Saturday's playoff showdown between Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum represents more than just great entertainment. It's baseball presenting itself in its finest form on a national stage, in the culmination of the Year of the Pitcher.
There have been many great matchups in postseason history, but none in which one of the starters had thrown a no-hitter his last time out. By all rights, baseball shouldn't be able to produce a proper foil for Halladay, but here comes Lincecum, winner of the past two Cy Youngs in the National League and a master in his first playoff start, a two-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts.
We can only hope the game matches its hype, because nothing in baseball is more mesmerizing than a great pitching duel in October. The home run derbies of a decade ago were ultimately tedious and bad for the game. Yes, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase riveted the country, and Barry Bonds' record runs pulled in crowds. But they didn't represent real baseball.
This, for the record, isn't another tribute to the end of the steroid era, its passing marked by declining ERAs and homer totals and this season's six no-hitters (seven if you discount the umpire error that erased Armando Galarraga's perfect game). We have no idea how many pharmaceuticals elude baseball's testing program and whether any residual doping benefits pitchers more than hitters.
But even if Jeff Novitzky, the former IRS agent who became the lead BALCO investigator, had decided to pursue restaurant workers' unreported tips instead of Bonds and Marion Jones, the long-ball era in baseball would have lost its allure. The NBA and NFL fans who decided to drop in for a peek at the stodgy national pastime would eventually have discovered that a home run, all by itself, can't match a perfectly timed touchdown pass, a devastating tackle or a Kobe Bryant drive to the hoop. Even a Kendrick Perkins blocked shot holds more drama than a fifth-inning Rick Ankiel homer.
The youngest sports fans, in particular, got the wrong impression. If baseball wanted to gain a grip on them, it had to promote its finer points, its artistry, rather than hope another record-breaking slugger would come along every few years. The most exciting single play in baseball over the past 10 years did not involve a ball leaving the park. It was Derek Jeter's stunning flip to home to nail Jeremy Giambi in the 2001 American League Division Series.
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Ask yourself: If you had to watch a baseball replay 10 times, would you choose that defensive gem or a Bonds home run? You can see a reasonable facsimile of a major-league homer in a beer-league softball game. Jeter's play? Completely unique.
Ozzie Smith going deep into the hole; Dave Roberts at first base, playing cat-and-mouse with Mariano Rivera; Pudge Rodriguez blocking the plate as J.T. Snow lumbers toward him; Curt Schilling putting pitch after pitch on the corner. Those are the moments that make baseball fascinating.
The Halladay-Lincecum matchup promises to be epic. The only impediment might be the fact that both could be stale after long rests, nine days for Halladay and eight for Lincecum. The Giants right-hander has the tougher job; the Phillies lineup contains far more threats.
Can they match the gold standard for postseason showdowns, the 1986 Game 5 duel in the National League Championship Series between the Mets' Dwight Gooden and the Astros' Nolan Ryan? Neither pitcher got the decision. They both departed with a 1-1 tie, Ryan after nine innings; Gooden after 10 (we'll never see that again). The numbers don't begin to describe the curveballs that hit the corner for strikes; the fastballs that proved untouchable for the Mets, a lineup that usually devoured fastballs; the take-that mentality that followed each inning.
There are a few parallels between that matchup and Saturday's. The 1986 version had a much wider age gap (Gooden 21 and Ryan 39 vs. Lincecum 26 and Halladay 33). But each pairing featured a guy nicknamed Doc, one of the five pitchers to throw two no-hitters in the same year, one of the four to win a Cy Young in only his second season and a phenomenal pitching staff behind them.
In fact, Mike Scott was considered Houston's ace in 1986, and he and Gooden matched up in Game 1, a 1-0 Astros win. After the NLCS, another hyped duel awaited Gooden in Game 2 of the World Series, where he met Roger Clemens. This year could have additional marquee pairings, as Jonathan Sanchez (owner of a no-hitter) faces Roy Oswalt (who had a 1.74 ERA after joining the Phillies) in Game 2 of the NLCS, and the ALCS includes two former Cy Young winners, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
The '86 World Series will always be remembered for the Mets' comeback and the Bill Buckner error. Judging by the defensive mistakes made in the first round (errors gave the Giants two of their three wins over Atlanta), this year could easily produce another classic bobble. It wouldn't qualify as great baseball, but it would be more definitive baseball than a slugfest.
Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.