Baseball Playoffs: Take Three
World Series Preview: Astros vs. White Sox
After nearly seven months of regular season and postseason play, Major League Baseball has eliminated 28 of its 30 teams from the chance to win the World Serious. The defending champs are out. The team with the most championships and the highest payroll is out, too. So is the only ballclub to win 100 games during the regular season. Gone also are 17 other franchises that have won it all since either of the two finalists this year enjoyed the fruits of victory.
Take a bow (and send us the link) if you thought the White Sox and the Astros were going to face each other in October. Heck, give yourself a pat on the back if you thought just one of these two teams would make its way to the Fall Classic. It may not be Kansas City-Colorado, but you would be a rich man or woman had you laid a grand on the White Sox and Astros outlasting everyone else.
We're now down to the nitty gritty. The first pitch is only hours away. Weather permitting, it looks like we will have a winner before Halloween. Read on for our latest tricks or treats.
**The Limbo Series: How Low Can We Go?**
In a nutshell - Big Three vs. Fab Four
Bryan's Take: So, this is what it all comes down to. The ninth-ranked American League offense against the NL's number eleven? A battle of two clubs with aggregate OBPs of .322? Um, isn't this supposed to be the World Series?
However, what the series lacks in offense, it makes up in pitching and defense -- the two things that are supposed to win come playoff time. And you would be hard-pressed to find two better teams in these areas, both two of the Majors top four clubs in ERA and defensive efficiency. In this regard, the Astros are little different than the White Sox's last opponent, however better in both categories. For Houston, the White Sox are a worse team than the Cardinals, albeit a hotter one.
In winning twelve of their last thirteen games, dating back to September 28 of the regular season, the White Sox have allowed more than three runs just once. They have not allowed more than four runs since losing to Cleveland on September 21. Nineteen games, 41 runs allowed, 2.18 RA. For one-eighth of the season, the White Sox have been unstoppable.
This is, of course, almost all due to great starting pitching. By now, we all know the story. Four straight complete games, the first time (in the postseason) since 1928. Credit this to Ozzie Guillen and Don Cooper, a pair to both trust their starters as well as the fact that this bullpen will not implode due to over-rest. Also credit the White Sox foursome, a group that truly saved their best stuff for the right time.
This just in: Astros pitching is pretty good, too. While more apt to allow runs lately, the Astros will put their four best pitchers (and yes, I know that this keeps getting repeated) up against anyone in the game. Brad Lidge along with the three best Astros starters had a 2.46 ERA during the regular season. The White Sox four starters, their key pitchers in this series, were more than a full run higher at 3.52.
So, from a pitching standpoint, it's all about which White Sox staff will show up. It's also about whether Andy Pettitte can begin pitching in the postseason like he did all year. Whether the Rocket is just too beat-up to lead his team to their first ever World Series win. Whether the White Sox bullpen can withstand any semblance of a workload.
Shocking news, I know, but this series is less about runs scored than we could have imagined in this new era of baseball.
Rich's Take: Winning baseball games is all about scoring runs and preventing runs. The White Sox and Astros are mediocre at the former and superb at the latter. You don't have to score a lot of runs if you don't give up many. Runs are going to be scarce this coming week. The 2005 World Series is a throwback to 1960s when pitchers like Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Jim Lonborg, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, and Tom Seaver were mowing down the opposition.
If the Series plays out as expected, the oldtimers are going to have a field day. No, I don't mean Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Orlando Hernandez, and Frank Thomas. I'm talking about the fans of yesteryear. You know, the guys who romanticize about pitching, defense, sacrificing, hitting behind runners, and timely hitting. This Series should be right up their alley.
Speaking of Bags and the Big Hurt, how ironic is it that these two future Hall of Famers with the same birthday, parallel careers, and similar achievements and career totals would be non-factors when their teams finally made it to World Series? Bagwell might see some action as a right-handed DH/PH but Thomas was left off the postseason roster with a broken foot.
If FOX advertises Reunion, will it be about six high school friends or four pitchers who teamed up with the Yankees earlier this decade? (I'm stretching things here a bit as Clemens, Pettitte, Jose Contreras, and El Duque never all pitched in the same season for NY but, hey, it makes for a good story.)
Besides rich, I wonder how Carlos Beltran is feeling these days?
Bryan's Outtake: With the pitching and defense so close between these two teams, it might just be the offenses that dictate the winner. Who can score four runs or more?
Since manufacturing runs is going to be so difficult against these staffs, the longball will likely be the key to scoring. And given the seven upcoming games in pro-offensive environments, home runs could be hit far more often than people think. And this is definitely one area where the White Sox have a clear edge over Houston, having slugged 39 more bombs than Houston during the regular season.
As we said in the Astros-Cardinals preview, the key to beating the Houston offense is to take out Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman. While Biggio and Jason Lane are both threats, no other key player has a .750+ OPS. The White Sox are far more balanced, though shutting down Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye -- accounting for 36% of the Sox homers -- would be a good idea.
However, at this point, the best offensive player on the White Sox might be Joe Crede. Despite losing the Playoff MVP award to Konerko, Crede has been lights-out this postseason. Furthermore, he has been great since returning from the DL in early September, in which he apparently changed his swing. Since then, against some of baseball's toughest competition, Crede has been the player he was supposed to be coming out of the minors: .344/.375/.677. Eight home runs in ninety at-bats. Big Frank would be proud.
Finally, we should highlight momentum as the other key factor in the Series. Problem is, I'm not sure who has more at this point. I'm inclined to say the White Sox, playing within the crazy Chicago environment, off what might have been the four best games they played in 2005. However, the Astros -- playing in their first World Series in franchise history -- surely are on their own emotional high after overcoming the brutal Game 5 loss. This seems to be a push, a recurring theme in this preview.
Rich's Outtake: Anything can happen in a short series and, if this postseason is any guide, the World Series will probably turn on an umpire's decision, a fielding miscue, or a late-inning home run. With two evenly matched teams, it's as much a crapshoot as anything else.
Since the advent of the Wild Card, the team that wins it all is usually the hottest rather than the best. A second-place team has won the World Series in each of the past three seasons, and the club with the lesser record has poured the champagne in five of the last six years. Both of those tidbits point to the Astros.
The White Sox may be hotter, having won 12 of their last 13 games -- against outstanding competition, I might add (with 10 of those victories at the expense of the Indians, Red Sox, and Angels). But, as Yogi Berra might say, the Astros aren't so cool themselves. Consider this: since May 24, Houston is 81-46 (.638) and Chicago is 74-50 (.597). I bet you didn't know that!
One other thing -- the White Sox were the best team on the road this year while the Astros tied for the second-best home record. The team that wins it will be the one that takes at least two of three in Houston.
Bryan's Pick: These teams are just so similar that home field advantage (thank God for the All-Star Game) might just be the key component. So, I'll go with the White Sox in six games, as I think Chicago is playing a bit better across the board at this moment.
Rich's Pick: The pressure is on me to see if I can go 7-for-7 with my picks. Yes, I chose the Astros and Cardinals in the NLDS, the White Sox and Angels in the ALDS, the Astros in the NLCS, and the White Sox in the ALCS. If I select the World Series winner, too, I might just have to go into the tout business. You know, the one in which you tell half of your customers Team X will win and the other half Team Y. Fifty percent of your clients think you're a genius.
But I'm not willing to settle for being half right. No hedging here, folks. Houston is going to win it all. The Astros in seven.
* * * * *