Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2010

Odd Score For The Greatest Pitching Duel Ever

In the brief run up to World Series Game One after San Francisco ended the League Championship Series phase of the playoffs by ousting Philadelphia last Saturday night, one thing was absolutely clear. The pitching matchup for last night’s opening contest was one for the ages. This was guaranteed to be the greatest pitchers’ duel on the Great Game’s biggest stage since, well, since forever.

Throwing for the home town Giants would be 26-year old Tim Lincecum. While his 16-10 record in 2010 represented something of an off year for the rail thin righthander with the flowing locks, he was still the winner of the back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He also led the league in strikeouts while having an “off” year. With his twisting windup and unorthodox mechanics, he was certain to give the Ranger’s batters fits.

For all of Lincecum’s ability though, no one was making the Giants favorites in Game One. That’s because the Rangers were countering with the apparently unbeatable, virtually unhittable, Cliff Lee. Lee was a middling, back end of the rotation pitcher early in his career, probably best known (if known at all) for beaning Sammy Sosa on the night in 2007 that the Rangers were honoring Sosa for hitting 600 career home runs. But Lee remade his delivery prior to the 2008 season. With the Cleveland Indians he won the AL Cy Young and Comeback Player of the Year Awards that year.

Since then, in eight postseason starts over the last two autumns for Philadelphia and Texas, Lee had compiled a perfect 7-0 record with an ERA of 1.26. Along the way he had been brutally efficient. In two starts against Tampa Bay in the Division Series and one against New York in the ALCS, Lee struck out 34 while issuing but a single walk.

Somewhere in America, 81-year old Don Larsen had to be dreading this game. Still the only man to throw a perfect game in the Series, Larsen had been joined in the postseason record books this year when the Phillies’ Roy Halladay tossed a no-hitter against the Reds in the NLDS. But at least according to all of the hype, with this matchup the Rangers would best the Giants 1-0, with Lee matching Larsen’s perfection and Lincecum taking a hard luck loss despite equaling Halladay’s performance of not surrendering a safely hit ball.

Late Wednesday afternoon in northern California, Tim Lincecum’s first pitch was a called strike, and the San Francisco Giants’ faithful were on their feet and roaring their approval. But the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus smacked his third offering on a line into left field, and the decibel level noticeably lowered. In a display that was anything but what had been promised Lincecum needed fourteen pitches to record the first out, and threw twenty-two in all to retire the side. By the time he walked off the mound, the Rangers led 1-0. When they added another tally in the second, the hill that the Giants had to climb seemed to take on Everest-like proportions.

But then in the third the virtually unhittable Cliff Lee started giving up hits. Third baseman Michael Young couldn’t handle an Edgar Renteria ground ball to lead off the inning. One out later in a bad sign of things to come, Lee’s legendary control disappeared as he plunked Andres Torres. As he took first Torres was likely unaware that he was just the second batter hit by Lee in all of 2010. Then Freddy Sanchez ripped a double down the left field line, Buster Posey followed with a single to left; and in the space of two batters Lee had surrendered as many runs as he had in his three previous starts in this post-season.

The score remained tied until the bottom of the fifth, when the roof caved in on Texas and Lee. Sanchez hit his third straight double to plate Torres with the go-ahead run. Lee then issued just his second walk of the post-season, this one to Pat Burrell. Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff followed with back-to-back singles to put San Francisco on top 5-2, and it was time for Texas manager Ron Washington to make his way to the mound. When Juan Uribe greeted reliever Darren O’Day with a long homer into the left field stands, Lee’s final line was 4 2/3 innings pitched, 8 hits, 7 runs (6 earned), and a gaudy ERA of 11.57.

While Lee couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning, Lincecum was able to go only one frame longer. Having been staked to the 8-2 lead, he fanned the first two batters in the top of the sixth and the already happy fans were bordering on delirious. But beginning with a walk to Ian Kinsler, Lincecum yielded walk, double, single, single to the next four batters. With the score 8-4 and two runners on, it was now Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy’s turn to come to the mound far earlier than he would have liked or expected. Lincecum’s night was 5 2/3 innings pitched, 8 hits, 4 runs (all earned), and an ERA of 6.35 that only Cliff Lee could love.

In the later innings both teams would have their way with the other’s bullpens, leading to a final score of Giants 11, Rangers 7. 

After the game, Lee acknowledged that on this evening he lacked control; unable to break his curveball over the plate and elevating his fastball far too often. Lincecum in turned admitted to being nervous, saying “it’s a first for a lot of us and a different kind of atmosphere.”

Whatever the reasons, Game One was obviously not exactly the matchup promised. But so it goes more often than not with breathless hype. Harsh reality has a nasty way of intervening, reminding all of us that our athletic gods are in the end, human beings too. Barring a Giants sweep, both pitchers will have a chance to redeem themselves before the Series ends. If San Francisco were poised to sweep, Lee would likely get the call on short rest for Texas in a last gasp Game Four. In the meantime, Don Larsen can relax.

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