Tony La Russa doesnt concern himself with storylines. If he did, he would have chosen New York Mets knuckleballing sensation R.A. Dickey to start the All-Star Game.
Instead, La Russa picked San Franciscos Matt Cain as the National League starter and created a different theme to the pitching matchup for tonights All-Star Game (MLB on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET). The subplot cant compare with Dickeys discourse on the human condition, but it is a baseball purists delight: Cain vs. Detroits Justin Verlander, a collision of two avatars for the current era of pitching dominance.
Verlander, 29, and Cain, 27, both debuted in 2005 and have collected a careers worth of accolades before their 30th birthdays. Verlander has thrown two no-hitters but remains barred at the door of the velvet-rope-lined Perfect Club. Cain earned his membership card June 13, with the 22nd perfect game in major-league history.
Cain and Verlander have never pitched in the same game spring training, regular season, even prior All-Star Games which makes their encounter all the more noteworthy.
For each, the All-Star starting assignment is one more certificate toward consideration as the Best Pitcher of the Millennial Generation a distinction that remains undecided as of this moment and is likely to remain as such for several more years.
CC Sabathia, 31, has the most wins of any active pitcher 32 or younger he has 185, and no one else is even close but we may need to convene a panel of baseball sociologists to determine whether he belongs in Gen Y. Sabathia debuted at age 20 in 2001 and is almost a category unto himself. CC is indisputably on a Cooperstown track. But hes never started an All-Star Game.
Verlander has done just about everything else, shy of pitching his Detroit Tigers to a world title. He has achieved a personal Triple Crown of awards Rookie of the Year (2006), Cy Young (2011) and MVP (2011) as well as the actual pitching Triple Crown last year, when he led the American League in wins, ERA, strikeouts and innings.
Verlander has never been shy about setting goals, speaking candidly about his desire for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame and eyeballing his idol Nolan Ryans record of seven no-hitters. But he told me Monday that an All-Star start hadnt been on his wish list until recently.
It wasnt, really, Verlander said. Obviously, it was something I dreamt of. But usually when you think of things you want to do throughout your career, those are things that happen on the field for your team. So, I just never really thought about it. But now that its come to fruition, I cant believe I hadnt thought of it before. This is obviously a great honor. To be honest, I cant tell you how excited I am. Im really honored and humbled and excited.
After flashbulbs pop around Kauffman Stadium on Verlanders first pitch to leadoff man Carlos Gonzalez, eyes around the ballpark (and inside living rooms) will immediately turn to the radar gun reading. Verlander has been known to fire 100 mile-per-hour fastballs, but usually in the late innings. He generally cruises around 92 or 93 early in the game. But for an outing that might last only two innings in total, Verlander expects to crank up his velocity much earlier than usual.
Theres a good bet, he said, grinning. Im going to be pretty excited to go out there. I know Im not trying to pitch nine innings. I dont think theres any point in really trying to hold anything back.
Verlander has pitched often at Kauffman Stadium (the Royals are a divisional opponent), and hes fared very well there: His lifetime ERA of 1.83 is his best in any ballpark where hes made at least four starts. One difference for this start is Verlander plans to deviate from his normal routine of wearing headphones (and a functional scowl) in the clubhouse beforehand a habit that has allowed him to narrow his focus in recent years, with great success.
Youve got to treat this a little differently, he said. You dont want to shut off the world in an experience like this.
Cain has shown his ability to close off potential distractions when the stakes are highest: He did it in the 2010 postseason, when he didnt allow an earned run in three starts. He did it last month, as he closed in on history against the Houston Astros. Cain hopes those experiences will help tonight.
Itll be a little different, going out there to throw two innings, he said. You dont have to pace yourself. Hopefully thats going to benefit me, going out there and taking the mentality of throwing well and worrying (only) about what I need to do.
Verlander said he sat down and watched the end of Cains perfect game, taking note of the incredible poise he had. Cains wife, Chelsea, attended Mondays All-Star Game news conference, and she smiled when I asked her whether theres anything that seems to rattle her husband. Honestly, no, she said. Hes so even-keeled all the time. He always keeps his composure. Hes always very humble.
Cain and Verlander are excellent golfers, but beyond that seem to have little in common other than superior right arms. Cain grew up in Tennessee, Verlander in Virginia. Verlander has a quick wit and easy charm, along with nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter (@JustinVerlander). Cain doesnt tweet; Chelsea figures he never will, although Cains agent, Landon Williams, is working on him. Cain is more reserved and would rather read stories to the couples daughter than send his musings into cyberspace.
Tonight, they will share a mound. By the time the 83rd All-Star Game is over, perhaps one (or both) will have yet another night worth remembering. Its never too early to burnish a legacy.