Youthful maturity on tap for Game 3

Youthful maturity to be on display in Game 3

CHICAGO -- This AL Championship Series remains too close to call, but then again, it is so close that it must be enjoyed.

The Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have traveled from the windswept shores of Lake Michigan to the sunny climes of Southern California. But the business of spotting the eventual winner won't get appreciably easier, at least until the completion of the inevitably pivotal Game 3 Friday night.

The Series will next turn on the performance of two young right-handers, both coming off breakthrough seasons. Good luck finding the clear edge here.

John Lackey, 26, was 14-5 with a 3.44 ERA for the Angels. Jon Garland, 26, was 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA for the White Sox.

These are both pitchers of whom much was expected. Lackey started particularly fast, in 2002 becoming the first rookie since 1909 to win Game 7 of a World Series. It's tough to come up with a suitable encore, and maybe Lackey didn't completely find his until this season.

Garland was a 1997 first-round draft choice (by the Cubs), was highly touted and was perhaps rushed to the Majors, reaching the big leagues in 2000, before age 21. In the three seasons before this one, he won 12 games each year and was the picture of both promise and inconsistency. But now the promise has turned to performance.

In both cases, these vast improvements were brought by what everyone agrees was maturity. Lackey stopped trying to overpower everybody with his impressive fastball and got a better feel and command of his offspeed pitches. Garland improved his command, threw more strikes, pitched more efficiently, and thus was able to keep his impressive stuff deeper into starts.

What caused the maturing process?

"I would just say experience," Lackey said. "I think more so understanding my pitches, understanding when to throw certain things and understanding game situations better, I think is what I've matured at the most, understanding that there could be one or two spots in a game that can mean a game, and you've really got to lock in and make pitches in those situations."

It's a subtle thing that happens with a pitcher, often without a one-size-fits-all explanation. When White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper was asked Wednesday about Garland's improvement, his answer pretty much covered the history of pitching. But at the center of it was the same notion.

"Experience, more time, you know, I look at things as a process," Cooper said. "It started for Jon when he got to the big leagues. A lot of high expectations were put on him. At one time he was the youngest Major League pitcher. Some of the (expectations) were unfair.

"I thought there were some immature things that he might have said or done. That was a couple of years ago. But we talked about all that stuff and I think time, experience, just running out there in the games, you know, what he gave us is a big improvement from the 12 he won the last two or three years.

"Now he's ready. Now he's matured, worked on some things, working quicker, attacking the hitters, throwing strikes, ground balls, dictating everything, fielding his position. It took time, but I think the package has come together."

Garland is on the very same page with his pitching coach. What does being a "mature" pitcher mean to him?

"More experience, more time in the league, just more innings, just the chance to be out there on the mound and playing in the Major Leagues," he said Thursday.

There are, of course, more questions about Garland than Lackey, because Lackey has been here before, deep in the postseason. The other issue with Garland is that, because the Sox swept the Division Series, his scheduled start in Game 4 never occurred. He has not pitched since Oct. 1. Will he be too rested, will his arm be too strong, taking away the necessary movement from his bread-and-butter pitch, the sinker? We can all only stay tuned.

This ALCS has featured two one-run games and a great big dispute over a critical call by an umpire. Now it moves to a Game 3 featuring starting pitchers with similarly large talents, vastly improved records and even maturation that is occurring at roughly the same time. This is how these things are supposed to play out, substituting drama and unexpected developments for predictability and convention.

Mike Bauman is the national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.