- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2011

PHOENIX (AP) - Dallas Braden is never one to be bashful: The Oakland lefty is certain the Year of the Pitcher can carry on through 2011 and beyond.

And he’s not the only one.

From a pair of perfect games only 20 days apart to four other no-hitters and one gem that should have been, all the spectacular performances in the Year of the Pitcher last season hardly could have been expected.

Can baseball fans possibly expect to witness yet another season of extraordinary outings from pitchers across the league? Oh yes, say many players and managers. Make it years, plural, if you ask Braden.

“I think it’s the era of the pitcher,” said Braden, who threw one of the two perfect games with a Mother’s Day masterpiece against the Rays on May 9. “The era of the asterisk is beyond us. Now, the playing field is equal on both sides. It’s a lot more about talent than it is about raw tools anymore.”

With steroids and performance-enhancing drugs no longer in the forefront, Braden insists pitchers can take the mound without the worry of juiced-up sluggers stepping into the batter’s box.

Dusty Baker notices a difference.

“There was a while during expansion when they were saying it was diluted, and then _ I don’t know if there was a conscientious effort by parents or whatever it was _ it seemed like everybody started pitching,” the Cincinnati manager said. “And now there’s good pitching in quite a few places. Plus, in the post-steroid era here, it’s gone back to pitching and speed and defense and fundamental play.”

Phillies ace Roy Halladay pitched a perfect game May 29 at Florida only 20 days after Braden did so, then threw a no-no against Baker’s Reds in the first round of the playoffs.

And Armando Galarraga, now with Arizona, would have tossed a perfect game for the Tigers against Cleveland last June had umpire Jim Joyce not blown a call at first base.

Braden’s perfecto was the first for his franchise since Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter threw one for the Athletics in 1968, the last “Year of the Pitcher.” There were five individual no-hitters that season, when the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson led the majors with a 1.12 ERA, Detroit’s Denny McLain became a 31-game winner, and Don Drysdale threw six straight shutouts for the Dodgers.

These days, many relievers throw heat.

“I remember saying throughout the season, ‘Where is the guy who throws 87 with a sinker who used to come out of the pen?’ Even long guys are throwing 97,” Colorado Rockies star Todd Helton said.

“The game’s kind of gone back to the way it was in the ‘80s _ pitching and defense,” new Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said. “Teams now are focusing more on their bullpen and the importance of a bullpen in having a successful franchise. To me, you can’t win without (pitching). It’s paramount. If you don’t have it you’re going to have a very difficult time.”

After that spectacular ‘68 season by pitchers, Major League Baseball’s Rules Committee lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and shrunk the strike zone to its pre-1963 level _ from the batter’s armpits to the top of his knees.

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