ST. PETERSBURG — The debate was held on the mound, inning by inning, pitch by pitch.
The favorite from New York was nearly flawless. The challenger from Tampa Bay was just as good.
And when the final ball had been thrown, a game may have been decided, but the argument was far from finished.
Who do you like for the American League Cy Young Award?
There is New York's CC Sabathia, with his league-leading 19 victories and 3.03 ERA. There is Tampa Bay's David Price with 17 victories of his own and an ERA that has fallen to 2.75.
And now there is the memory of an early fall showdown when two disparate left-handers combined to create what may have been the most well-pitched evening of baseball that Tropicana Field has ever known.
"I actually thought about it during the game as I'm watching the whole thing unfold," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'If you consider yourself an absolute baseball fan, this is your kind of game.'
"This exact game has been played since the beginning of baseball time. If you can't enjoy all the intensity of that moment, with first place at stake, two brilliant left-handed pitchers going, then you can never say you're a baseball fan."
It had been almost exactly eight years since Major League Baseball had seen a pair of left-handers with at least 17 victories come to work in the same stadium on the same evening. Back then, it was Jarrod Washburn and Mark Mulder, and instead of being separated by a half-game like the Rays and Yankees, the Athletics and Angels were tied atop the AL West.
Neither starter gave up a run that night, and the Angels, with bench coach Joe Maddon, eventually won 1-0 in 10 innings.
History did not quite repeat itself Monday night, but it came close enough. More than two hours into the evening, Price and Sabathia had nearly identical pitching lines. Both threw eight shutout innings, allowing five baserunners. Price threw 114 pitches, and Sabathia had 119.
During one stretch from the first to the fifth, Price retired 11 Yankees in succession. During a stretch from the third to the seventh, Sabathia retired 12 in a row.
In some ways, their statistics are about all they have in common.
Price looks sleek and graceful. Sabathia is sloppy and wide. Price is 25 and just had his salary bumped to $1 million this season. Sabathia is 30 and just got a raise to $23 million.
They're both power pitchers but employed very different game plans Monday.
Sabathia's fastball sat in the 93-mph range, and he changed speeds often. Price was throwing in the vicinity of 96 mph and threw only a handful of off-speed pitches.
Forty pitches into the game, Price had thrown just one curveball. He mixed in a few more changeups and curves in the middle innings and then finished with hard stuff on 29 of his final 30 pitches.
"That's not unusual for a power pitcher. If you were to go back and look at a Curt Schilling in his prime or Randy Johnson in his prime, you might see the same type of thing," pitching coach Jim Hickey said "We always preach, if it's not broke don't fix it. And of course it wasn't broke (Monday night).
"He's already one of the best pitchers there are, and it's only a couple of more steps before he becomes what we talk about when we talk about CC Sabathia. A guy who is a perennial Cy Young Award contender."
If he thought he scored points with Cy Young voters Monday night, Price said Sabathia scored more.
"He outpitched me," Price said.
And that's exactly the reason the Rays believe Price is on his way to bigger and better things. It is his talent, of course. But it is also his attitude. A sense that he has never quite done enough.
The game is filled with pitchers who make excuses or rationalize their way through bad outing after bad outing. Price, on one of the greatest nights of his career, was too critical to lobby for himself.
"This game validates everything we've always thought about this guy," Maddon said. "He doesn't want to be good; he wants to be great."
This was not the first time Price has crossed paths with Sabathia. There was a moment last season when the Rays took a late charter flight from Tampa Bay to New York, and when Price arrived at Yankee Stadium the next day, the rookie discovered he had left all his gloves back at Tropicana Field.
It was Sabathia who offered Price a spare left-handed glove fit for a pitcher. And so the Rays pitcher took the mound against the Yankees wearing the mitt of an opponent. Somewhere, Price said, there is a baseball card of him with Sabathia's big, brown glove on his hand.
He wore his own glove Monday night. And he pitched his own game. But, in some ways, Price is still hand-in-hand with Sabathia.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]