I can’t tell you who should win the American League Cy Young Award.
But I saw him pitch on Monday.
The New York Jets? The U.S. Open? Please. On this particular night, the best sports drama could be found at Tropicana Field, where professors CC Sabathia and David Price offered a master class for the ages. And whether they intended to or not, the southpaws clearly established themselves as the leading candidates for the top pitching honor in baseball.
Did I mention that first place in the AL East was at stake?
Just this once, let’s all sign a thank-you card for baseball’s schedule-makers. The event — in both entertainment value and sheer exhibition of skill — exceeded the advanced billing. Sabathia and Price dueled to an honorable draw, pitch by exacting pitch.
Both lasted eight innings. Neither allowed a run. Sabathia permitted one fewer baserunner. Price required five fewer pitches.
“A classic,” Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland admired. “That’s going to be talked about for a while.”
“This,” Price said, “was a postseason baseball game.”
Who was more impressive? Take your pick, although it was Price who could smile in the end. His Tampa Bay Rays beat Sabathia’s New York Yankees, 1-0, in 11 enthralling innings. After 3 hours, 29 minutes, the last man to bat (Reid Brignac) became the only one to score, as he walloped a Sergio Mitre changeup over the wall in right.
And where was Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez during all of this? In Seattle, with his last-place team, about as far away from meaningful baseball as a pitcher can get. (More on him later.)
So, now the Rays lead the Yankees by a half-game in baseball’s 5A division. Both teams are going to the playoffs, since the Sox (Red and White) are no longer credible wild-card threats. But make no mistake: This month, it counts.
As the Yankees demonstrated last year, home-field advantage in the AL playoffs is a privilege worth earning. Plus, ballplayers arrive at spring training intent on raising flags. The AL East banner is baseball’s answer to the European Cup.
But since the Rays and Yankees play six more times over the next nine days, we have plenty of time to assess their respective rosters. Let’s savor what we witnessed Monday, in the final Sabathia-Price encounter this year.
At least, until Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
The collective brilliance of Price and Sabathia chiseled their steely glares into this year’s pitching Rushmore. The rest of the country may not want to hear it, but the AL East is home to the best baseball on the planet. The pitches are sharper. The lineups are deeper. The money. The interest. It’s baseball to the nth degree.
Price and Sabathia are delivering when it counts, where it counts. Hernandez isn’t.
Plenty of wise, deep-thinking baseball observers believe that Hernandez deserves the Cy Young Award. He has the lowest ERA in the AL, along with the worst run support among full-season starters in either league. On a better team, with a more consistent offense, Hernandez would be much better than 11-11.
It’s a nice thought. Egalitarian, even. But it’s incredibly myopic to view Hernandez as the frontrunner largely on the basis of his ERA — even if it is 2.39.
There’s an award for a pitcher such as Hernandez. It’s called the ERA title. Not the Cy Young Award, as voted on by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
To be the best, one must do what Sabathia and Price have all season — compete against the best lineups, in postseason-type atmospheres, before crazed crowds at hitter-friendly ballparks.
“That’s one thing about those two,” Yankees bench coach Tony Pena said, after witnessing Monday’s display. “They are pitching under pressure, for two ballclubs that are trying to win the division. They are in a pennant race. They (the voters) need to take that into consideration. It’s totally different.
“I know this kid (Hernandez) is pitching really good. But those two guys know that every single pitch counts.”
The Mariners are regarded as a season-long shipwreck, but Hernandez did have a (brief) chance to help them remain respectable. Seattle was only a half-game back in the AL West at the end of April. But Hernandez lost on May 1 and finished the month 0-3 with a 4.79 ERA. He didn’t start dealing until the Mariners’ season was all but lost.
(That, by the way, is the major distinction between Hernandez and Zack Greinke, last year’s deserving winner. Greinke got off to a historic start and gave hope to Royals fans early in the season. He was more successful than Hernandez in the meaningful games.)
And it’s not as if Hernandez’s ERA is that much better than Price’s (2.75) or Sabathia’s (3.03), especially considering that Hernandez benefits from the moist Northwest air. Certainly, the ERA difference isn’t big enough to overlook the fact that Sabathia, currently sitting on 19 wins, is likely to reach 20 for the first time in his decorated career.
Sabathia wasn’t interested in handicapping the Cy Young race after his team’s loss. Price was more willing.
“CC,” Price said, when asked for his pick.
“He’s almost got 20 wins,” Price explained, adding later that he was “outpitched” by his friend because Sabathia allowed one fewer hit and had more strikeouts.
Fair enough. But Price has 17 victories — with as many as three starts to go.
Price said Monday’s start was his best ever against New York. Must be a great feeling — shutting down the defending World Series champs, high-fiving teammates who can smell the champagne, delivering for a raucous home crowd in September, knowing that the biggest ring is attainable.
Hernandez, for all his brilliance, can’t know what that’s like.