Tuesday, December 10, 2013

One Fair Night in October: Harry Leroy Halladay, Christopher John Carpenter, and the Great Duel of Our Time

As it goes so often in the game of baseball, dominant pitching tends to be much like a fistful of matchsticks. New power arms present themselves as a long-lasting sources of heat, but inevitably flame out twice as fast as they came. There are exceptions, however. In the mid-nineteen-nineties, the Toronto Blue Jays drafted a pair of right-handed pitchers straight out of high school. In 1993, it was Chris Carpenter. Two years later, Roy Halladay would join the Toronto organization. While fate would draw both men from their Canadian beginnings to separate ends, the friendship that was planted as Blue Jays grew through the years. As both men announced their retirement this offseason, their remarkably impressive careers are presented as Hall of Fame applications. Though the many awards and accomplishments will come to define their careers, it was one cool night in early October 2011 that will linger on long after the bronze has tarnished.

Two nights prior, the St. Louis Cardinals had survived. They had forced a decisive game five of the 2011 National League Division Series. Their opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies, were already a perennial playoff contender. After falling to the New York Yankees in the 2009 World Series, the Phillies had acquired Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays in hopes of retaining their National League dominance. The Cardinals had not fared as well of late. Since their World Series victory in 2006, the redbirds had only reached the postseason once, where they were swept away by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Atop their pitching rotation was Chris Carpenter, the eventual ace St. Louis signed following the 2002 season. Carpenter had a rocky career in Toronto, but the change of scenery turned out to be a catalyst. Halladay's time as a Blue Jay was much more successful. He was a Cy Young Award winner, six-time all-star, and regularly led the league in complete games. The match was set. Game five's pitching match-up would pit Halladay and Carpenter against each other for the first time in their long careers.

For the final game, the series shifted back to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Halladay would take the mound first. He was a relative novice to the playoff atmosphere, unlike many of his Phillies teammates. Perhaps it was the magnitude and hype that dropped Halladay into a two ball, one strike count. His next pitch transformed into a triple for leadoff man Rafael Furcal. Skip Schumaker battled for ten pitches before doubling-in Furcal to give the Cardinals a no-out, one-run lead. The inning would prove rather difficult for Halladay, but after forcing a groundout to end the rally, he settled into the typical groove.

As for Carpenter, he was already in true ace form. The one moment of doubt came in the fourth inning. With men on first and third, Carpenter delivered a full-count, eighty-seven miles per hour cutter. The batter, Raul Ibanez, lofted a high, fly ball to right which ignited the home crowd. In the blink of an eye, the Phillies were looking like they could take a two-run lead. The ball fell just short, however, as its path trailed down in front of the right field fence and into the glove of Lance Berkman. The rally was over. The inning was over. The Cardinals still led one to nothing.

Inning after inning of marksmanship and craft only heightened the tension. As it was in their individual careers, Halladay shined in the strikeout count, besting Carpenter seven to three. Halladay was almost universally lauded as his generation's finest pitcher, whereas Carpenter amassed an almost-equally impressive resume to less fanfare. Despite the statistical supremacy, the reason both men played the game was to win. The supreme goal, of course, is to win the World Series. As the game moved to the top of the eighth, Chris Carpenter stepped into the box against his friend for the last time that night. In each previous at-bat facing each other, the pitcher handily won. Yet in a moment that both men will likely remember for the rest of their lives, that pattern changed. Carpenter lined to center fielder Shane Victorino. A coy smile was sent from first base to the mound.

The bases would be full with one out. The Cardinals were threatening more damage even as power-hitting Lance Berkman foul-tipped a third strike to make the second out. Still, Philadelphia was not out of the inning. Matt Holliday was yet another heavy bat in St. Louis's dangerous lineup. While the Philles had yet to score, they still had six outs to overcome a one-run deficit. Four runs, however, would be fatal. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Halladay sent curvball over the plate. It was quickly returned to deep left field, but would collapse into the glove of Ibanez. The capacity crowd roared. There was a chance. Halladay was to bat in the bottom half of the inning. The strategy of the contest forced him from the game. As he walked into the home dugout, Halladay's night was over. He had thrown one hundred twenty-six pitches and given up only one run to one of the most potent offenses in the game. The only problem- his team had yet to score. They would not cross the plate in the eighth inning, either.

Carpenter walked to the mound having tossed one hundred two pitches. There was gas left in the proverbial tank, but not much. He had set down the side in order four times, and made quick work of Chase Utley after forcing a first-pitch flyout. Hunter Pence would meet a his fate on a ground ball to third. There was one out left between the St. Louis Cardinals and the National League Championship Series. On a two strike, two ball pitch to Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard, Carpenter chose his curveball. Howard knocked the pitch on the ground to second baseman Nick Punto. The game was over. The duel was done. The Cardinals had won. Carpenter's teammates mobbed him near first base, tearing the pitcher's jersey in celebration.

Later that month, the St. Louis Cardinals would go on to win one of the most exciting World Series in recent memory. The Phillies run as a premier contender had come to an end. Halladay and Carpenter fell off as well. Roy would lose his effectiveness as he took a steep decline in production. Chris would be felled by nerve damage in his neck and shoulder. He would only see three starts in his final two seasons in the majors.

Their careers were entwined from the beginning. Now, they end together. Two friends, bound by their craft and love for pitching, exit the game with the respect of their peers and the baseball world. Regardless if neither or both men make baseball's Hall of Fame, they will both be remembered fondly as top pitchers of their generation. Each pitcher has a laundry list of relevant achievements in their careers, but one night in October proved they were more than flashes in the proverbial pan. Halladay and Carpenter walk away as true aces. They are the matches burning down to the fingertips.

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