PHILADELPHIA — The setting has become a familiar one for the National League Championship Series.
But what’s on tap for Game 1 at Citizens Bank Park is one of October’s rarest treats.
“The biggest players show up at the biggest times,” teammate Ryan Howard said. “He’s a big-time player. He’s put in 11 seasons before he even got to sniff the playoffs. Now that he’s here, everything that he’s seen or thought about or imagined it to be, he can just go out and do it for real. … He did great his first time out. He threw a no-hitter. It really doesn’t get any better than that, until you get to the next round and get a win. No-hitter aside, just get a win.”
For Halladay to get that win, he’s going to have to tame a Giants lineup that, for whatever reason, has given him trouble in the past. He is 0-2 with a 7.23 ERA in three career starts against San Francisco. That’s his highest ERA against any team that he’s faced at least three times.
Of course, he hasn’t faced the Giants since April 26, so much of that history goes out the window.
“When you’re talking four or five months and half the team is different guys now,” Halladay said, “it makes a big difference.”
An X factor that could also make a big difference in Game 1 is the wind. If it’s blowing out, as expected, at compact and, for pitchers, unforgiving Citizens Bank Park, that could impact the proceedings.
The best way for a pitcher to combat such elements is, of course, to just strike the guy out, and that’s an area Lincecum happens to excel at. His outing against the Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS defined dominant. And if his late-season roll is any indication, he could be ready for more in Game 1 of this series.
Back in August, when he lost five straight starts, it was fashionable to wonder whether Lincecum had lost his luster. But he’s allowed just nine runs in 50 2/3 innings — with 66 strikeouts and nine walks — in the seven starts since. Suffice to say the concern has died down.
The concern should now rest with the Phillies, who have to face Lincecum at a time when he has all four pitches working, most notably a newly polished slider. He’s also gained confidence from beating the Braves.
“You get a taste of what it’s like to play in postseason ball,” he said. “I think it can’t do anything but help me. I feel like [starting] the All-Star Game last year helped me prepare for the postseason scenario, just with the heightened atmosphere and how crazy it gets. But like I said, my approach on this game is the same as any other start. Obviously, it’s a big game. But I don’t want to get too over-amped. I want to take it just like any other start.”
This isn’t just any other start, given the attention being placed on the two men taking the mound. But there are, of course, other factors that will come into play in Game 1. Should Lincecum and/or Halladay not be able to go the distance, as they did in Game 1 of the NLDS, then the performance of the bullpens will be a major factor.
The Giants had one of the best relief corps in the Majors this year, but they are currently a bit shaky in the eighth, in front of closer Brian Wilson. The Phillies, on the other hand, saw closer Brad Lidge and setup man Ryan Madson steamroll their way into October, though it will be interesting to see if the long layoff affects them.
And what good is a superb pitching matchup without equally superb defensive efforts to back it up? With so much potential for a dominant display on the mound by each starter, this game should ultimately come down to which team avoids the mental miscues.
That’s something Halladay himself pointed out.
“I think you can’t ever overlook everybody else that’s involved in the game,” Halladay said. “And I think that ultimately that’s where games are decided. The little things that are done on the field, the things that are done defensively, or the things done at the plate — those become big parts of the game. So as much as you do look at the pitching matchups and how good they could potentially be, you can’t ever forget about the other guys that are playing the game and how they could change how the series goes.”
Still, there is little question which two guys will be attracting the most attention when the NLCS gets under way with a Saturday night special.
Game 1 tidbits
• Though the Giants and Phillies are both original NL franchises, they have never met in the postseason.
• Howard is the only player with at least three career homers off Lincecum.
• Halladay is 0-2 with a 7.23 ERA in three career starts against the Giants. That’s his highest ERA against any team that he’s faced at least three times.
• Giants starters finished with an ERA of 0.93 in the four NLDS games against the Braves. According to STATS LLC, that’s the third-lowest ERA by any NL rotation in a postseason series and the 11th-lowest overall.
• The Phillies and Giants split their six meetings this season, with each team taking two of three in its home park.
• Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels combined to go 1-5 with a 4.80 ERA vs. the Giants in 2010, while Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez went 2-1 with a 1.98 ERA against the Phillies.
• The Phillies will be trying to become the first NL team to win three straight pennants since the St. Louis Cardinals did so in 1942-44.
When the first pitch is tossed at 7:57 p.m. ET on FOX Postseason.TV, a mouthwatering matchup of two of the game’s great pitchers will be under way. A two-time Cy Young Award winner in Tim Lincecum will be facing a (likely) soon-to-be two-time Cy Young winner in Roy Halladay, and both aces will be coming off historic postseason debuts in the NL Division Series.
Not a bad way to get things started between the Phillies and Giants, especially with the raucous Philadelphia faithful on hand.
“At this point in the season,” Halladay said, “you expect to play the best. That’s what makes it fun. It’s a challenge.”
Especially if you’re in the batter’s box.
The Reds and Braves can both attest to what Halladay and Lincecum are capable of on such a platform. Halladay’s no-hitter and Lincecum’s 14-strikeout shutout were the kinds of performances that postseason dreams are made of. And they have elevated the excitement for Game 1 all the more.
Yet while their first-round magic will surely prove memorable, both Halladay and Lincecum know that the surest way to cement a legacy is to go the distance and claim a World Series title. And for either of these teams to get to that level, establishing a tone in Game 1 could prove pivotal. After all, in 40 previous installments of the NLCS, the team that won Game 1 went on to win the Fall Classic 28 times.
On the whole, if you’re a player, you don’t want to come out on the wrong end of this bout between two of the game’s heavyweights.
And if you’re a fan, you don’t want to miss a pitch.
“It’s going to be a tremendous matchup,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “You have two of the best pitchers in the game. We have all the respect for Halladay. [He has] tremendous command in the strike zone. Great stuff. Great competitor. He’s come off a great team, too. And we have a good one going, too. I think, as baseball fans, we should all love this matchup and look forward to it.”
This is a matchup of conflicting styles. Halladay is all-business, perpetually pounding the corners and confounding the opposition. He has long been one of the game’s top arms, but the move last winter to a contending Phillies team seemed to have motivated him all the more. Witness his ridiculous 7.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio and his perfect game, not to mention his 21 wins, 1.04 WHIP, 250 2/3 innings pitched and 2.44 ERA.
Halladay, by virtue of those regular-season stats, had his second Cy Young all but sewn up. Then he went out and no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS and turned October into “Doctober.”