cincinnati, Halladay authored the 2nd no-hitter in postseason history.

With all of the hype surrounding this matchup...which pitcher would blink first?

The buzz was apparent as my father and I arrived at Citizens Bank Park. Roughly three hours before the scheduled first pitch, hundreds of fans had already arrived, eager for the gates to open. It was a carnival-like atmosphere, as a cover band dressed in Phillies' jerseys played for those gathered, and a large television screen near the stage showed the ALCS game between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. Vendors hawked their postseason wares in makeshift tents outside the stadium.

Inside the ballpark, the excitement was even more palpable. Waves of people, dressed in red-and-white, wandered through Ashburn Alley as batting practice went on for both teams. The random black-and-orange Giants t-shirt or hat in the crowd was magnified by its color contrast. With each passing minute toward gametime, the seating area became swollen with people.

There's something extra special about attending Game 1 of a MLB playoff series. It's like experiencing Opening Day all over again! Both teams' entire rosters -- from the trainers, coaches and manager to the starting lineup -- are announced, one by one. A large flag is unfurled in the outfield for the National Anthem, with every player on the Phillies and Giants lined up along their respective baselines. When the anthem is finished, the teams retreat to their dugouts -- and the tension mounts. In mere moments, the two best teams in the National League in 2010 will begin competing for the pennant -- and a trip to the World Series.

As the Phillies take the field, red fireworks sequentially explode above the roof of Citizens Bank Park. The white "Fightin' Phils" rally towels are waved by the sold-out crowd of 45,929 as the Phillies ace, Roy Halladay, reaches the pitcher's mound.

Both pitchers lived up to the hype in the 1st inning. Halladay retired the first 3 men he faced in order; Lincecum did the same in the bottom half of the inning. Halladay answered with a 1-2-3 frame in the top of the 2nd. Two artists were at work, and the sold-out crowd had the pleasure of watching them paint (corners) early on.

Lincecum ran into potential trouble in the bottom of the 2nd. A leadoff double by Ryan Howard had the Phillies threatening, and the fans on their feet. But the elite pitchers can work their way out of jams, and the young right-hander proved his mettle. A Jayson Werth strikeout, a Jimmy Rollins popout, and Raul Ibanez flyout later, and Lincecum was resting comfortably in the Giants' dugout, with the game still scoreless.

In the top of the 3rd inning, Halladay revealed that he was human, after all. After retiring the leadoff batter, San Francisco outfielder Cody Ross stepped to the plate. As he approached the batter's box, I turned and said to my father, who attended the game with me, "Beware Cody Ross in this series." I did not expect my prophecy to be proven true 3 pitches later. Ross crushed a 417-foot homer to deep left-center field, and the Giants were on the board, holding a 1-0 lead.

The lead was short-lived. On Lincecum's 3rd pitch in the bottom-half of the inning, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz hit a fly ball to right field that snuck over the 13-foot-high fence. It was now a 1-1 game, with both aces each making one mistake. The ballpark was alive as Ruiz rounded the bases, and the gigantic "Liberty Bell" behind Ashburn Alley "rung" in celebration.

The teams traded goose eggs in the 4th inning, despite having opportunities to score. Halladay allowed 2 hits, but did not surrender a run. Lincecum walked the leadoff batter, but it would not come back to haunt him. A pitcher's duel was in the making.

In the top of the 5th, Cody Ross came up to bat once again. For the 2nd time in the game, Ross took advantage of a Halladay mistake, and deposited the baseball into the left field seats. While it didn't travel as far as his first home run (385-feet this time), the damage was still done. A raucous Philadelphia crowd was silenced, and the Giants grabbed a 2-1 advantage. Lincecum held up his end in the bottom-half of the inning, and the San Francisco bats were now searching for insurance runs.

The top of the 6th inning began innocently enough, with Halladay retiring the first two batters in order. Rookie catcher Buster Posey then singled. That was followed by left fielder (and former long-time Phillie) Pat Burrell's double, which chased Posey home for a 3-1 lead. In came pinch-runner Nate Schierholtz for Burrell, and shortstop Juan Uribe promptly singled up the middle to score Schierholtz. Suddenly, a shell-shocked Citizens Bank Park crowd saw Halladay as a mere mortal -- and their Phillies now trailed 4-1. To compound matters, Lincecum looked to be on his game.

Despite the deficit and the obstacles that stood in front of them, the Phillies showed their resiliency. After a Chase Utley infield hit, lanky right fielder Jayson Werth stepped into the batter's box. On the 6th pitch of the at-bat, Werth got a pitch to hit, and launched it to right-center field. The ball carried, and carried...and cleared the fence! It was now 4-3, and a subdued Citizens Bank Park suddenly sprung back to life. On this night, both aces were vulnerable -- and it was still anyone's ballgame.

The 7th inning came and went without any scoring, and as the late stages of the game approached, both managers decided to turn things over to the bullpens. Halladay allowed 4 runs, 8 hits, and struck out 7 Giants during his 7 innings of work. Lincecum surrendered 3 runs, 6 hits, and struck out 8 Phillies. Lincecum leaves with the lead -- but would it hold up?

Ryan Madson was tabbed to pitch the 8th inning for Philadelphia. He kept his team within striking distance, thanks to a 1-2-3 inning. Now the pressure was on lefty Giants' reliever Javier Lopez to hold the lead. His assignment? The Phillies' most dangerous left-handed hitters, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Lopez proved up to the task, getting Utley to ground out and Howard to strike out. Without hesitation, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy handed the ball to his closer, Brian Wilson, who amassed 48 saves and had a sparkling 1.81 ERA during the regular season. After allowing a Werth single, Wilson struck out Jimmy Rollins to end the inning. The Giants were now 3 outs away from taking a 1-game-to-nothing lead in the best-of-7 NLCS.

Closer Brad Lidge was summoned from the Philadelphia bullpen for the top of the 9th inning. Lidge, who is no stranger to walking the tightrope, allowed a single, stolen base, walk, and hit batsman -- but somehow, did not give up a run. Heading to the bottom of the 9th, it was still a 4-3 game.

A still-packed Citizens Bank Park saw fans spinning the rally towels above their heads, urging the Phillies to make a last-minute comeback. After Ibanez struck out to start the inning, Ruiz was hit by a pitch. The potential tying run was now on 1st base. That was as far as the rally would go, however, as Wilson whiffed pinch-hitter Ross Gload and center fielder Shane Victorino to end the game. The Giants celebrated their victory on the infield, shaking hands and trading congratulatory high-fives, as a stunned and depressed crowd headed for the exits.

For those who expected Halladay and Lincecum to toss dual no-hitters, the much-ballyhooed pitching matchup was probably a disappointment. For those who expected an intense, ultra-competitive postseason baseball game, they got exactly what they paid for. The rest of the NLCS awaits.

Attending three vastly different sporting events in six days may seem crazy on the surface. I simply call it, "October."

Ace pitchers Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay matched up in Game 1 of the NLCS

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