|2010 regular season|
Provided the umpires stay out of the way, pitching can define this baseball postseason much as it did the regular season. Still gracing us with their presence are merely the game's most dominant starter, biggest workhorse, likeliest to slay in the postseason and closest to pitching perfection.
There are a zillion other sobriquets to bestow upon Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, respectively, but for now those suffice. Because heading into the league championship series that start with the American League on Friday and continue with the National League on Saturday, they've more than validated the value of a true, legitimate ace in the postseason.
While the four teams bounced from the first round certainly boast a number of good pitchers among them, none had an ace, an absolute lockdown guy whose team knows unequivocally that his presence in a vital game will prove the deciding factor. At one time, Tim Hudson(notes) and Derek Lowe(notes) were. Soon enough, David Price(notes) and Francisco Liriano(notes) will be. For now, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Atlanta and Cincinnati are home, preparing to see the No. 1s that vanquished them.
They are the Four Aces. And these days, they're pulling face card after face card.
ACE OF CLUBS: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants. Like Bam-Bam from The Flintstones, Lincecum looks like a baby, only to wield the strength of someone twice his size. And hitters will attest: He's likelier to bludgeon them with brute force and strike them out than any of the other aces.
Best pitch: Changeup. Lincecum helped popularize the modified split-finger grip used now by Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) and embraced by Halladay this season. Known for his 95-mph fastball when he arrived in the major leagues, Lincecum has remained dominant with less oomph because his changeup tumbles more than a clothes dryer.
Weakness: Because of his high-maintenance delivery, Lincecum often loses control and command. Over the last month, however, he has significantly lowered his walk rate, and his no-walk, 14-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the division series against Atlanta was almost as impressive as Halladay's no-hitter.
Value to team: Significant, though not imperative. If Lincecum happens to disappear, as he did in the middle of the season when his velocity reached its nadir, the Giants can still survive as long as Matt Cain(notes), Jonathan Sanchez(notes), Madison Bumgarner(notes) and their lockdown bullpen can do to the potent Phillies bats what they've done the last six weeks to all other foes.
Trump card: Lincecum's slider, a neat little pitch he's using more and more as he relies less and less on his fastball and hammer curve, remains a weapon that he can throw for strikes and use to induce ground balls.
ACE OF HEARTS: CC Sabathia, New York Yankees. It is tough not to love Sabathia, and not just because there's plenty of him to go around. Teddy bear on the outside, bulldog on the inside, Sabathia is an innings-eating monster. He relishes pitching on three days' rest, a novel concept today, and better yet, he does it well.
Best pitch: Slider. While Sabathia insists on calling the pitch a cutter – "slider" had an odd connotation with Sabathia, his former pitching coach Carl Willis said, so they went with cutter and left it at that – it is the definition of a great slider: two-plane break, enough tilt to keep left-handed batters lunging and righties jammed and arm action that gives no sign a breaking pitch is coming.
Weakness: Like Lincecum, Sabathia has bouts of wildness. They're not quite as significant, though. And even though he is a workhorse, with his innings totaling nearly 250 this season, it's worth asking: How much longer can he go before he hits a wall?
Value to team: By far the most of the aces. With Phil Hughes(notes) still relatively unproven in the postseason, Andy Pettitte's(notes) health uncertain and A.J. Burnett(notes) spending his season getting unexplained black eyes – a pretty good metaphor, too, for his pitching – Sabathia's success against Texas will determine whether the Yankees continue on their quest for ring No. 28.
Trump card: Lost amid his fastball and slider, Sabathia's changeup gives him the dominant third pitch that often makes the difference between good and great. Though it's not Lincecum level, Sabathia's change has late fade that's particularly devilish to right-handed hitters, who hit worse against him than lefties (.649 OPS vs. .678).
ACE OF DIAMONDS: Cliff Lee, Texas Rangers. Nobody sparkles in the postseason more than Lee, whose playoff piece de resistance came in the win-or-go-home division series game against Tampa Bay. His no-walk, 11-strikeout complete game was like putting Yale Med School on a résumé that already includes a B.A. from Princeton and an M.B.A. from Harvard. All that's left to seal his legacy among the all-time greats: a World Series ring.
Best pitch: Fastball. Lee throws first-pitch strikes about 70 percent of the time – 11 percent better than league average – and his ability to command his fastball on the corners and top and bottom of the strike zone evokes artistry unseen since Greg Maddux(notes).
Weakness: While neither Halladay nor Lincecum has ever started on three days' rest, the feeling is that each would embrace it. Lee has not asked to do so in either of the past two postseasons, and the question of whether he is willing continues to dog him. If the Rangers happen to be down three games to two to the Yankees, Texas management would have a difficult decision: go with Lee on short rest or save him for a possible Game 7.
Value to team: Mitigated by his inability to pitch in Games 1 and 2. Having your ace for the first road game of a series certainly is an advantage, particularly because Lee has pitched well against the Yankees. So well, in fact, that the Yankees moved Pettitte, their No. 2 starter, to Game 3 in hopes he goes pitch for pitch with Lee.
Trump card: When Lee started spinning his curveball against the Rays, they were flabbergasted. During the regular season, he threw the pitch only 5.6 percent of the time. The percentage leapt to 15.8 in Game 5, and more than 20 percent of them resulted in swinging strikes. What's usually a show-me pitch actually showed that Lee has more in his arsenal than most realize.
ACE OF SPADES: Roy Halladay. Who better for the Death Card than the stone-cold assassin who threw a no-hitter in his first postseason appearance? Doc's encore will come 10 days later, though the layoff is immaterial. He's facing a Giants offense far more meager than the Reds team he held hitless. Can anyone say Van Der Meer?
Best pitch: Perhaps it's his fastball, which rides at 93 mph with sink. Or maybe his cutter, a 91-mph bat destroyer. Could be his curveball, which he throws for strikes when hitters are looking in the dirt and buries when they're thinking strike. And how about his changeup, now a fourth plus pitch, putting him and Felix Hernandez(notes) alone in that echelon.
Weakness: He bleeds?
Value to team: Big, just not that big. Because, like the Giants, the Phillies boast incredible depth in their rotation. Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) also merit inclusion on this list, each with boffo playoff performances in years past, and they're the Nos. 2 and 3 starters in the Phillies' rotation.
Trump card: It's not any particular pitch Halladay throws, since all of them are so incredible and practically indistinguishable. His past – 12 seasons with a Toronto team that could never overcome the AL East meat grinder – gives him a tremendous perspective on what postseason baseball means. Halladay is a freakish competitor, and October – and, he hopes, November – baseball will bring the best out of him.