By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The 'Year of the Pitcher' could see a crowning moment on Saturday when the Philadelphia Phillies and visiting San Francisco Giants open their NL Championship Series with Roy Halladay dueling Tim Lincecum.
Philadelphia's "Doc" Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy Young winner and favorite to win this season's National League award, made an extraordinary playoff debut by throwing a no-hitter against Cincinnati to launch a sweep of their NL Division Series.
The rail-thin, long-haired Lincecum, nicknamed "The Freak" and winner of the last two NL Cy Young awards, pitched his maiden post-season game the next night, striking out 14 and allowing just two hits in a shutout of the Atlanta Braves.
Now "Doc" and "The Freak" will set the tone for a best-of-seven showdown that features two of the most imposing starting rotations to face off in post-season play.
Lined up for San Francisco after Lincecum (16-10) will be Matt Cain (13-11) and Jonathan Sanchez (13-9), who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his outing against Atlanta.
"This might be the best three pitching match-ups the world has ever seen," said Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff after clinching the NLDS. "It's going to be fun to watch."
The powerhouse Phillies are rated a big favorite as they try to become the first team to win the NL pennant and reach the World Series three years in a row since Stan Musial and the 1942-44 St Louis Cardinals.
This season, beset by injuries that landed six regulars in the lineup on the disabled list, the offensive-minded Phils have been transformed into a formidable pitching power.
First came the pre-season trade for Halladay from Toronto and then a midseason deal with Houston that brought Oswalt.
There is still power and speed in the lineup from Shane Victorino near the top of the order and slugging Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth in the middle, but the questionable fitness of shortstop Jimmy Rollins has kept them from going full-tilt.
The Giants, one of baseball's most successful teams dating back to their roots in New York, have won 20 NL pennants but have returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and are looking for their first World Series crown since 1954.
For the Phillies, it has been a wondrous turnaround.
The Giants have had trouble scoring to back their stellar pitching, but they have added quick-strike ability with home run power from recent imports Huff, Cody Ross and former Phillies outfielder Pat Burrell.
Burrell, a regular on Philadelphia's 2008 World Series winners, belted 18 homers and drove in 51 runs in 96 games after joining the Giants following his release by Tampa Bay.
"The Phillies are tough," said Burrell. "You don't get to the World Series two years in a row unless you're good, and they know they're good. So we'll see how it goes.
"Obviously, we'll probably be the underdog. We'll go in there and give it our best shot."
(Editing by Rex Gowar)