NL pitchers offer a smothering fall preview
PHOENIX – Soon, it won't be 102 degrees in the shade anymore, and the baseball won't be quite so ceremonial or deferential, and Bruce Bochy’s setup man will not arrive at his feet in an eighth-inning cloud of jiggle and turf and mirth.
Soon, the boys will have been replaced by men, and taken to a place where the games are measured by the inch, the wins exacted at the live end of a heartbeat.
It’ll be October, and the only tangible remains of the mid-July All-Star game will be the schedule – Games 1 and 2 in Philadelphia or San Francisco or Atlanta or Pittsburgh or here (where it might possibly still be 102 degrees in the shade) or wherever – along with a box score that just might pose a grander challenge to the American League than where the games will be played.
Some three months early, the names – and the arms that come with them – bode strong for the team that comes out of the National League, 5-1 winners here Tuesday night: Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Jair Jurrjens(notes), Craig Kimbrel(notes), Jonny Venters(notes), Brian Wilson(notes), even Joel Hanrahan(notes).
National League pitchers – Tyler Clippard(notes), Heath Bell(notes) and Clayton Kershaw(notes) from non-contenders rounding out Bochy’s 10 – smothered the high-end American League lineup with mid- and upper-90s fastballs, disappearing sliders, and a kind of precision that plays so large in autumn.
That was the takeaway here, where the NL not only claimed home-field advantage in the World Series, but flinched hardly at all over nine innings of dominance.
Bochy, the NL’s manager, came one pitch – a cutter thrown by Lee that Adrian Gonzalez(notes) hit over the right-field wall in the fourth inning – from a shutout, and needed none of his own starters, who rank second in the league in ERA to … the Philadelphia Phillies’, whose staff ERA is only slightly better than … the Atlanta Braves’.
Halladay and Lee of the Phillies covered the first 3 2/3 innings. Jurrjens, Kimbrel and Venters of the Braves handled 2 2/3 innings of their own. And when a couple runners reached for the AL in the ninth inning, Bochy summoned Wilson, his personal closer, who finished Michael Cuddyer(notes) and Paul Konerko(notes) on seven pitches.
And if any of that looked familiar, it’s because one October ago, these were the pitching staffs that settled the National League. In the last postseason, the Braves’ ERA was 1.95, the Phillies’ was 2.26 (with one no-hitter, Halladay’s) and the San Francisco Giants’ was 2.47 (with four shutouts), all the way through the World Series, where they dropped a .190 batting average on Lee’s Texas Rangers and won in five games.
On a night where, granted, Justin Verlander(notes), Felix Hernandez(notes), CC Sabathia(notes), James Shields(notes) and David Price(notes) were unavailable to pitch for the AL, and Josh Beckett(notes) warmed up and then shut it down because of a sore knee, the difference between the two leagues was the pitching. The top-end pitching. The kind of pitching that had All-Stars living on feeble cuts and feeble results. Poor Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) drew Jurrjens in the sixth and Venters in the eighth and struck out twice. David Ortiz(notes) didn’t hit a ball out of the infield in two at-bats. Neither did Robinson Cano(notes). Or Curtis Granderson(notes).
“We face it on a daily basis,” said Braves catcher Brian McCann(notes), who, for a change, caught two Phillies pitchers and watched three Braves pitchers. “It doesn’t stop. It seems like the arms are just ridiculous.”
In the midst of a smile that celebrated the second consecutive NL win – the AL hadn't lost since 1996 before last year – Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips(notes) was struck by what the rest of the season would bring. That is, the guys that won him this game are the same guys he’s going to have to go through for the next 2½ months.
“They’re good,” he said. “Just watching the way they pitched against the American League, that’s crazy. It reminds me what we’re facing.”
On his way out of the clubhouse, Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks(notes) considered what he’d just seen from the Phillies and Braves, and what he knows of the Giants, and said, “Here we go again. Those guys again.”
Yeah, those guys.
When Pence reached first base in the seventh inning, AL first baseman Michael Cuddyer looked past him into the bullpen.
“Oh gosh,” Cuddyer said, “Venters is coming up.”
Instead, he got Jurrjens, and singled.
“You’re going to have to get through those guys to get to the playoffs,” Pence said. “Bottom line, the arms are key.”
They were on a Tuesday night in the desert, when the stakes weren’t so big, but the opposing hitters were. And they will be again in the fall, soon enough.
Over a full year, the AL has been held to two runs over two All-Star games, and to 12 runs over five World Series games.
It’s beginning to feel a little like a time for the National League, where some of the best arms are bunched in places such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Atlanta, except for a few hours in the middle of July, when they all find themselves in a single dugout.
“It is what it is,” McCann said. “It’s incredible.”