Chicks may dig the long ball. But dudes love a pitching duel.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, we had those epic Roger Clemens-Dave Stewart showdowns, which years later gave way to the explosive Clemens-Pedro Martinez matchups. Those were games you circled on your calendar with a glance at the weather forecast, hoping that rain wouldn’t get in the way of what were always tautly-pitched games by athletes at the top of their profession.
They were the pinnacle of baseball, faceoffs that happened but a handful of times each season. They were evenings to be embraced no matter if they occurred in April or October.
Could we have our first of ’09 tonight?
For a while there, it seemed Scott Kazmir was destined to become the modern-day Stewart in the annals of the Red Sox’s most frustrating opposing pitchers. Entering 2008, Kazmir sported a nifty 2.66 ERA vs. Boston, albeit with a 6-5 record, mainly because he had the distinct pleasure of playing for the long-time cellar-dwelling Rays.
However, last season, his effectiveness versus the Sox waned, as Boston tagged the Tampa lefty for 24 hits and 18 earned runs over 18 innings of work, en route to Kazmir’s first winless season against the AL East rivals. Beset by injuries, the Rays’ No. 2 starter went 12-8 for the division champs, and was just 4-6 on the road.
Of course, the last time the Red Sox saw him, the lefty dominated their lineup, allowing just two hits and no runs in six innings of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. Joe Maddon went to the bullpen, TVs hesitantly shut off across New England, David Ortiz and J.D. Drew went deep into the seats, and the rest is history.
Kazmir gets the nod tonight in Game 2 of the 2009 season at Fenway Park, matched up against southpaw counterpart Jon Lester, a chic pick this preseason for the AL Cy Young Award. Last season, Lester was 3-0 against Tampa with a 0.90 ERA, but after starting last year’s playoffs with guns a-blazin’ (14 innings without an earned run against the Angels), he lost both of his starts in the ALCS, allowing seven earned runs over 12 2/3 innings.
Question of the day: Which would you rather have? Is there really a wrong answer?
While Kazmir has more career wins, Lester has a no-hitter and a Game 4 World Series win on his resume. The Yankees backed up the cash truck in the offseason in order to ink lefty CC Sabathia, the best in the game, but Red Sox and Rays possess arguably the two best burgeoning lefties in the game. Both just 25 years old, they’ve only faced each other twice in their career, and only one of those is anything you would consider a pitching duel. In Boston’s 2-1 win in August 2007, Lester went seven innings allowing two hits and a run, while Kazmir went six shutout innings, handing the ball over to a bullpen that in no way would offer any hints as to what to expect in 2008. In last year’s matchup, Kazmir couldn’t make it past four innings.
But with Kazmir’s inability to pitch deep into games, and Lester’s tendency to get a bit wild around the plate from time to time, is it realistic to expect lasting greatness from both sides of the mound? Well, if you expect anything in this game, you probably haven’t been watching long enough.
But the hope is there that this turns into a longtime reason to prognosticate pitching rotations into the coming weeks, even months. Kazmir is already 47-37 for his career; Lester is 27-8. For the sake of comparison, Randy Johnson, regarded among the best lefties in the game’s history, was just 17-26 when he was 25. Tom Glavine at that age enjoyed his first 20-win season after going 33-41 over his first four seasons.
Sabathia, on the other hand, had already won 69 games by the time he was 25.
There’s no definitive prognosis for how good each can be individually, no expectations placed on their doorsteps. In fact, it’s probably not even fair to mention them in the same breath as Johnson, Glavine, and Sabathia.
But they are the two terrific young lefties on two of the best teams in the game. And that, in itself, opens the door for something extraordinary each time they’re slated to go against each other.