ST. PETERSBURG — By night's end, one of them will likely have been the difference. The difference between celebration and heartbreak. Between a comeback completed and a collapse averted. By the time the scorebook is closed, one of them will probably have been the difference in the way much of the world will ultimately view the 2010 baseball season in Tampa Bay. Cliff Lee and David Price. Cy Young and Cy younger. Two of the very best left-handers in baseball, and two of the biggest reasons the Rays and Rangers have reached tonight's decisive Game 5 in the American League division series. Both ranked among the top six in the league in ERA, both have lost only one game in the past month, and both are pitching on full rest.
"That's about as good as it gets, isn't it?" Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I'd pay to see that."
Game 7 of the 2001 World Series: Roger Clemens came with his 20-3 regular-season record for the Yankees. Curt Schilling showed up on three days' rest with his 22-6 record for the Diamondbacks. Clemens would be pulled in the seventh after giving up one run with 10 strikeouts. Schilling lasted until one out in the eighth with nine strikeouts and two runs. Neither pitcher figured in the decision when Arizona won in the ninth with a pair of runs off Mariano Rivera.
There is something majestic about a pair of aces on the mound. Something courtly and old-fashioned.
It doesn't matter if it's Bob Gibson vs. Mickey Lolich in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, or Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens in the final game of the 2003 AL Championship Series. Different eras and different styles but the same kind of game.
"You're thinking: Take chances to prevent runs. Bring your infield in earlier under different circumstances. Take chances offensively because you're not going to see many of them," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "For me, games like this are all about taking chances. If you play it conservatively, sometimes it will bite you because guys like this just don't normally give it up big."
Pitchers control the game like no other player, and aces take that subjugation a step further. There is a different feel when a dominant pitcher is on the mound. A sense that any missed opportunity or mistake might be fatal.
Moments are magnified, and perspectives change. Price was not his usual self in Game 1 last week, but the disparity was magnified because Lee was throwing darts for the Rangers.
"When it got to the third inning, and it was now 2-0, and all of the sudden it went to 3-0, it was almost like, 'Forget about it,' " Hickey said. "We can certainly get to (Lee) for three or four runs, but it became obvious … after he got through four that it wasn't happening."
Game 7 of the 1991 World Series: Jack Morris and John Smoltz hooked up three days earlier in Game 4, with the Braves winning 3-2 when Minnesota's bullpen collapsed. This time around, Morris was not taking any chances. While Smoltz left in the eighth with the score 0-0, Morris kept going and going. He was the winning pitcher when the Twins scored the game's only run in the 10th.
They arrive at the mound this evening from different directions.
When Lee made his big-league debut in Cleveland in 2002, Price was a high school junior in Murfreesboro, Tenn. More than 100 players were selected ahead of Lee in the 2000 draft. Price was the No. 1 pick in 2008.
Lee hits the low 90s with his fastball, but he makes his living with deception and remarkable control. He's more infuriating than overpowering. He hides the ball well in his delivery, and his four-seam, two-seam and cutter are all thrown from the same slot and look identical until just before they reach the plate. The problem is those three pitches have varying degrees of movement on either side of the plate.
Price, on the other hand, regularly sits in the mid 90s with his fastball and, on occasion, has hit 100 mph. His fastball is so effective, he can get away with throwing it 30-40 times in succession.
Lee, 32, has already made his mark in the game, winning the Cy Young Award in '08, and is preparing to strike it rich in free agency this winter. Price, 25, is still emerging as a big-league star. And much of his reputation has already been made by facing down pitchers such as Lee, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay in regular-season matchups the past two seasons.
"This is what every kid dreams about. This game is what you crave," said Rays pitcher Matt Garza, who started Game 7 of the ALCS in '08. "If you want to be the big guy, the guy everyone is looking at, this is the game you've waited your whole life for."
Game 7 of the 1962 World Series: The Yankees had Whitey Ford and the Giants had Juan Marichal, but in this season the aces were a pair of largely forgettable vagabonds. Ralph Terry went 23-12 in New York. Jack Sanford was a career-best 24-7 in San Francisco. And both were practically untouchable on Oct. 16 in Game 7. The Yankees scored the game's only run in the fifth when Tony Kubek hit into a bases-loaded double play, ensuring the final game of the season was played without an RBI.
Star vs. star matchups are actually pretty rare in deciding games. By the time teams reach the finale in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, rotations have often spun out of control. A pitcher might go on short rest, or he might be used in emergency relief. Managers juggle rotations looking for specific matchups or particular advantages in stadiums.
And so, more often than not, you get a Jim Bibby vs. a Scott McGregor in the biggest game of the season.
Tonight, the baseball stars have finally aligned.
And they're sharing a mound.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]