Unfortunately, there will be no champagne celebrations in the locker rooms of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Minnesota; these four teams have the rest of the off-season to reflect on what might have been. Now, with four teams just eight wins away from a World Series championship, they must set aside that lofty goal and concentrate on the task at hand; that is, they must win the pennants of their respective leagues. Boston, New York, and St. Louis had little trouble getting through the division round while Houston needed all five games to take care of those pesky Braves. Now, the stakes have been set higher and each team is ready to prove themselves, but only two will survive to move on to the next round.
New York (101-61) vs Boston (98-64)
Season series: Boston won, 11-8
Anyone who has paid attention this season knows by now that these two teams were destined to face each other in the American League Championship Series for the second year in a row. With nineteen meetings between these two teams in the regular season, there should be no surprises left to spring on each other and the only advantage left seems to be psychological. Boston was just five outs away from the pennant when Grady Little had a brain cramp and left Boston ace Pedro Martinez in the game to try and work through a jam; his strategy failed and the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in extra frames. Now, a year later, Boston believes, to paraphrase unofficial team spokesman Kevin Millar, that the club this season is five outs better than the team from a season ago. New York, however, has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull an invisible string and make the impossible become reality, which has translated to several world championships in the 86 years since Boston won its last.
This series is about as evenly matched as you will ever find two teams coming face-to-face in the playoffs, so who will come out on top? This wouldn’t be much of a Red Sox fan site if we didn’t believe that Boston would triumph in the end, but we aren’t just showing favoritism. The key to the club’s success will lie in its ability to score runs early, which was critical to the success of the regular season; when the number nine hitter in the lineup is last year’s AL batting champion, you would think that they are capable of pushing people across the plate. With a relatively weak starting rotation, New York must find a way to subdue the Boston lineup, led by the Monsters of the Fenway Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, or it will find itself in a hole very early. What also gives Boston an edge is its starting rotation, which features Curt Schilling, who was nothing less than dominant in the regular season, and Martinez who, despite rumors to the contrary, is nobody’s daddy in the major leagues. Throw in Bronson Arroyo and you have the answer to keeping the always-dangerous Yankee lineup at bay.
What the Red Sox must watch for, as was true in the Anaheim series, is a close score late in the game. The Yankee bullpen, led by Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera and bolstered by Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, is nearly unhittable and, with what’s on the line, the chances of a late-inning rally are small. Also, the Red Sox cannot afford to give the Yankees extra outs; those are the types of mistakes that New York does not miss the opportunity to take advantage of when the game is on the line. Do not think for one minute that it will be easy for Boston to take the series but, in the end, the Red Sox should finally be able to dispatch their archrivals and move on to the World Series.
St. Louis (105-57) vs Houston (92-70)
Season series: Houston won, 10-8
St. Louis ran away with the National League Central division and dispatched Los Angeles in four games in the Division Series. They accomplished this, to no one’s surprised, by lighting up the scoreboard with seven home runs, including five in the first game of the series. Led by Albert Pujols, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria, the Cardinal’s offense was too potent for the Dodgers to handle. Houston, on the other hand, needed five games and two wins in Atlanta to win their series, which was not decided until the Astros scored five runs in the seventh inning of Game 5 to put the contest out of reach as the Braves watched yet another team celebrate a division series win at Turner Field.
These two teams, like Boston and New York, had the opportunity to face each other multiple times this season (18, to be exact), so they should have a good idea of what is in store for them. Houston, of course, continues to roll after a late-season surge pushed them into the playoffs as the wild card while St. Louis cruised through the final two months in preparation for some late October baseball. In September, Houston took five of six games between the two teams, including a sweep at home in the final week, but that success was more likely a result of the Cardinals resting themselves for the coming weeks; had it been more decisive, perhaps the outcome would have been different. So, take away that late season success and the Cardinals were 7-3 when there was more that mattered.
Houston also comes into this series with a starting rotation that is nearly burned out from the NLDS. Astros starters Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt each pitched on three day’s rest, so Phil Garner may have to try and save these two for Games 3 and 4 in the series. That leaves Brandon Bracke (5-3, 4.30) and Pete Munro (4-7, 5.15) in the first two games, unless Clemens feels good enough to come out in Game 2 on just three days of rest again. In contrast, for the Cardinals, starters Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18), Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.71), and Matt Morris (15-10, 4.72) will have enjoyed plenty of rest when their turn in the rotation comes.
Even though it looks like St. Louis should be better rested for this series, Houston has fought tooth-and-nail to make it this far. Clemens would love to add another ring to his collection along with the Cy Young award that he’s sure to collect after the season ends. Phil Garner would love to be the guy who turned a team around at mid-season and turned them into champions. The Cardinals, though, have been at this point in three of the last five seasons and were unable to advance in the first two attempts and they don’t intend to let that happen again. Add it all up and St. Louis finally comes away with their first NL pennant since 1987.