America loves underdogs

Just not enough to watch them play. Too bad, because the baseball teams that are still alive are a stone gas.

Topics: Baseball,

“The country wants to see the poor teams win and play,” outfielder Torii Hunter said Monday about the American League Championship Series between his Minnesota Twins and the Anaheim Angels.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. As any television executive will tell you if he’s not too busy leaping out his window because no East Coast team survived the first round of the playoffs, the country wants to see the New York Yankees play Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and maybe those twins on the beer commercials.

But I think we can appreciate Hunter’s enthusiasm. The extremely casual fans, the ones who make the difference between good and great ratings, will stay away, but they’ll be missing something. For those of us who pay attention to baseball even in months that don’t end in “er,” the two League Championship Series, which begin Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT with Game 1 of the ALCS in Minneapolis, are pretty intriguing, pretty fun. You’ve got a pair of lovable upstarts in the American League, and two scorching teams with compelling stories in the National.

The San Francisco Giants, who have spent significant stretches of their 45 years on the West Coast, including the last half-dozen or so, kind of hanging around in contention without winning anything, beat the Atlanta Braves in a tense, exciting Game 5 in Atlanta Monday to win their first-round National League series. That earned them a date with the St. Louis Cardinals in an NLCS (beginning Wednesday in St. Louis) that neatly matches the two hottest teams in the league, both of whom think of themselves as being on a mission. The Cards swept the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks in their first-round series.

Hunter’s right that America loves an underdog, even if it won’t tune in to watch one. Minnesota and Anaheim certainly qualify. The Twins survived Bud Selig’s hatchet and years of small-market, ugly-domed-stadium, lousy-team misery. The Angels survived a 6-14 start, not to mention their own eons of incompetence. All they did was rise up and beat, respectively, the Oakland A’s, who set an American League record by winning 20 straight games late in the season and who had a seemingly unbeatable trio of starting pitchers, and the New York Yankees, who are the New York Yankees, or at least they were until they went down meekly in four games.

The Angels and Twins are similar clubs. They’re both scrappy, aggressive teams that beat you with hustle, defense, good bullpens and no small measure of smoke and mirrors. Shaky starting pitching on both sides — the Angels’ ace, Jarrod Washburn, doesn’t go until Game 3, and the Twins’ ace … is Rick Reed! — should mean exciting, high-scoring affairs like the ones the Angels and Yankees played in the first round, when the two teams averaged 14 runs a game. Hunter and the Angels’ Darin Erstad, two of the game’s most spectacular center fielders, will make spectacular plays. The Fox announcers will gurgle and coo over the Angels’ overrated little person shortstop, David Eckstein, and the Metrodome will be very loud and very ugly.

The Twins have home-field advantage, and it’s a huge advantage. They were 54-27 at home this year, and they’ve only lost twice in 14 playoff games at the Dome since 1987. On the other hand, they beat the A’s by winning twice in Oakland.

Prediction? This thing will go seven games and you’ll be in love with both of these teams in spite of yourself by the end of it. The Twins, damndest thing, will win, and the key, mark my words, kids, will be Angels manager Mike Scioscia making the mistake he made in Game 1 against the Yankees, when he managed an October game like it was an August game and refused to bring in his closer, Troy Percival, in the eighth inning with the game on the line.

It’s a shame Denny Hocking won’t be around for this series. The Twins’ scrappy utility infielder, who’s a quote machine and a sort of East Side Kid even though he’s from California, injured a finger on his throwing hand in the postgame celebration pileup after the Twins beat the A’s. I feel like there’s a joke in there somewhere but I just can’t find it.

Over in the National League, the Cardinals believe they’re a team of destiny, that they’ve come through the horrific trial of losing Darryl Kile and they’re stronger for it, closer, better. They’ve written “DK” and “57″ on their caps, hung the late, great curveballer’s jersey in the dugout and taken the field feeling invincible.

Meanwhile the Giants are out there to win one for their skipper, Dusty Baker, who until Monday had not even a single postseason series win to show for 10 years of being widely thought of as the best players’ manager in the game, and who had survived a bout with prostate cancer in the offseason, only to get a boorish, thinly veiled “win or else” ultimatum from team management before the walk year of his contract.

All of which means exactly nothing. It’s nice to think that the spirit of a dear departed teammate can carry a team to victory, or that a club rallying behind its beloved, embattled manager can’t be beaten, but it’s just not true. If it were, well, nobody’d lose the NLCS this year, of course, but also last year’s Yankees, carrying the banner of all those 9/11 victims, would have won, as they would have in 1979, when they lost Thurman Munson in a plane crash.

It reminds me of my second favorite boxing joke (after the one about selling advertising on the bottom of a guy’s shoes), in which a boxer asks his priest if it would help him win if he prayed before a match. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” the priest says, “but it’s also a good idea if you can fight a little.”

The teams that win in the postseason are the ones that get good outings from their pitchers and big hits from their hitters, not the ones that really really truly ooly believe.

Since I’m always calling attention to my bad predictions, I get to gloat a little for not only picking the Giants over the Braves in five games, but for saying before Game 5 that Barry Bonds would be the catalyst, which he was, scoring the Giants’ first run and homering for the second, which was the eventual winner.

I also want you to notice how my argument that Bonds should hit leadoff was beautifully bolstered by Game 5: Bonds leads off the second inning. He singles and comes around to score. 1-0. He leads off the fourth inning. Home run. 2-0.

So who wins the NLCS? Boy, tough one. Except for Matt Morris of the Cards, who’ll start Game 1 Wednesday, neither team has dominant starters, though both have starters capable of dominating. The Cardinals have Woody Williams, back from a nagging side injury, and aging strikeout artist Chuck Finley, and their best pitcher in the second half was not-very-durable Andy Benes.

The Giants have Livan Hernandez, who is often awful, but who turned in a gritty start in Game 4 against the Braves after tossing a two-hitter in his last regular-season start. And they have Jason Schmidt and Russ Ortiz, both of whom are capable of pitching very well, or not. Their Game 1 starter is Kirk Rueter, who’s one of those lefties who appears to be throwing slop up there but who, some years, including this one, gets a lot of people out.

The bullpens are comparably good, with Giants closer Robb Nen a shade more reliable than St. Louis’ Jason Isringhausen.

I think the difference is in the lineups. The Giants have Bonds, but they don’t have enough other hitters to make it worth anyone’s while to pitch to him, so his effect is muted. Jeff Kent is a slugger, and J.T. Snow is swinging a hot bat for the moment, though the last several years tells us that won’t last. But when you’ve got Benito Santiago (.765 OPS) hitting fifth, you’re not very formidable.

The Cardinals’ lineup, centered around Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols, is much better, even without Scott Rolen, who’ll likely miss the series with a sprained shoulder. If the St. Louis pitchers can resist the temptation to pitch to Bonds — the Atlanta pitchers couldn’t resist — the Cardinals should win.

Cards in six, but don’t hold me to it.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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