Get Your Starting Pitching!
A World Series Preview
By Adam Hoff
I was all set to do another round of “Heroes and Goats,” figuring that the other billion writers and analysts would cover the World Series breakdown in fine fashion. However, given the way that everyone is cavalierly picking the White Sox to win it all, I felt the need to step in with a breakdown. In fact, my first three thoughts the minute the final out was recorded in the NLCS were 1) Roy Oswalt might be my favorite pitcher ever, 2) The World Series might be too close to call, and 3) That said, I just don’t see how you can bet against this Astros team. So you can imagine my surprise when I flipped around the TV and surfed the net, only to find that the South Siders had been cast as clear and obvious favorites. What? So here I am to offer another take. Besides, no one needs a heroes and goats breakdown for the LSC do they? Just in case, it looks like this:
Heroes – Any White Sox starting pitcher, Paul Konerko, Joe Crede, Ozzie Guillen, Scott Shields (in defeat), Roy Oswalt, the Houston bullpen (with the exception of one pitch, obviously), Lance Berkman, Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus (for his bat and his leadership), and Albert Pujols (also in defeat).
Goats – The ALCS umpiring crew (as consistently bad as any playoff crew I can ever remember), Vlad Guerrero and pretty much all of the other Angels hitters, Jim Edmonds (looked downright scared), Mark Mulder, and Reggie Sanders (for tackling himself).
Now lets get to the breakdown of the Sox and the Stros. The great thing about this series is there really isn’t a villain. No matter who wins, it is somebody new and someone that is going to put an end to years and years of misery. On top of that, both teams are gritty and relentless and resilient. The Sox nearly choked away a 15-game lead then casually collected themselves with a week to go and started playing their best baseball of the season (maybe ever?). Meanwhile the Stros are the ultimate model of resiliency. They lost the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes and rallied back behind young guys from their farm system. They started the year an incredible 15-30 … and rallied back. They were down 6-1 in Game Four of the NLDS in danger of going back to Atlanta. They rallied back. They suffered one of the worst losses I’ve ever seen on the Pujols home run. They rallied back. Throw in the comeback stories of guys like Pettitte and Ensberg and this team is the model for “never give up.”
Not only will these teams battle to the bitter end, they both have phenomenal pitching. Chicago just saw its starters throw four straight complete games in an ALCS. In this day and age, that is just unfathomable. It would be like an NBA player getting 25 rebounds in four straight playoff games or something; just a stat that belongs to an entirely different era. As for Houston, they merely have three of the ten best pitchers in all of baseball and a bullpen that went from “one man show” last year to “extremely solid unit” without anybody noticing. (Seriously, when did Qualls and Gallo and Wheeler become good? Where was I?)
All of this adds up to one heck of a series. It seems destined to go seven, although if it fails to go the distance, I think that will mean that the Sox pitching couldn’t replicate the feet and that it is Houston doing the winning. It also seems destined to be close every game. It seems destined to feature at least one game that will come down to a home run contest between Konerko and Berkman. I think we’ll see a 0-0 game go extra innings, a walkoff homerun, a tying run get thrown out at home, and a disputed call screw everything up (again). In short, I think we are in for an epic showdown.
Rather than go through a comparison of the two teams categorically, I’m running through the series game-by-game to arrive at a prediction.
Game One. If I am an Astros fan, the one thing that worries me more than anything right now is the status of Roger Clemens. Forget a potentially shell-shocked Lidge or whether the bottom of the order can hit .318 again, or any of that – the biggest issue facing the Astros is whether they can get two big time starts from their legendary starting pitcher. Clemens has had a great year, but let’s face it, the man is old. He has to be completely exhausted at this point. He struggled in his start against Atlanta and labored through his outing with St. Louis. His hamstring is obviously giving him problems. Beyond all that, he doesn’t seem completely locked in. His interview Wednesday night on ESPN was weird. He mentioned that his life had changed quite a bit and that “in spite of that, I’m still excited” about pitching the World Series. He sounded distracted and weary and pretty much over the whole thing. His mom died this year and its been a long season, so maybe he’s just fried. I’m not sure what is going on, but Houston needs the Clemens that snarls from the mound and throws bats at people, not the guy staring vacantly off to the right during live interviews.
That said, I think Clemens will deliver in Game One and that Houston will cruise. I am one of those people that think the long layoff will affect the Sox hitters and relievers. I also think that Contreras is due for a rough start. He’s been so good for so long that you can just feel a tough outing coming. Houston is a more patient team than Anaheim, so even though their offense isn’t that much better, it will present a new challenge to the Sox pitching staff. I think Clemens will give Houston a quality start, the Astros will get some early runs off of Contreras and some late runs off the pen and win a fairly boring game. Lidge closes it out to exercise any remaining demons from the Pujols blast. Houston 6-3.
Game Two. The Sox come alive here. Buehrle pitches another gem, the fans are electric, guys get on base … but Pettitte keeps getting out of jams. It’s tight, something like 2-1 heading into the eighth when Chad Qualls’ deal with the devil comes to an end and he gets taken deep by Jermaine Dye. Ozzie turns over a 4-2 lead to Bobby Jenks in the ninth and the youngster struggles. Houston loads the bases with one out, scores a run on an Ensberg sac fly, and brings Bagwell to the plate with the go-ahead run on second base. Ozzie has guys up in the pen but he stays with Jenks. It pays off and the world is deprived of the ultimate storybook ending to Game Two as Bagwell pops up. Ozzie is lauded by the press for “sticking with his guy,” a philosophy that won’t work out nearly as well later in the series. Chicago 4-3.
Game Three. Now it is Houston’s turn to strand runners. Jon Garland gets hit hard but keeps getting out of jams. Meanwhile, Oswalt is filthy as always, but he gives up a three-run blast and trails going into the seventh inning. Finally, Houston breaks through as Berkman delivers his first blast of the series and Ensberg follows up with some back-to-back action. They chase Garland and take a 4-3 lead into the eighth. You probably know what is coming. Wheeler gets an out, then walks Podsednik (who suddenly is drawing all kinds of walks, despite having an atrocious OBP the last few years). Scotty P steals second, but Iguchi pops up. Then Wheeler loses his control and walks Carl Everett, bring up big Pauly K. Garner taps his right arm and looks to the bullpen for Lights Out Lidge. The crowd half-cheers and half nervously holds its breath. Lidge gets ahead of Konerko with two quick sliders. He wastes a pitch. Then he tries to blow a fastball by him, but Konerko gets the bat on it, sending a hard ground ball between first and second. Brumlett dives but can’t glove it and the ball ricochets toward the foul line. Berkman pounces with startling agility, picks it up, and – knowing that Podsednik would try to score – throws a strike to the plate. It’s close … he’s out! Guillen goes ballistic, gets ejected, and leaves in a straight jacket. Replays show that Ausmus failed to block the plate and that Pods just barely got his foot in before the tag. Angels fans mutter, “See how it feels” under their breath and change the channel back to Laguna Beach. Game over. Houston 4-3.
Game Four. A couple of statements: 1) I love Brad Backe and think he is an absolute gamer, and 2) Freddie Garcia looked like he was going to die on the mound of Game Four in the ALCS. That said, Chicago has the clear advantage in this one. It is their turn to jump out to a lead and hold on over the course of a boring game. Chicago 7-2.
Game Five. Clemens-Contreras, Part II. I think Clemens has the will, but his body doesn’t provide the way. He pitches five gritty innings but leaves trailing 3-0. Contreras allows some baserunners, gets out of jams, but sees his pitch count go through the roof. By the seventh inning the Sox are clinging to a 3-2 lead and Contreras is actually leaning to the right his arm is so tired. Joe Buck nearly has a coronary while yelling about pitch counts in a tone that he normally reserves for Randy Moss fake-moon touchdown celebrations. Finally, with the bases loaded in the eighth inning and Contreras at 139 pitches, Ozzie gives in and summons Sox Public Enemy #1 Damaso Marte to pitch to Lance Berkman. The strategy is sound, going to the lefty to turn Lance around, but Berkman makes them pay with a ringing double to clear the bases. Brad Backe is seen worshiping a Berkman statue as the Houston crowd goes ballistic. Lidge is back to being Lights Out as he mows down the Sox in the top of the ninth. Houston 5-3.
Game Six. Here is the obligatory pitcher’s duel. Two fast-working lefties in Buehrle and Pettitte take us through eight shutout innings in record time. Tim McCarver mentions approximately 412 times that Buehrle also pitched in “that 0-0 ALCS game that ended with the crazy strikeout play.” With the Sox clinging to their dreams of a World Series title, Aaron Rowand hits a dramatic walkoff home run in the bottom of the 11th inning. The series continues on without a single team winning consecutive games. The Sox hope to change that in the finale. Chicago 1-0.
Game Seven. The White Sox have the momentum after the dramatic 1-0 win in Game Six. They have the home crowd “surging toward the field.” What they don’t have is Roy Oswalt. Does any of this sound familiar? This is the postseason when Oswalt goes from underrated to bona find star and cements his place in the history books. Mr. Filthy treats the Pale Hose hitters like a bunch of dogs and Jon Garland simply can’t match him. DH Jeff Bagwell delivers a huge two-out hit in the top of third inning to break things open and the Astros never look back. Houston 6-1.
Well, there you have it. The Sox are being made the favorite by the media, but I’ve got to roll with the Astros. They have overcome so much to get to this point that I can’t imagine them losing now. Another thing worth noting is that they are very similar to the 2001 Diamondbacks in the sense that they have the righty-lefty pair of dominant starters in Oswalt and Pettitte, the “just enough” style offense led by Biggio and Berkman (ala Womack and Gonzalez), and the astounding ability to shake off anything that comes their way. The only thing that saved Arizona in that ’01 World Series was the ability of Johnson and Schilling to completely negate the horrific Byung-Hyung Kim games in New York. No matter how much Yankee mystique was in the air, no matter how shell-shocked the D-Backs were, it didn’t matter because their starting pitchers for Game Six and Seven were just too good. The same sort of thing happened on Wednesday night in St. Louis. There was no way that Houston should have been able to get off the mat after what happened. But they had the best pitcher in the entire postseason on their team, so that was that. Furthermore, while the Diamondbacks were throwing out Miguel Batista as the third starter and reluctantly giving the ball to BK Kim out of the pen, the Astros are sending out Roger Clemens and Brad Lidge. Upgrade, you think? If anything, these Astros are better than that Arizona team, but the parallels are striking – all the way down to Hall of Fame pitchers making legendary relief appearances (Unit in Game Seven of the World Series, Clemens in The Chris Burke Game) and the “lovable stars try to finally get the ring” angle (Biggio and Bagwell as the counterparts to Unit, Schilling, and Mark Grace). It’s almost eerie.
Houston Astros in seven.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.