Saturday, October 22, 2005

World. Series.

Hard to believe the World Series is in Chicago. This is the first time I've ever lived in a place where a sporting event this big is happening, and the city is definitely ready for it (though it must really suck to be a Cubs fan right now). A couple words about the NLCS: Oswalt rules. He certainly validated all those old adages, like "momentum is as good as tomorrow's starter", and "the best pitch in baseball is a well-located fastball". Oswalt was a fastball machine on Wednesday, throwing strike after strike at 95+ MPH. When that fastball's on, he's nearly impossible to hit. Fortunately for the Astro's the fastball is almost always on. The only thing possibly going against him is how many innings he's thrown, but what's one or two more games? Ok, time to look at these two remarkably similar teams.

Lineups
Let's cut to the chase...these are not good offensive clubs. Each lineup only has two guys that scare you, and with Chicago, it's really only one. To make matters worse for Chicago, they try to run/bunt their way out of big innings. The best thing that happened to the White Sox against the Angels was Tadahito Iguchi getting HBP in consecutive games, thus preventing Ozzie Guillen from wasting him with a sac bunt in the first inning. Results? Three-run homers on consecutive nights from the one man who scares you, Paul Konerko. Guillen's lineup is actually constructed pretty well. Podsednik and Iguchi both get on base and both are fast, Dye is a decent guy who will hit fly balls and avoid the double play, increasing the odds that opposing pitchers will pitch to Konerko. That's the other thing--he's scary, but not quite scary enough that they'll automatically walk him. The other thing going for the White Sox, as I've said before, is the power at the bottom of the lineup. This is important in tight ballgames, because the opposing pitcher never gets a chance to relax, and Chicago won't necessarily need Konerko up to score a run. I think this will prove crucial against a more fatigued Houston pitching staff.

Houston has a scarier middle of the lineup, but much like the White Sox, they have trouble having anyone on base ahead of them. Biggio (.323 OBP) and Taveras (.321 OBP) just don't cut it. Taveras is presumably at the top for his speed, but the Astros would be much better served with Brad Ausmus and his .346 OBP at the top. That won't happen though, because Taveras's AVG (.291) is higher. When you hit in front of Lance Berkman, the one true dominant hitter (at least from the left side) in this series, whether guys get on via the single or the walk is irrelevant. Just get on. I have a feeling that in this series Berkman/Ensberg will be hitting in a lot of bases empty situations, given the 'Stros's low propensity to walk and Chicago's high propensity for throwing strikes.

Long story short, the Astros have a better middle of the lineup, but the White Sox have more depth. ADVANTAGE: EVEN

Bench
We don't know too much about Chicago's bench, and that's a good thing because they all stink. Of course, they'll have to come into play somewhat in the NL park, but not so much if their starters keep on going the way they have. If they have to make one pinch hitting decision, they'll go with Carl Everett, who is a far cry better than anyone else they've got. Chicago had better hope the series doesn't come down to *gulp* Pablo Ozuna. Fortunately for them, they have the homefield advantage, and if the series goes to 6 or 7 games, they won't have to worry about it. Still, I think they could strengthen their bench a great deal by having only 10 pitchers on the roster and keeping a guy like Ross Gload, a left-handed hitter with pop.

Houston's bench, Orlando Palmeiro and Chris Burke in particular, have played well in the postseason. Mike Lamb is the decent left-handed bat off the bench the White Sox don't have. Eric Bruntlett is a good defensive replacement for Craig Biggio in the late innings. In short, the Astros have more weapons, and they use them well. ADVANTAGE: ASTROS

Starters
This is a matchup of historic proportions. Clemens/Pettitte/Oswalt had arguably the best regular season trio of performances in history. Buehrle/Garland/Garcia/Contreras were arguably the most effective postseason performance in history. The key to this series, as it was in the NLCS, is Game 4, when Houston throws their worst starter (on paper), Brandon Backe against Freddy Garcia. Backe rose to the occasion in the NLCS, but he's really the one guy the White Sox can take advantage of. And as good as Clemens was in the regular season, he has looked shaky at times in the playoffs. He's 43 years old, and he's thrown a ton of innings. Plus, he's never really proven himself as a dominant postseason pitcher. Pettitte had one bad game against the Cardinals, but rebounded well in his next start. Working against him is a White Sox lineup that fares much better against lefties. With the way Oswalt is pitching, however, the White Sox will want to avoid going to Game 7. Honestly, there really isn't too much between these staffs. Chicago's staff shut down a superior offensive club in Boston, and absolutely throttled Anaheim's lineup, which actually is quite similar to Houston's. Houston's staff neutralized the Cards' lineup (similar to Boston's) and Atlanta's (similar to Anaheim), but never showed the level of dominance Chicago's did, unless Oswalt was pitching. It's tough coming to the verdict here. I'm going with ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX, but barely, due to Backe's possibililty as the weak link and the few shaky starts by Pettitte and Clemens.

Bullpen
Another evenly-matched area. Houston has a better front end, but Chicago has 5 reliable guys, and a closer whose stuff may be the best on either staff. I didn't like how Lidge started relying on his slider, and who knows how his psyche will be when he comes into the game for the first time. I felt that Garner should have let him close out the Cardinals series with a 4-run lead. As dominant as Lidge was, I'd rather have the 5 reliable guys with the manager who knows how to deploy them flawlessly. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Defense
Defensive efficiency says that Houston ranked 2nd in the NL, but that's before you take into account the ease of playing in Minute Maid park. Park-adjusted, they drop down considerably. However, they are strong up the middle, especially with Taveras in center and Ausmus behind the plate. Chicago is strong all over the diamond, which suits their pitching staff perfectly. No one is really a high strikeout guy, but they stay around the plate, meaning lots of balls go in play. I'm going to go on record now and say that Juan Uribe could make the difference in this series with his glove. I thought he was phenomenal against Anaheim, looking like a vacuum cleaner equipped with a catapult. Having two centerfielders in the outfield doesn't hurt either. ADVANTAGE: WHITE SOX

Bottom Line
I think this could go down as one of the best series in a long time, and not because both teams will bunt themselves to death. Fact is, both pitching staffs are so good, it's hard to believe there will be a lopsided game. It sounds scary, but I think this series will be decided by something unaccountable: a bad bounce, a bad call, a slip on the basepaths. I realize I gave the White Sox more advantages up there, but I'm having a hard time convincing myself that they truly are the better team. Maybe I don't trust those 4 complete games. But then again, the Astros pretty much are the Angels, at least when it comes to the lineup. The White Sox should be able to hold Houston to 3 runs a game. Now the question becomes, will the Astros hold the White Sox to 2 runs a game? If this were say, July or August, I say yes. As crazy as this sounds, I'm doubting Pettitte, Clemens, and Lidge. Pettitte isn't a dominant pitcher; he's one of those "keep you in the game" types. I have no doubt he'll do that, but as mentioned above, the White Sox love hitting against lefties. Clemens....I don't know. I have yet to see a dominant performance out of him. He often has trouble getting ahead of batters, which plays directly into the hands of Chicago. And as I mentioned before, Lidge will have to prove himself to me.

These teams are so evenly-matched it's ridiculous. All those White Sox advantages up there are slight. I wish I could cop out and make conditional picks, like if it goes 7 games, the Astros will win. But I won't. I'm sticking my neck out here. I say White Sox bust out against Pettitte. I say the White Sox will get a similar performance out of their starters, because they are once again facing a lineup with guys at the top who can't get on base. I say someone from the bottom of Chicago's lineup will drive a stake through Houston's heart in Game 1 or Game 2. Ultimately, I think I'm being influenced at how well the White Sox played against Boston and Anaheim. They were supremely confident, and made all the right plays at the right times. They put on clinics. Houston doesn't look clinical unless Oswalt is one the mound. Unfortunately for them, he'll only be available for Game 3 and Game 7, if necessary. I don't think they'll get that far. WHITE SOX WIN 4-2.

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