NL’s best pitcher may not be in Philly

The delivery comes straight out of a pitching coach’s handbook — closed front shoulder, explosive drive off the back leg, arm scaffolded into a perfect “L” followed by the whip-like action that’s turned fastballs into 94-mph weapons.

Good luck to anyone having to face the Marlins’ Josh Johnson, who just might be the National League’s best pitcher. That’s no small claim, considering he’d be wresting the title away from Roy Halladay and, to only a slightly lesser degree, Tim Lincecum.

Both right-handers have to-die-for credentials, including their four Cy Young Awards — and that’s not even counting Halladay’s perfect game against Florida in 2010 and his subsequent no-hitter against the Reds in the NL Division Series.

Halladay became the only perfect game pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the same season. If that isn’t supernatural work, what is? Yet, Johnson is crowding Halladay for stage space in 2011, dominating in breathtaking fashion.

Actually, Johnson isn’t just crushing hitters, he’s toying with them — the way a whale flips seals in the air before swallowing them whole. Johnson’s league-leading ERA of 0.88 is half of the closest runner-up, Dustin Mosely, who’s cruising along nicely with a 1.63 mark.

Halladay? He’s at a respectable 2.14, with Lincecum tied for 12th with a 2.93 mark. If there was such a thing as a one-month (or six-start) Cy Young it would belong to Johnson in a landslide. But it’s worth noting the Marlins’ ace led the NL in ERA last year while placing second in strikeout/walk ratio. He was also the toughest to hit a home run against — just one every 27 innings.

There’s one very obvious reason why Johnson is poison to hitters: He has four dependable pitches — fastball, slider, curveball and change — although opponents can be relatively sure of seeing that four-seamer throughout an at-bat.

Johnson throws his fastball 62 percent of the time, averaging 94 mph, then goes to Plan B, the slider, at 86 mph.

The killer component is Johnson’s height — at 6-foot-7 with a straight over-the-top delivery, he creates the illusion of throwing downhill, forcing hitters to change their eye level every time the ball leaves his hand.

“That’s why no one likes facing (Johnson), because he makes people uncomfortable,” said one National League talent evaluator. “On the days he has his good stuff, hitters know they’ll be lucky to get one good pitch to hit in an at-bat.”

Johnson’s profile differs from Halladay’s in two critical ways: While the Marlins’ righty is all about combustion and deadly force, the Phillies’ ace is a smoother blend of velocity and deception.

Halladay never offers a clue as to which of his five pitches he’s about to throw. “Everything looks the same out of his hand,” said the Mets’ David Wright. “One cuts, one sinks. He’s got a splitter, changeup that the bottom falls out of it. Very good curveball. You name it, he can throw it.”

One more thing that separates the two: Johnson’s fast start was partly fueled by weaker lineups. Three of the first four teams he faced (Mets, Nationals and Pirates) ranked in the NL’s second tier in run-production. But in his last appearance, Johnson shut out the Reds, the NL’s second-ranked offense, over seven innings.

Even though he had a no-decision in the Marlins’ eventual 4-3 loss, Johnson’s imprint was unmistakable: Cincinnati managed just two line drives in 28 trips to the plate.

There isn’t an executive from either league who doesn’t dream of prying the 27-year-old Johnson away from Florida, although no one has thought of a realistic way to actually engineer a trade.

“I can’t see (the Marlins) ever dealing him,” said one general manager. “There’s probably a better chance of getting (Felix) Hernandez (from the Mariners), and those odds are pretty slim, too.”

Of course, Johnson still has to prove he’s durable — he’s never thrown more than 209 innings in any one season. in that regard, Halladay, a classic workhorse, trumps him. But saying Johnson isn’t reliable is like pointing to a scratch on a Ferrari. Does it really matter?

THE JETER FILE

If it seems like we’re revisiting this ongoing saga, you’re right — there’s no end to the fascination with Derek Jeter’s career arc. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their captain continues to trend downward; at this rate it’s only a matter of time before Jeter is forced to relinquish his spot at the top of the lineup.

If batting seventh or eighth is all it’d take to re-ignite Jeter’s swing, the Yankees — and perhaps the shortstop himself — would consider it a favorable swap. But Jeter’s slump has been deep and prolonged, as his average since last June is a mere .255.

At 36, Jeter seems linked to another Yankee icon who flamed out at the precisely the same age — Joe DiMaggio in 1951. The great center fielder slugged all season to quicken his bat, including trading in his 37-ounce model for a 35-ounce version, then shaving the handles.

Nothing seemed to work, though, as DiMaggio finished with a .263 average, some 60 points below his career mark, together with career lows in slugging percentage and OPS. Joltin’ Joe had trouble identifying the slider, which was a relatively new pitch in the early ’50s, and was even more uncomfortable with fastballs that had never given him trouble throughout his 13-year career.

“I just don’t have it anymore,” DiMaggio said, announcing his retirement that winter. It’s worth noting that he turned down a $100,000 offer from the Yankees to play one more year. Jeter, however, is signed through 2013 for $51 million, so forget about early retirement.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Jeter’s legacy if his last three seasons are as soft and unproductive as 2011 has been so far. With only two extra base hits in his first 100 at-bats, the captain looks lost — or, worse, overmatched.

DiMaggio’s decision to walk away at the first sign of decay saved his reputation as the ultimate warrior. Jeter will be hard-pressed to do likewise.