You can only keep the big bats of the St. Louis Cardinals down for so long, even if you throw a future Hall of Famer at them. The Houston Astros learned that in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series Thursday night when the Cards broke through against Roger Clemens in the sixth inning for the three-run rally that sent them to the World Series.
A run-scoring double by Albert Pujols tied a 2-1 game and a two-run homer by Scott Rolen put St. Louis ahead and hung the loss on Clemens.
The Boston Red Sox have two possible Hall of Famers to throw at the Cardinals, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, though neither is pitching at his best. They're likely to learn the same lesson.
The good news for the Sox: You can't keep their big bats down indefinitely either. Ask Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, last seen issuing gracious press releases congratulating Boston for its American League Championship Series win and summoning his underlings to Tampa for closed-door meetings with special assistant "Tiny" and his trusty rubber hose.
The Cardinals and Red Sox, the highest scoring teams in each league, begin the World Series Saturday night in Boston.
Baseball fans have a lot to be thankful for in yet another thrilling postseason. Both league championship series were seesaw affairs that went seven games, the ALCS going off the charts when the Red Sox became the first major league team ever to lose the first three games of a seven-game series and then win four straight.
The Cards, in a super-secret NLCS played under cover of the Red Sox and Yankees, won the first two against the Astros, lost three straight, then won the last two, not a historic comeback but one that in any other week would have at least been notable. Two of the division series were pretty good too, Yankees-Twins and Astros-Braves.
But is there any greater relief to anyone who isn't an Astros fan than not having to sit through nine days of nonsensical media prattling about how a Red Sox-Astros World Series is some kind of metaphor for the presidential race? The Red Sox and Astros are each from the home state of one of the candidates, you see. Thank the baseball gods that one didn't come to pass.
Instead stay tuned for a weeklong orgy of the story line of Red Sox as plucky, scrappy underdogs. This may have slipped by unnoticed, so I'll clue you in: The Red Sox haven't won the World Series since 1918, when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for three magic beans and a 78 recording of "Tea for Two."
They got off the deck to conquer their arch-nemeses, the Yankees, and now they must face the National League version of the Team They Just Can't Beat, the Cardinals, storied franchise and nine-time champions, against whom the Sox are winless in the Fall Classic.
Don't let yourself get carried away by any of this. Just as the Red Sox clubhouse -- a Republican oasis in Democratic Boston -- would have made a poor stand-in for John Kerry, the Sox don't exactly work as the poor little team that could.
No one's going to remember this, but the Sox were betting-line favorites to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, though even this column, knowing that, referred to them as underdogs because it just felt that way. How can you not be an underdog against the Yankees, who had the biggest payroll in baseball and the best record in the American League? When the Yankees sneeze, championships come out of their noses.
But the Red Sox have the second biggest payroll, half again more than the merely upper-middle-class Cardinals. If rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft, rooting for the Red Sox isn't totally unlike rooting for Oracle. And rooting for the Cardinals, of course, is pretty much rooting for Anheuser-Busch.
There aren't any plucky billionaires. Feel free to root for whoever you want, but don't kid yourself.
And that winless record against the Cardinals? They've had all of two cracks at them, in 1946, before any Red Sox player was born, and in 1967, before any of them were out of diapers, unless Schilling, Mike Timlin or Tim Wakefield, all born in '66, were early achievers.
On the field, though -- my gosh, are we going to talk baseball? -- the Red Sox are genuine underdogs. But not by much. Both the Red Sox and Cardinals slug and slug, and when it's all over someone's going to have slugged more. Good pitching can temper all that offense, but it can't really stop it for long.
Comparing a sporting event that isn't a heavyweight fight to a heavyweight fight is probably the most overused simile in sports, but this World Series is about as good a time to toss out that cliché as any. The Cardinals are the better team, but the Sox have a puncher's chance. Footwork and defense won't do it. The big blows will decide it.
For a series that's going to come down to which team can outslug the other, there's already an awful lot of talk about the pitchers. The Cardinals have their skeptics despite leading baseball with 105 wins because they don't have dominant starting pitching, and while it's unproven, it's widely believed that dominant starters are a necessity in the postseason.
The closest thing the Cardinals have to an ace, Chris Carpenter, who really isn't an ace, is injured, so they'll start with the next closest thing they have to an ace, Woody Williams. But it doesn't matter much. All year long, the Cardinals have been roughly the same team regardless of who pitches, which is unusual.
Most teams win behind their best pitchers and just get by behind the back of their rotation. That's why having a good back of the rotation, like the Cardinals do, is thought to be less important in October, when the top guys get more starts and the last guy goes to the bullpen.
But you can also make a good argument for just having four solid citizens on the mound, especially when your lineup goes Larry Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Jim Edmonds starting with the second spot in the order. Williams will be followed by Matt Morris, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan.
The Red Sox do have aces, Schilling and Martinez, and they'll start Games 2 and 3. Knuckleballer Wakefield gets the nod in Game 1, and Derek Lowe, shaky all year and terrific in the ALCS clincher, will replace Bronson Arroyo for Game 4. Arroyo was better than Lowe all year, but was cuffed around as a starter by the Yankees, then pitched well in relief.
It's an interesting set of decisions by manager Terry Francona. Schilling is pitching on a bum ankle that ruined him for Game 1 against the Yanks, but thanks to a nauseating temporary surgical procedure, he was able to pitch brilliantly in Game 6. He'll try that again, but Francona must use him in home games, where the American League rules are used and the pitcher doesn't have to bat or run the bases, and Games 2 and 6 are the only pair of on-rotation games that fit the bill.
Francona also wanted to get the slight Martinez some extra rest before his start, so rather than sending him out for the opener he used him for an inning in Wednesday's Game 7 to keep him game sharp and now will start him in Games 3 and 7 of the Series.
It's a gamble, holding a superstar like Martinez out until you're potentially down 2-0 when you could use him in Game 1. But Francona's hoping that Wakefield's knuckleball, a rarely seen pitch, will not only baffle the Redbirds in Game 1, but will make Schilling's already formidable fastball look like a howitzer shot in Game 2. And if the Series goes seven games, Pedro Martinez isn't a bad guy to have on the hill. We've all seen worse gambles by Red Sox managers when it comes to postseason pitching decisions.
But what about the hitters? The Red Sox have some pretty fair ones too, starting with Johnny Damon -- who seems to have busted out of that slump, no? -- and centering around Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the latter having all but carried the Sox through the playoffs single-handedly.
But one of their best hitters, Kevin Millar, might find at-bats scarce in the middle three games thanks to the designated hitter rule. The home team's league rules are used in World Series games, so in Games 3, 4 and 5 in St. Louis the pitchers will bat and there won't be a D.H.
Ortiz is the Boston D.H., and he's going to get his at-bats, so he'll have to play first base at Busch Stadium. That turns Millar into a man without a position, reducing him to either pinch-hitting or sharing right field with Trot Nixon. Millar is no great shakes as a first baseman, and Ortiz is actually worse, but wait till you see Millar playing right field!
Another of those commonly held postseason beliefs is that the designated hitter rule favors the American League team in the World Series, the theory being that while A.L. rosters are constructed with the D.H. in mind, the N.L. team has to plug a reserve into the starting lineup in the A.L. park. This is another unproved, if not disproved, theory: 22 World Series have been played with the designated hitter rule in use in one form or another, with the American League holding a hardly conclusive 12-10 edge.
In this case it looks like the lack of a D.H. in St. Louis will hurt the Red Sox far more than having to find one in Boston will hurt the Cards. While Boston will struggle to get Millar's bat in the lineup in St. Louis, the Cardinals have serviceable left-handed swinger John Mabry hanging around for games in Boston, a vast improvement over any pitcher's hitting.
But let's not get too granular, like those dumb position-by-position comparisons so common at this time of year. You know the ones? With the little check marks? The Red Sox have a better closer: Check mark for Boston!
Yes, the Sox have a better closer, Keith Foulke over Jason Isringhausen, but Isringhausen doesn't have to be better than Foulke, he just has to be better than the Boston hitters when the Cardinals give him the ball -- which is asking a lot but it doesn't have anything to do with Foulke. Yes, the Cardinals are better fielders than the Red Sox, but they don't have to catch the ball better than Boston, they just have to catch it well enough not to offset any hitting advantage. And so on.
This Series is going to come down to which team can put more dents in the Green Monster and more souvenirs in the hands of people willing to spend great gobs of cash on bleacher seats. Everything else is just quibbling over details.
Prediction: Keeping in mind that I predicted the Red Sox would beat the Yankees in seven, which they did, so I don't know what all the fuss was about, the prediction here is Cardinals in seven.
Now everybody duck. There's gonna be baseballs flying everywhere.
NFL Week 7 picks [PERMALINK]
As your humble servant's fourth straight week of lousy NFL predictions sends him into free-fall through the standings of this column's Pool of Experts, the lead has been taken over by "Yahoo Users," who have correctly picked the winner of 57 of the 88 games so far this year. ESPN's Mike Golic is one game back at 56-32.
Yahoo Users' picks represent the consensus of the audience of Yahoo Sports. In other words: the hoi polloi, the mob, the people.
That's right: So far this year if you wanted to know who's going to win an NFL game you'd have had better luck asking for a show of hands at the corner bar than if you'd asked the experts who write about NFL football for some of our finer publications. But it's the experts who make a living off this stuff. Is this a great country or what!
Keeping that experts vs. barflies dynamic in mind, here are my Week 7 picks, continuing the October tradition of two-sentence blurbs for each game. Winners in caps.
Atlanta (5-1) at KANSAS CITY (1-4): I keep expecting the Falcons to start losing and the Chiefs to start winning, even though I think the Falcons really are pretty good and the Chiefs really aren't that good. Am I making sense here?
Buffalo (1-4) at BALTIMORE (3-2): Jamal Lewis starts a two-game drug suspension, so the Ravens offense will go from hideous to hideous-plus, but their defense can probably outscore Buffalo. Don't miss this one if you're a fan of fourth down.
Chicago (1-4) at TAMPA BAY (1-5): You want two sentences about this game? Watching it would feel like one.
Detroit (3-2) at N.Y. GIANTS (4-1): I'm jumping on the Giants bandwagon just in time for the wheels to fall off, no doubt. And then I'll jump on the Lions bandwagon, and so on.
Jacksonville (4-2) at INDIANAPOLIS (4-1): Big quarterback numbers for both teams. Bigger scoreboard numbers for the Colts.
PHILADELPHIA (5-0) at Cleveland (3-3): Terrel Owens calls Jeff Garcia a poo-poo head. Garcia denies it.
San Diego (3-3) at CAROLINA (1-4): The Chargers are playing well, and at the trading deadline this week they got unhappy wide receiver Keenan McCardell. The Panthers are banged up and reeling, so of course they're going to win.
St. Louis (4-2) at MIAMI (0-6): What the Heck Pick of the week. The Dolphins are starting to look like a WTH fixture, but they really are going to win a few games.
Tennessee (2-4) at MINNESOTA (4-1): Daunte Culpepper, having a Marino-esque year, faces one of the worst defenses in the league, at home. Even with Randy Moss possibly out with a hamstring injury, this could be the week the Titans' season turns to dust.
N.Y. Jets (5-0) at NEW ENGLAND (5-0): The Patriots are on the longest winning streak in NFL history, the Jets are off to the best start in their franchise history and this is only the fourth time in history that two undefeated teams with at least five wins have met. The Patriots are going to make a little more history at New York's expense.
Dallas (2-3) at GREEN BAY (2-4): The Cowboys traded unhappy wide receiver Antonio Bryant to the Browns for unhappy wide receiver Quincy Morgan this week, and how come the league's unhappiest players all seem to be wide receivers, who have a pretty sweet glory-to-value ratio, if you ask me? These teams are going in opposite directions at the moment, and while that'll continue this week, it won't be permanent.
NEW ORLEANS (2-4) at Oakland (2-4): The wildly inconsistent Saints are scheduled for a good game. The Raiders are just a mess.
SEATTLE (3-2) at Arizona (1-4): Perhaps unhappy wide receiver Jerry Rice, freed from Oakland and now in a snot-green Seahawks uniform, can work with drop-prone and drug suspension-bound wide receiver Koren Robinson. He can tell Robinson that a man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.
DENVER (5-1) at Cincinnati (1-4): Looks like the league and the TV folks were just a wee bit quick on the trigger with the Bengals, giving them two prime-time dates in the first seven weeks after their encouraging 8-8 season in 2003. After this pasting it's back to Sunday afternoons for the rest of the year.
Season record: 53-35
Last week: 6-8
What the Heck Picks: 3-3
Gratuitous allusions to James Joyce inserted solely for the amusement of reader Steve Jablonski, who enjoyed the gratuitous Joyce allusion in Wednesday's column: 2
Previous column: Sox win, world upside-down
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