When Brad Penny took the mound for the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night in his return to the National League after a disappointing stint in the American League, did anyone think his numbers wouldn't drastically improve?
It’s no secret that the AL is the superior league in Major League Baseball, with the NL serving as the junior varsity. Better pitchers, better hitters, deeper lineups and lights-out bullpens make for more competitive divisions, creating an all-around more dominating league from top to bottom. The AL hasn’t lost an All-Star Game in 13 years since 1996, and since the ’96 Midsummer Classic the league which uses a designated hitter has taken eight of the last 13 World Series.
Last summer when CC Sabathia went from defending his Cy Young award in the AL to actually becoming Cy Young in the NL, he was already a great pitcher just becoming better with a change of scenery.
When Cliff Lee took his '08 Cy Young and switched leagues last month, it wasn’t a surprise that he allowed just three earned runs in his first 40 innings against the watered-down competition. Moving to a place where the only time you see the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Rays, Rangers and Tigers is on TV highlights can only help your stats.
For NL enthusiasts, it's easy to defend the enhanced performances of Sabathia and Lee since they were both coming off Cy Young years in the AL and already considered to be in the top tier of starters in baseball. But how can someone defend the resurgence of John Smoltz’s 2009 season, and now the revitalization of Brad Penny’s ’09 campaign as well, without simply admitting that the NL can't hold a candle to the AL?
After two decades of pitching in the NL, a 42-year old Smoltz coming off shoulder surgery made a career move that will be the only black mark on his Hall of Fame resume. In an attempt to finally get that second World Series ring, Smoltz signed a one-year deal loaded with incentives to join the Red Sox rotation and bring his postseason pedigree to Boston.
But Smoltz's time turned out to be a disaster, as the Red Sox lost six of the eight games he started in the middle of a pennant race. In his eight starts for Boston, he failed to record a single quality start, giving up 37 earned runs in 40 innings and allowing five-plus earned runs six times. He was finally handed his walking papers when the Yankees swung and missed just twice on 92 pitches in a blowout that kicked off a four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox.
Smoltz saw the writing on the wall when he was designated for assignment the morning after the Yankees deprived him of his confidence and self-esteem, and even though AL teams were interested in trying to revitalize his career, it was obvious there was no place for a 42-year old AL rookie in the offensive-minded league. So Smoltz took his Cooperstown credentials to St. Louis, and if you didn't know any better, you would think it was 1996.
In two starts with the Cardinals, Smoltz has allowed one earned run over 11 innings, striking out 15 and walking one. More importantly, the Cardinals have won both games started by Smoltz as they continue to pour dirt on the Cubs' 2009 season. And the night of Aug. 6, when some thought his long walk from the Yankee Stadium mound to the Red Sox dugout would be the last time he would leave a major league mound, seems like a long time ago.
Penny, Smoltz's teammate for a little over a month in Boston, looked like the greatest return on investment (one year, $5 million) on Theo Epstein’s 2009 roster when he raced to a 5-1 record in his first nine starts with the Red Sox. When Penny shut out the Yankees for six innings on June 11, he looked like the stability the Red Sox needed in their rotation to win the division. But after that impressive no-decision against the Yankees, Penny went 2-6 over his next 12 starts, pitching to a 5.89 ERA, with his final performance in a Red Sox uniform coming against the same Yankees that showed Smoltz the door to his AL career.
Penny was out of the rotation, replaced by first-year pro Junichi Tazawa, and it didn't take long for the veteran right-hander to ask for his release from the Red Sox. Days later, he was back home in the NL West where he made a name for himself. Where pitchers hit and the only well-rounded, AL-like lineups are far and few between.
On Wednesday, Penny made his return to the NL, pitching eight shutout innings against the Phillies for his first win since July 24 and second win since June 17. Allowing just five hits and one walk in the outing, Penny was brilliant in making people wonder why he ever left the NL in the first place.
Smoltz and Penny couldn’t handle being adequate No. 5 starters in the AL and probably would have floundered in relief roles for the Red Sox as well. Now they are both pitching effectively for postseason contenders with a very real chance they could also make starts in October — an idea that was a pipe dream after their performances for the Red Sox.
But with the pitcher taking up a spot in the batting order in the NL and opposing pitchers having the chance to work around the No. 8 hitter, the seven-hitter lineups of the NL have given people reason to believe in Smoltz and Penny again and will also help them get paid this offseason.
Think about this: What if Roy Halladay had actually been dealt at the deadline?
Smoltz and Penny had trouble buying outs against the big bats of the AL, only to become unhittable against the shorter lineups with less depth. Halladay is widely viewed as the best pitcher on the planet with a .661 career winning percentage created only against the AL East. Can you imagine the numbers he would produce given the advantage Smoltz and Penny have been granted? Steve Nebraska ring a bell?
On Wednesday night in Los Angeles, Jim Thome made his debut with the Dodgers, in a new role he isn’t so used to: bench player. Thome sat in the dugout all night at Dodger Stadium, never getting a chance to step in the box and test the NL waters for the first time since 2005. And just three nights prior, he was hitting fifth for the White Sox as the regular designated hitter.
Next weekend at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Penny will face the Dodgers, his former club, for the first time since becoming a Giant. But he won’t have to face Thome and his 23 home runs this season and 564 career homers. Instead he will pitch to one of the Dodgers’ starters and will have the luxury of pitching around No. 8 hitter Orlando Hudson. And because of this, it’s likely Penny will pitch good enough to win for the Giants in the middle of a heated wild-card race. Something he was unable to do in the American League.
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