OK, so the American League Championship Series is going pretty much the way everyone expected so far.
Hideki Matsui drove in five runs, helping to chase Red Sox ace Curt Schilling from Game 1 after three innings, and Mike Mussina took an 8-0 lead and a perfect game into the seventh inning for the Yankees, but the Sox rallied for five runs in that inning and two in the eighth and had the tying run at third with two outs and Kevin Millar up.
Mariano Rivera came out of the bullpen to get Millar to pop up for the third out. Rivera had spent the morning in Panama at the funeral of two relatives who were killed in an accident at his home. He arrived at Yankee Stadium a half hour after the game started.
After he got Millar and was given two insurance runs by a Bernie Williams double in the bottom of the eighth, Rivera gave up two hits in the ninth and had to face 2003 batting champ Bill Mueller as the tying run with one out. He got Mueller to hit into a game-ending double-play.
Yeah, who didn't see all that coming?
Game 1 did give us what we expected in the sense that you didn't dare turn your back on it. It helped that when the game was 6-0 after three and then 8-0 after six Mussina was not only perfect, he was mowing down the Red Sox in such a fashion that a perfect game seemed at least possible, even if it's never exactly likely.
In the fourth inning he struck out the side looking, Johnny Damon, Mark Bellhorn and Manny Ramirez all going down with the weight of the bat on their shoulders. Mussina then fanned David Ortiz and Millar to start the fifth.
Damon, Bellhorn, Ramirez, Ortiz and Millar aren't exactly Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin, but they're pretty good. Damon, Ramirez and Ortiz are among the best hitters in the league, and there's a little more on the line in a playoff game than an All-Star Game.
But even without Mussina's dazzling performance this game would have been worth sticking with because, cliché warning, no lead is safe against the Red Sox. They don't exactly laugh at an 8-0 deficit, but they don't throw their hands up either. They know a lineup that's averaged 5.9 runs a game through the end of the divisional series will get its licks in, and it did. It only took the best October reliever in history to stop the scoring.
Now the Red Sox, having failed to get a win behind their big horse Schilling, will hope that Pedro Martinez can shake off the hex the Yankees have had him under lately. You may have noticed the "Who's your daddy?" chants Tuesday night, a reference to Martinez's comment about how the Yanks have his number lately. Those chants will be triple loud Wednesday, and there might be a few others that will make Fox wish for a five-second delay.
The Yankees' Game 2 starter is Jon Lieber, who turned in a solid start against the Twins last week, and last month took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Red Sox in a game the Yankees eventually won 14-4. If Lieber can duplicate that performance and Martinez doesn't turn in a vintage game, the Red Sox could be in serious trouble, down 2-0 heading back to Boston, and not knowing whether the ankle injury that obviously bothered Schilling Tuesday night will let him be a factor in this series -- a series the Sox were expecting Schilling to swing in their favor.
But that's the thing about a series like this. You never know what to expect.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
That other series: Astros vs. Cardinals [PERMALINK]
I hate to be part of the media effort to push the NLCS out of the spotlight, but it's hard not to think of the Astros vs. the Cardinals, starting Wednesday night in St. Louis, as that other series.
The Astros entered the playoffs the hottest team in baseball, having come out of nowhere in mid-August to go 36-10 and win the wild card. But they had to struggle to beat the Braves in five games in the division series, and that means they won't be able to get their two aces, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, to the mound until Games 3 and 4.
And what that means is the only way those two will combine for four starts is if the series goes seven games and both pitch on three days' rest, which has not been a formula for success. Brandon Backe and Pete Munro will take the ball in the first two games, and it's not likely that prospect has been keeping Albert Pujols and company awake at night. In games not started by Clemens or Oswalt this year, the Astros are 49-48, including one playoff game, but also including a whole bunch of games against teams not as good as the Cardinals.
The Redbirds, meanwhile, are looking like a juggernaut. They won 105 games despite coasting for the last few weeks of the season, and they steamrolled the Dodgers in the division series, pausing only long enough to be baffled in Game 3 by Jose Lima.
That four-game victory allowed the Cardinals to set up their starting pitching, not that it matters all that much who starts for them. For the record, it will be Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, in that order.
But unlike most clubs, the Cardinals are just about the same team no matter who's pitching. They're a little better behind Chris Carpenter, who's injured, and not quite as good behind Marquis. But they're formidable regardless, with the highest-scoring lineup in the league and a fine defense.
Not that the Astros are without hope, this being baseball, after all. They've still won 39 of their last 51 games, they've lost exactly one home game since Aug. 22, longtime playoff failures Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio played well against Atlanta, as did neo-Killer B's Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman, and the Astros beat the Cardinals 10-8 in the season series.
But don't go too far with that last factoid. The Astros won five of six from the Cardinals starting Sept. 14, at which point St. Louis had a 16 and a half game division lead with 20 games to go. During a three-game sweep in Houston the last week of the season, part of the Astros' mad dash for a playoff spot, the Cardinals' biggest worry was making sure ground balls didn't knock over their beers.
Prediction: Cardinals in five.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Baseball vs. debates: The readers write [PERMALINK]
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Wednesday night, the one night this week when not one but two playoff games are being played. Before the second debate Friday night, which was opposite Game 3 of the Twins-Yankees series, Salon editor David Talbot asked me if I agreed with him that baseball should have rescheduled postseason games around the debates. I said no, I didn't agree, and then threw the question out to readers.
You agreed with me by about a 7-1 ratio, but with the minority making some good arguments for baseball accommodating the debate schedule. Here's a sampling of the responses, weighted a bit toward those arguments, since I already represented the other side:
Phil Quinlan: Should baseball accommodate the debates? In a word: no. It's not as though the candidates and commission have knocked themselves out to draw the biggest possible audience. Whose idea was a Friday night debate?
Michael David Smith: I have no problem at all with baseball playing a playoff game at the same time as a presidential debate. And I'd have no problem at all with ESPN televising that game. I have a huge problem, though, with Fox televising the game. Fox is allowed to broadcast over the public airwaves because it supposedly does some public good to have Fox TV available to the public. I'd have no problem with Fox showing the game on one of its cable or satellite outlets, but Fox, UPN and the WB shouldn't be allowed to use the public airwaves if they won't show the debates.
Note from King: Friday's game was on ESPN. On Wednesday night, one of the games will be on Fox, the other on its cable affiliate FSN.
Neil E. Johnson: Why not combine the two? Each candidate could make a brief statement, then play an inning. I can see it now. Kerry could begin pitching right-handed, then left-handed, then right-handed, while Bush could throw towards the left-field corner and claim that this is where the real "axis of batting" is.
J. Brian Smith: If baseball were truly a private business entertainment venture, like a Broadway musical, it would be obvious that they are free to play whenever they want. But baseball owes something to the American people and the American government in particular, for that extremely profitable antitrust exemption they get.
Casey Wills: Can you imagine how it would appear if Bush or Kerry requested baseball move its schedule? They would appear like rude bullies. No. The politicians cannot make that request without risking alienating voters, and adding a few viewers isn't worth pissing off those same people.
Rachael Lemon: We're not talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates here. Nothing substantive or new will be revealed. I wouldn't reschedule a playoff game for what amounts to a joint press conference.
Steven W. Flanders: If people are basing their presidential choice on whether or not someone slips up and says he's never met his opponent before when he has or who looks "peevish," then they deserve another four years of the horror that is the current administration.
Dan Filowitz: I think perhaps some sort of compromise is in order. Let the two presidential candidates be the color commentators for the playoff games. We Americans could then pick which one we'd rather vote for based on which candidate is more interesting to listen to in between pitches. It'd be no more arbitrary than the usual "which guy you'd rather have a beer with" or "hey, I liked his Dad" logic a lot of people use to pick their candidate currently. And, really, could Kerry or Bush be any worse than Tim McCarver or Steve Lyons?
Brad Lehman: You raise a good question: Why should baseball have to suffer when other businesses don't? Here's my reason: unlike Loew's Theater, or my local playhouse, baseball has taken A LOT of public funding. Here in D.C., the government is about to pony up $450 million so that rich folks can grow their wealth. Other cities around the country have paid in the hundreds of millions as well for stadiums that basically only serve baseball. When a sport receives a billion dollars or more in subsidies, the private enterprise argument doesn't work as well for me. In some ways -- especially funding -- we recognize baseball as a public good (as baseball itself asks that we do). So, once every four years, it can sacrifice a few Nielsen points and act for the good of the public.
Previous column: Red Sox-Yanks preview
- - - - - - - - - - - -