Cain vs. Verlander: Best of their era?

All-Star Game starters Matt Cain and Justin Verlander square off for early claim on who is the best pitcher of their generation.

Tony La Russa doesn’t concern himself with storylines. If he did, he would have chosen New York Mets’ knuckleballing sensation R.A. Dickey to start the All-Star Game.

Instead, La Russa picked San Francisco’s Matt Cain as the National League starter and created a different theme to the pitching matchup for tonight’s All-Star Game (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET). The subplot can’t compare with Dickey’s discourse on the human condition, but it is a baseball purist’s delight: Cain vs. Detroit’s Justin Verlander, a collision of two avatars for the current era of pitching dominance.

Verlander, 29, and Cain, 27, both debuted in 2005 and have collected a career’s worth of accolades before their 30th birthdays. Verlander has thrown two no-hitters but remains barred at the door of the velvet-rope-lined Perfect Club. Cain earned his membership card June 13, with the 22nd perfect game in major-league history.

Cain and Verlander have never pitched in the same game — spring training, regular season, even prior All-Star Games — which makes their encounter all the more noteworthy.

For each, the All-Star starting assignment is one more certificate toward consideration as the Best Pitcher of the Millennial Generation — a distinction that remains undecided as of this moment and is likely to remain as such for several more years.

CC Sabathia, 31, has the most wins of any active pitcher 32 or younger — he has 185, and no one else is even close — but we may need to convene a panel of baseball sociologists to determine whether he belongs in Gen Y. Sabathia debuted at age 20 in 2001 and is almost a category unto himself. CC is indisputably on a Cooperstown track. But he’s never started an All-Star Game.

Verlander has done just about everything else, shy of pitching his Detroit Tigers to a world title. He has achieved a personal Triple Crown of awards — Rookie of the Year (2006), Cy Young (2011) and MVP (2011) — as well as the actual pitching Triple Crown last year, when he led the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts and innings.

Verlander has never been shy about setting goals, speaking candidly about his desire for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame and eyeballing his idol Nolan Ryan’s record of seven no-hitters. But he told me Monday that an All-Star start hadn’t been on his wish list until recently.

“It wasn’t, really,” Verlander said. “Obviously, it was something I dreamt of. But usually when you think of things you want to do throughout your career, those are things that happen on the field for your team. So, I just never really thought about it. But now that it’s come to fruition, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. This is obviously a great honor. To be honest, I can’t tell you how excited I am. I’m really honored and humbled and excited.”

After flashbulbs pop around Kauffman Stadium on Verlander’s first pitch to leadoff man Carlos Gonzalez, eyes around the ballpark (and inside living rooms) will immediately turn to the radar gun reading. Verlander has been known to fire 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, but usually in the late innings. He generally cruises around 92 or 93 early in the game. But for an outing that might last only two innings in total, Verlander expects to crank up his velocity much earlier than usual.

“There’s a good bet,” he said, grinning. “I’m going to be pretty excited to go out there. I know I’m not trying to pitch nine innings. I don’t think there’s any point in really trying to hold anything back.”

Verlander has pitched often at Kauffman Stadium (the Royals are a divisional opponent), and he’s fared very well there: His lifetime ERA of 1.83 is his best in any ballpark where he’s made at least four starts. One difference for this start is Verlander plans to deviate from his normal routine of wearing headphones (and a functional scowl) in the clubhouse beforehand — a habit that has allowed him to narrow his focus in recent years, with great success.

“You’ve got to treat this a little differently,” he said. “You don’t want to shut off the world in an experience like this.”

Cain has shown his ability to close off potential distractions when the stakes are highest: He did it in the 2010 postseason, when he didn’t allow an earned run in three starts. He did it last month, as he closed in on history against the Houston Astros. Cain hopes those experiences will help tonight.

“It’ll be a little different, going out there to throw two innings,” he said. “You don’t have to pace yourself. Hopefully that’s going to benefit me, going out there and taking the mentality of throwing well and worrying (only) about what I need to do.”

Verlander said he sat down and watched the end of Cain’s perfect game, taking note of the “incredible poise” he had. Cain’s wife, Chelsea, attended Monday’s All-Star Game news conference, and she smiled when I asked her whether there’s anything that seems to rattle her husband. “Honestly, no,” she said. “He’s so even-keeled all the time. He always keeps his composure. He’s always very humble.”

Cain and Verlander are excellent golfers, but beyond that seem to have little in common other than superior right arms. Cain grew up in Tennessee, Verlander in Virginia. Verlander has a quick wit and easy charm, along with nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter (@JustinVerlander). Cain doesn’t tweet; Chelsea figures he never will, although Cain’s agent, Landon Williams, is working on him. Cain is more reserved and would rather read stories to the couple’s daughter than send his musings into cyberspace.

Tonight, they will share a mound. By the time the 83rd All-Star Game is over, perhaps one (or both) will have yet another night worth remembering. It’s never too early to burnish a legacy.

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