BOSTON — As the opening salvoes are loosed in Major League Baseball's 1999 playoffs this week, the focus is on a dizzying array of talented pitchers.
Baseball's conventional wisdom is that great pitching will beat great hitting. So it's perhaps no surprise that the National League's four playoff entrants rank among the top five in league pitching this year.
Behind the stats and clichs, though, spins a handful of post-season storylines as enticing as a hanging curve ball.
Can Houston, with its two 20-game winners, overcome playoff failures of the past two seasons?
Will the Atlanta Braves, which have boasted the best pitching staffs of the 1990s, win the World Series for only the second time this decade?
Can Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks - the two best pitchers in the game today - push their teams to the World Series?
Indeed, Martinez shines brightest in this year's galaxy of scintillating throwers. The wiry right-hander often has promised, "I will put my heart and soul into helping the Red Sox win."
Martinez had a record of 23-4 this season, best in baseball. He was also tops in baseball in earned-run average (ERA), a minuscule 2.07 runs allowed per nine innings and best in the American League in strikeouts with 313 - a stunning 113 more than the runner-up.
There is little doubt among experts that he is the most valuable player - not just pitcher - in the American League this year.
The Sox start their playoffs today against the Cleveland Indians. Largely because of Martinez, Boston has the best team pitching in the league, an ERA of 4.00.
That could be too much for the Indians to handle. Cleveland has Bartolo Colon anchoring things, but the rest of the starters sometimes raise eyebrows. Plus, the Indians' bullpen has been shaky of late.
In the other American League matchup, the Yankees are playing Texas. Somehow, the Yankees don't look like the invincible Yankees of last season.
They appear a trifle gray on the edges, a bit less cocky. Still, Orlando Hernandez is 17-9, and veteran David Cone keeps motoring, fourth in the league in strikeouts and second in ERA. And Mariano Rivera led the league in saves with 45. Former Boston ace Roger Clemens had a 14-10 year but an ERA of 4.60, causing some sideward glances.
Texas is the only poor pitching team in the playoffs, ranking 11th among the 14 clubs in the American League. After Aaron Sele, tied for second in the league with a 18-9 mark and third in strikeouts, its pitching - and therefore its hope for playoff success - is wildly suspect.
In the National League, Atlanta, first in the league in pitching, plays Houston, ranked third. Atlanta, for eons the poster team for pitching, boasts six players who won 10 or more games this season. Newest star is Kevin Millwood. Then there are Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. And more, including relievers.
It's hard to imagine a better pitching staff, although this is the first time since 1990 that no Brave has won 20 games.
But the Braves will have to deal with Houston pitcher Mike Hampton, who led the league with a 22-4 record. The Astros also boast Jose Lima, a newly minted all-star, who was 21-10.
Arizona, second in the league in pitching, takes on the sometimes good and sometimes rotten New York Mets. Above all, the Diamondbacks have Randy Johnson, the intimidating flame-thrower who led baseball with a whopping 364 strikeouts.
The Diamondbacks also boast solid pitching beyond Johnson, and the No. 3 hitting team in the league. That's a nice balance others can't match.
Arizona may be fortunate to play the Mets, which had to win a one-game playoff on Oct. 4 over Cincinnati to get into the playoffs as a wild card. New York, which lost seven in a row in late September, may well have spent itself emotionally.
Good news for Mets fans is the team, like Atlanta, has six pitchers with 10 wins or more, including Orel Hershiser. Bad news is nobody won more than 13. But included in the top group is Al Leiter, one of the best-ever big-game pitchers.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society