King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The underdogs start winning, but unlike the Red Sox, the Astros actually have a chance.


Salon Staff
October 18, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

That's more like it. Before the weekend I'd been hoping the underdogs would start winning games and they went out and won three out of four, with a rainout mixed in. One of the League Championship Series is even a series now.

The Astros did what they'd been hoping to do, winning two games started by their aces, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, to tie the NLCS with the Cardinals at two games apiece. On the American League side, the Red Sox, down 2-0, lost a disaster of a game to the Yankees Saturday, 19-8, effectively ending that series and handing the Yankees their 40th A.L. pennant.

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The Red Sox staved off the inevitable Sunday with about as entertaining a game as a five-hour game can be, David Ortiz giving them the 6-4 win on a home run in the 12th off of Paul Quantrill. The real news was that the Sox scored the tying run against Mariano Rivera in the ninth, the second blown save of the postseason for the Yankees closer, the same number he'd blown in his career before this year.

Carlos Beltran drew the Astros even with the Cardinals Sunday by hitting a game-winning home run in the seventh inning off of Julian Tavarez, who had allowed one home run in 77 regular-season innings this year, though he had also given one up in Game 1 of this series Wednesday.

Tavarez, who's a hothead, jumped up and down near the mound and shouted profanities after Beltran's homer had given Houston a 6-5 lead, but really, what's a guy to do? He threw a hell of a pitch, a nasty slider down and in that not many people would have touched. Fortunately for the Astros, Beltran's not playing like a mere person. He golfed the pitch off his shoe-tops over the right-field fence.

Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a guy. Even if your cap is filthy enough to earn you a 10-game suspension for having foreign substances on it, which happened to Tavarez this year. Hopping around probably feels better, though.

In the four games of this series Beltran is 7-for-13 with four home runs. In the nine playoff games so far, he's hitting .486 with eight home runs. His next homer -- scheduled for Monday night in Game 5 -- will set a new postseason record, with as many as nine games to play after Monday.

Beltran is a free agent after this season, and there's a lot of talk that his playoff display is really going to send his value through the roof, but is there anybody in baseball who didn't already know how good Carlos Beltran is?

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He's carrying the underdog flag in this series and if the Astros win two of the next three games he'll do the same in the Fall Classic, but Yankee haters should get ready to give him a new middle name that starts with F. The Yankees need a center fielder to replace the fading Bernie Williams, and Beltran has already said nice things about George Steinbrenner this year, admiring the way he puts a premium on winning.

That's an understandable sentiment from a guy who spent parts of seven seasons in Kansas City, but the point is that if Beltran isn't in pinstripes next spring, it would be a bigger upset than the Astros beating the Cardinals.

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Which is suddenly looking a little more likely than it was on Friday. The Astros got a solid outing from Clemens Saturday in a 5-2 win, then survived a gritty but shaky start from Oswalt Sunday. After losing the first two games on the road and winning the next two at home, the Astros now find themselves in a situation that, according to ESPN's Jayson Stark, results in a seven-game series win more often than not. Nine times out of the previous 15, to be specific.

And the Astros have lost exactly once in Houston, site of Game 5, since Aug. 22.

But they're still playing the Cardinals, the best team in the league. And they're starting Brandon Backe, who has pitched fewer than 150 innings in parts of three big-league seasons, against Woody Williams, a guy who since coming to St. Louis in 2001 has turned himself from a solid journeyman into the kind of pitcher a team likes to have starting a big playoff game.

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Those two started Game 1, which the Cardinals won after blowing open a 4-4 tie with a six-run sixth against the Astros' bullpen. Williams got the win, allowing four runs in six innings.

There's reason for optimism on both sides. I still think the Cardinals have too many horses, especially now that the Astros have to send ordinary starters out for at least the next two games. But where there's Carlos Beltran, there's hope.

If the NLCS is the Carlos Beltran show, the ALCS has been the Hideki Matsui show. Like Beltran, the Yankees left fielder is hitting .486 in the playoffs, with three home runs, six doubles and a triple in eight games. But most of that damage has come in this series. He's 11-for-20 with five doubles, a triple and two homers. That's a 1.200 slugging percentage and a 1.771 OPS. The Red Sox don't appear to have a clue how to get him out, and it's hard to imagine anybody else would either. He hasn't had a bad swing since the leaves turned.

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Pedro Martinez will try to do something with him on Monday, and he'll also try to keep the Red Sox, down 3-1, on the respirator long enough to get to the Bronx for Game 6.

Martinez pitched just well enough to lose in Game 2, and Friday's rainout, which pushed the middle three games of the series back a day, gave him a chance to start Game 5 on normal rest. Before the postponement, he had offered to pitch after three days off, a noble gesture but one unlikely to result in a well-pitched game.

The Red Sox also announced the good news that Curt Schilling, whose injured ankle made him look very much unlike Curt Schilling as he got shelled in Game 1, has had two good throwing sessions and will start Game 6 in New York Tuesday, if there is such a thing. So if the Red Sox can get wins behind their two aces, the way the Astros did Saturday and Sunday, it all comes down to a Game 7 Wednesday, and with the best offense in baseball, the Sox always have a chance.

Right.

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Anything can happen and that's why they play the games and all that, but this is a lot of whistling through the graveyard for Boston. You've probably heard that no baseball team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series, but it's even worse than that.

Only two of the previous 25 teams that fell behind 3-0 have even forced a sixth game. First was the 1998 Atlanta Braves, who managed to win Game 5 against the San Diego Padres. No offense to Quilvio Veras or anything, but the '98 Padres weren't exactly the '04 Yankees. The Braves, heavy favorites in that series after winning 106 games, went down in six.

The next year, the Mets did it to the Braves on Robin Ventura's famous grand-slam single in Game 5. They too lost in six, and to be fair the Red Sox are better than the '99 Mets.

The past doesn't determine the future, of course. Just because nobody's ever done it doesn't mean the Red Sox aren't going to do it. But they're not going to do it. The weakness of the Yankees coming into this series was supposed to be their starting pitching. But tell that to the guys who are scheduled to start the next two games for New York.

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Game 5 starter Mike Mussina took a perfect game into the seventh inning in Game 1 and left in that inning with an 8-3 lead. The Sox made that game close against the bullpen. Game 6 starter Jon Lieber pitched two-hit shutout ball through seven in Game 2 before giving up a leadoff single in the eighth and coming out. That runner eventually scored, but the Yanks won 3-1.

Some weakness. If the Yankees really do have a weakness, the Red Sox haven't found it in this series, and if they're going to, they'd better hurry up.

This column has been corrected since it was originally published.

Previous column: Astros, Sox in trouble

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