Spin Forward: Stellar pitching highlights NLCS

Spin Forward: Stellar pitching highlights NLCS

ATLANTA -- The Year of the Pitcher begets the Postseason Series of the Pitcher when the Phillies and Giants meet in the National League Championship Series, which begins Saturday at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

With each displaying stellar starters -- from two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the the Giants to 2010 NL Cy Young Award front-runner Roy Halladay -- these teams boasted two of the best pitching staffs in baseball this season, staffs that dominated their respective NL Division Series matchups.

But, then, to call this purely a pitching series would sell the Phillies' powerful offense short. With stars like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the lineup, the Phillies are as dangerous an offense as there is in the Senior Circuit, even if they didn't always show it in their NLDS sweep of the Reds. When healthy and rolling, the Phillies might be the best offensive team in the NL.

To which the Giants retort: Hey, how about our great pitching?

If this series were merely about swinging the bats, it might be a lopsided affair. The Giants have struggled to produce runs all year, and the Phillies ranked second in the NL in runs scored despite being without Utley and Jimmy Rollins for a good chunk of the season.

To be fair, the Giants' offense made up for some of their shortcomings with thrilling comebacks, clutch homers and gutsy performances like the one they displayed Monday night in rallying to beat the Braves in Game 4 to clinch the NLDS.

Even the Giants' hitters have to tip their caps to their own pitchers, knowing full well the Phillies will bring quite the mound presence themselves.

"It's going to be just like this series, I would imagine," said Giants Game 4 hero Cody Ross, who spent several years battling the Phillies in the NL East as a member of the Marlins. "Our pitching, I can't say enough about them. To only score a handful of runs and end up winning the series in four games, it just goes to show how good they are. Without them, we obviously wouldn't be where we are."

If pitching wins games, especially in the postseason, this matchup begins as a draw. The two teams split the season series evenly at 3-3, each winning two of three in its own home park, which bodes well for a tight series.

The pitching battle portends the same, especially considering the level of starting pitching.

Terrific trios
Comparison of the stats for the NLCS combatants' top three starters
Team IP H BB SO ERA
S.F. 629 517 233 613 3.22
Phi. 671 578 146 623 2.74
Each team showed off an impressive trio in the Division Series -- actually, both were more than impressive, they were downright historic. The day after Halladay posted only the second no-hitter in postseason history, Lincecum followed with a two-hit shutout of the Braves in Game 1 that included 14 strikeouts, a Giants postseason record.

But it didn't stop there, as Game 2 starters Roy Oswalt of the Phillies and Matt Cain of the Giants continued the mound dominance, and Game 3 starters Cole Hamels and Jonathan Sanchez delivered brilliance from the left side.

"Lincecum-Halladay, Cain-Oswalt, Sanchez-Hamels, I don't see how you could have three better matchups than that," said veteran Aubrey Huff.

Actually, the Giants got to show off one more excellent starter in lefty Madison Bumgarner, who pitched six strong innings vs. Atlanta in the clincher.

And then there's this: For all the issues the Giants had at times putting together runs, they managed to hang losses on all three of the Phillies' aces -- beating Halladay in April, Oswalt in May when he was with the Astros, and Hamels in their one win at Philadelphia in August.

The real X-factor in the series might actually be that Phillies offense, which when running on all cylinders is a challenge for any pitching staff. Howard wasn't particularly strong down the stretch, although he did post his fifth 30-homer, 100-RBI season. And in the NLDS, they were helped by Reds errors about as much as they helped themselves.

"Do I want us to score more runs? Of course," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel after the Reds series. "And we're definitely very capable of it. I look at it this way, I'm always positive. When we start, somebody is in trouble. That's how I look at it. We're going to start sooner or later and when we start getting 'em, we'll take care of things."

That could be tough to do against San Francisco. Although the Giants didn't face the most potent offenses in September, they posted a 1.78 ERA that month to lead the way to the NL West title, delivering six shutouts during the month.

None of the teams they faced were as dangerous as Philadelphia, but then the Phillies haven't been up against a staff like the Giants for a potential seven-game series, either.

All of which makes for another intriguing chapter in the final month of the Year of the Pitcher.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.