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Can the year of the pitcher possibly be repeated?

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PHOENIX (AP)

Dallas Braden is never one to be bashful: The Oakland lefty is certain the Year of the Pitcher can carry on through 2011 and beyond.

And he's not the only one.

From a pair of perfect games only 20 days apart to four other no-hitters and one gem that should have been, all the spectacular performances in the Year of the Pitcher last season hardly could have been expected.

Can baseball fans possibly expect to witness yet another season of extraordinary outings from pitchers across the league? Oh yes, say many players and managers. Make it years, plural, if you ask Braden.

''I think it's the era of the pitcher,'' said Braden, who threw one of the two perfect games with a Mother's Day masterpiece against the Rays on May 9. ''The era of the asterisk is beyond us. Now, the playing field is equal on both sides. It's a lot more about talent than it is about raw tools anymore.''

With steroids and performance-enhancing drugs no longer in the forefront, Braden insists pitchers can take the mound without the worry of juiced-up sluggers stepping into the batter's box.

Dusty Baker notices a difference.

''There was a while during expansion when they were saying it was diluted, and then - I don't know if there was a conscientious effort by parents or whatever it was - it seemed like everybody started pitching,'' the Cincinnati manager said. ''And now there's good pitching in quite a few places. Plus, in the post-steroid era here, it's gone back to pitching and speed and defense and fundamental play.''

Phillies ace Roy Halladay pitched a perfect game May 29 at Florida only 20 days after Braden did so, then threw a no-no against Baker's Reds in the first round of the playoffs.

And Armando Galarraga, now with Arizona, would have tossed a perfect game for the Tigers against Cleveland last June had umpire Jim Joyce not blown a call at first base.

Braden's perfecto was the first for his franchise since Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter threw one for the Athletics in 1968, the last ''Year of the Pitcher.'' There were five individual no-hitters that season, when the Cardinals' Bob Gibson led the majors with a 1.12 ERA, Detroit's Denny McLain became a 31-game winner, and Don Drysdale threw six straight shutouts for the Dodgers.

These days, many relievers throw heat.

''I remember saying throughout the season, 'Where is the guy who throws 87 with a sinker who used to come out of the pen?' Even long guys are throwing 97,'' Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton said.

''The game's kind of gone back to the way it was in the '80s - pitching and defense,'' new Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. ''Teams now are focusing more on their bullpen and the importance of a bullpen in having a successful franchise. To me, you can't win without (pitching). It's paramount. If you don't have it you're going to have a very difficult time.''

After that spectacular '68 season by pitchers, Major League Baseball's Rules Committee lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and shrunk the strike zone to its pre-1963 level - from the batter's armpits to the top of his knees.

And pitchers followed that up with a strong showing in the expansion season of 1969 as well. There were six more no-nos that year.

Could that be a telling sign? Do the pitchers have a true advantage again in the days minus the monster power hitters such as home run king Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, all of whom cleared the fences at a remarkable rate?

''The Year of the Pitcher will continue,'' said A's manager Bob Geren, whose talented young staff led the AL in ERA last season at 3.56 and in shutouts with 17 while holding opponents to a .245 batting average. ''The pitching seems to keep getting better, not worse.

''Some of the veteran guys, Roy Halladay and guys like that, they haven't shown any signs of letting up. And the younger guys like ours are going to keep getting better.''

Braden went 0-5 in nine starts and dealt with an elbow injury after his perfect game before finally winning again July 25. He isn't ready to predict a repeat performance of his improbable perfect game.

But start drafting those arms anyway, fantasy gurus.

With former AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke moving to the NL with Milwaukee, improvements in ''Tommy John'' reconstructive elbow surgery helping pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Josh Johnson and Tim Hudson come back better than ever, and all those aces in Philly, it's a tough time to be a hitter for a living.

''I don't see why not,'' Helton said of another season of dominant pitching. ''All the pitchers we're referring to, most of them haven't even hit their prime yet.''

Like Helton's teammate, Ubaldo Jimenez.

The 27-year-old Jimenez threw a no-hitter in his third start last season and was 15-1 by the All-Star break. He wound up at 19-8, just missing becoming the first 20-game winner in the Rockies' 18-year history.

''I think we're going to have a lot of Year of the Pitchers,'' Jimenez said. ''As the years go by, I think we're going to get better every year. It seems like everything is working. There are better pitchers.''

Two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum agrees.

He sees pitchers accomplishing so much at a younger age because they are doing more to prepare early. He, for one, has worked harder on his conditioning regimen between starts after a career-worst five-start losing streak last August - a rare funk by The Freak.

The 26-year-old Lincecum broke into the majors in May 2007, less than a year after the Giants picked him 10th overall in the amateur draft out of Washington. He won 18 games and the first of his Cy Youngs a year later in his first full big league season. He's been an All-Star each of the past three years, too.

''Pitchers are evolving a little bit more. They've got four pitches they can throw for strikes nowadays and they're coming up younger and learning more quickly,'' said the San Francisco ace, already picked the opening day starter for the reigning World Series champions.

Braden and Brian Wilson, San Francisco's closer who led the majors with 48 saves last season, talk pitching nearly every day. They traveled the world together this winter.

These cycles in baseball aren't always easily explained, though they make for interesting conversation.

''For some reason in the game, in this little short window of time, it's become an age of the pitcher. And we've seen how powerful it can be in our case,'' Giants general manager Brian Sabean said.

San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy picked his next World Series winner on Day 1 of spring training this year - based on pitching. His call: Philadelphia, behind its stellar rotation of Cliff Lee, Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.

''I think everybody in the National League would tell you the road to the World Series has to go through Philadelphia, with the quality of their staff,'' Bochy said. ''Because of track record I think you would have to look at their staff as the best in baseball.''

San Francisco beat those favored Phillies - minus Lee - in the NL championship series last season. Then the Giants took out Lee and the Texas Rangers for the franchise's first title since moving West in 1958 and first overall since '54.

So, everybody realizes anything can happen.

''That's the crazy thing about baseball,'' said Giants catcher and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey. ''It very well could be the Year of the Pitcher, or it could be the Year of the Hitter. You never know. It's constantly changing.''

Jason Giambi has watched enough things turn during 16 seasons in the majors he is convinced hitters will come around in due time.

''It's exciting when the game is cycled to see all these young pitchers come up. It's a lot of fun,'' the veteran Rockies slugger said. ''There are a lot in the minor leagues. It's going to turn back around, too.''

---

AP Baseball Writers Joe Kay and Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.

Tagged: Athletics, Phillies, Giants, Rockies, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Todd Helton, Cliff Lee, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum, Dallas Braden

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