Best 1-2 Punch: Most prolific (and feared) pitching duos today
Best 1-2 punches were determined by performance and postseason potential
No duo is more feared than Giants starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain
With Cliff Lee, J.A. Happ and Cole Hamels, the Phillies have the deepest rotation
To see Cole Hamels last October was to see an ace, and, it seemed, a fully-formed one destined for many years in that role. In pitching the Phillies to their first world championship in 28 years, the 24-year-old Hamels authored a brilliant postseason in which he was named both NLCS and World Series MVP to firmly establish himself as one of the game's premier pitchers.
To see Cole Hamels now is to see a still-promising pitcher struggling to match his accomplishments of autumn. There is no doubt that Hamels is still supremely gifted, but there can also be no doubt that the honor of being called the team's ace is one he no longer deserves. It may be his California-cool confidence, or the simple reality that comes with toting an under-.500 record and an ERA approaching 5.00, but nobody knows that better than Hamels. And he knows he isn't fooling anyone these days, certainly not major league hitters and definitely not himself. The once and likely future ace of the Phillies, Hamels does not hesitate to cede that crown to his teammates, older and younger, on the Philadelphia staff. "[J.A.] Happ is the guy who's earned it," he said recently. "Cliff [Lee] has been mind-boggling. If you're not the hot guy, you kind of understand."
But, he added, "It's just a matter of time before I get back to it."
Hamels' difficulties one year after looking like he would be heading the Phillies staff for years to come only serve to, once again, illustrate the enduring importance of a deep starting pitching rotation. Yet, it also points to the success of the Phillies talent development and financial flexibility. Even with Hamels pitching nothing like he did during that magical month last fall, the team has pieced together one of the best 1-2 punches atop their rotation in all of baseball, finding a gem of a prospect in its bullpen and dealing for a veteran Cy Young winner.
The Phillies rotation might be the deepest in the game, but is it the best one at the top? Below is an effort to assess which five teams have the best 1-2 punches in the game. Performance to date was weighted heavily, but potential postseason performance was given strong consideration as well. This is not to say that these five teams have the best staffs in all of baseball, only that they have the best top two right now, and that in a short series, would be the most likely to carry their clubs deep into October.
Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain -- Giants
Lincecum: 12-4, 2.43 ERA, 214 K's
No club has a duo as feared as the Giants' Cain and Lincecum, which is especially helpful for San Francisco because there isn't much else to be afraid of on that team. The Giants are 34-18 in games started by those two, and 35-40 in all other contests. And with an offense that is as soft as the waters of McCovey Cove, it is the young arms of their two right-handed stars that carry the burden of the Giants playoff hopes.
Fortunately, those arms have been up to the challenge. As hard as it might be to believe, Lincecum has been even better than he was a year ago during his Cy Young-winning campaign. His ERA, WHIP, H/9 and BB/9 are all down from 2008, and his K/BB ratio is up. Cain's success is more surprising, although his talent has always been overshadowed by a deceptive won-loss record. In 2007 and 2008, he posted a 3.71 ERA, the 22nd best among all starters, but a 15-30 record for the second worst winning percentage in that same group. This year, his record is more reflective of his stellar pitching performance. He's striking out fewer batters than in any other full season, but he's relied on breaking pitches to be more efficient, with a career-low 15.1 pitches per inning.
Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright -- Cardinals
Carpenter: 14-3, 2.16 ERA, 111 K's
Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young winner, is making a serious challenge to Lincecum to win the award again this year. He leads the league in ERA, ranks second in wins and WHIP and third in strikeout/walk ratio. Because of a month spent on the disabled list, he's made just 21 starts, but upon his return, the Cardinals took off. They were three games out when he rejoined the rotation May 20, and they've never been that far back again. Three times since he came back, Carpenter has won a game that pushed the Cardinals into first place, including most recently on Aug. 7, when they beat the Pirates to move atop the NL Central. They've stayed there ever since.
Wainwright, once a middle reliever who became a closer late in 2006 and nailed down the Cardinals' World Series win that October, had put together a pair of impressive years as a starter but made just 20 starts a year ago due to a finger injury. This year, he's stayed healthy and durable, leading the league with 27 starts and 187.0 innings pitched. He's also first with 15 wins, and ranks fourth in ERA. What's more, in Joel Pineiro (12-9, 3.15 ERA, 1.107 WHIP), the Cardinals also have as good a third starter as there has been in the National League all season.
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