Thursday, October 7, 2010
Yesterday afternoon, as Roy Halladay was preparing for yesterday's NLDS opener, Cliff Lee was putting the finishing touches on another brilliant postseason pitching performance.
Lee dominated the AL's most potent offense, striking out 10 Tampa Bay Rays batters while holding them to one run to give the Texas Rangers their first playoff win in 14 years.
Just one year earlier, of course, the unflappable lefty dazzled the baseball world with a spectacular postseason performance that took the Phillies to the brink of a second straight championship. And, like Halladay this year, Lee was making his first foray beyond the regular season.
The fact that Halladay would be making his postseason debut immediately after Lee tossed yet another October gem is surely a bit of irony. As Phillies fans will attest, despite never playing on the same team, the two ace hurlers will likely be forever intertwined.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro assured as much when he simultaneously swung two blockbuster deals last winter. The first brought Halladay and considerable exuberance to town by way of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The second deal sent Lee to the Seattle Mariners and shockwaves throughout Philly. Neither players nor fans had envisioned that acquiring Halladay would mean parting ways with the city's newly embraced sports hero.
Although everyone was thrilled to welcome Halladay, a great deal of debate ensued since last December about the wisdom in trading Lee. Amaro's mid-summer acquisition of another ace, Roy Oswalt, has quieted the rumblings, but clearly the Lee trade placed pressure on Halladay to perform at or even exceed the same high level of performance.
To say that Halladay has responded well to the challenge is an understatement. He started the season pitching like he might never lose.
After he did prove, in fact, to be human, the big right-hander hurled Major League Baseball's 20th perfect game. He dominated the Florida Marlins from start to finish.
Halladay's 10-7 record and 2.19 ERA landed him on his seventh All-Star squad. He proceeded to improve his record to 21-10 with a sparkling 2.44 ERA.
His incredible 7.30 strikeouts to walk ratio almost doubled that of any other National League hurler. The only pitcher in baseball to top that mark was- you guessed it— Cliff Lee with an almost impossible 10.28 ratio.
And, to add a bold exclamation point to his likely Cy Young regular season, Halladay threw a masterful 2-hit shutout to clinch the NL Eastern Division title.
Despite his season-long brilliance, some whispers of doubt were spoken about Halladay as the Phillies prepared for their NLDS opener against the Reds.
Some wondered whether Halladay would be nervous on the big stage after 12 seasons of packing his locker contents after 162 games?
Would the NL's top offense be able to handle him like they did in the regular season?
Could he pitch as well in the playoffs as he did in the regular season after logging more than 250 innings of work?
Others questioned whether he could possibly reach the bar that was set so high by Lee in 2009?
And, as if that was not enough, Lee extended that postseason mastery in the hours leading up to last evening's opening pitch.
Halladay responded to all of it the way he always does. There he was at 5:07 last night, toeing the rubber with that same stoic look wrought with intense determination.
And, it just got better from there.
As even non-baseball fans know by now, Halladay carved out a place in history by firing the second no-hitter in Major League Baseball's 104-year postseason run— and his second of the year.
He was masterful from start to finish.
The few extra days of rest earned by his clinching victory, along with the playoff atmosphere adrenaline, had his fastball popping into the glove of Carlos Ruiz at 94 mph.
He had command of all four pitches that he claims in his arsenal, as well as some that he seems to invent along the way. His pitches were diving in every direction, including a split finger change-up that hitters could not touch as it appeared to intensify gravity.
After he applied the final strokes to his masterpiece for the ages, a pregnant pause ensued. Would the Phillies take the queue from their workmanlike and stoic ace and simply exchange courteous handshakes— or celebrate the right way?
After making a brilliant play on a tapper to record the final out, Ruiz answered the question by rushing toward Halladay, who then broke into a huge smile. Phillies players followed suit and mobbed the historic battery-mates in the center of the infield.
What a day, what a debut.
A perfect game...an All-Star berth...21 wins...a division clinching shutout...a likely Cy Young Award...and now a postseason no-hitter.
Roy Halladay somehow topped the bar set by Cliff Lee. Along the way, he also somehow even topped himself.