SERIES: World Series; Game 1.
While the Houston Astros’ three aces got so much attention going into the playoffs, the foursome of Chicago White Sox starters has topped them. Now, whichever group of hurlers is better could decide which team halts a long championship drought.
The Astros begin their first World Series appearance by starting arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history, pitting Roger Clemens against former teammate Jose Contreras and a White Sox club seeking its first title in 88 years.
“Two good pitching staffs going at it. Hopefully it is a low-scoring game,” Chicago right fielder Jermaine Dye said.
“We’re going to be facing pretty good pitching. Some guys I faced in the past. Hopefully they don’t have their `A’ games and we do.”
The guys Dye and Chicago’s lineup will face are a 300-game winner, the second-winningest pitcher in postseason history and the NL championship series MVP. Before the Astros start Andy Pettitte in Game 2 and Roy Oswalt in Game 3, Clemens goes to the mound looking to keep his perfect World Series record intact.
“We’ve put ourselves in a great situation, and have a wonderful chance,” said Clemens, whose 1.89 regular-season ERA led the majors.
The seven-time Cy Young Award winner is 3-0 with a 1.90 ERA in seven career starts in the Fall Classic, striking out 48 in 47 1-3 innings. Though he struggled in five innings to lose his only start of Houston’s NL division series against Atlanta, he threw three outstanding innings of relief to win an 18-inning marathon in the deciding Game 4 and pitched six solid innings to win Game 3 of the NLCS against St. Louis.
“We can’t think, `Oh, we’re facing Roger Clemens.’ We’re facing the Houston Astros,” said Chicago’s Mark Buehrle, who will oppose Pettitte on Sunday night.
Contreras’ only appearance in the World Series came in 2003 when he was a teammate of Clemens with the New York Yankees and lost to the Florida Marlins. Contreras went 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA in four relief appearances.
This will be his first start in a Fall Classic, though the pressure of postseason baseball has had no effect on him this time.
“I’m not nervous, just happy to be on this stage,” he said through a translator.
Contreras went 7 2-3 innings in Chicago’s 14-2 win over the Boston Red Sox to spark a three-game sweep of the defending champions in the ALDS. He took the White Sox’s only loss to the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS—3-2 in Game 1— despite going 8 1-3 strong innings, but helped close them out in Game 5 with a five-hitter in Chicago’s 6-3 victory on Sunday.
That was the last of an incredible run of four consecutive complete-game victories by Chicago’s starters, with Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia getting the job done in Games 2-4. That hadn’t been done in a playoff series since the Yankees threw five complete games in a row in 1956.
It’s not hard to figure out why manager Ozzie Guillen is sticking with the same rotation for this series.
“The reason is obvious,” said Guillen, who has led the White Sox to their first World Series appearance since 1959.
While Chicago seeks its first championship since 1917, Houston has gotten to this point for the first time in its 44-year existence.
The Astros overcame a 15-30 start to win the NL wild card on the final day of the regular season, and the White Sox nearly blew a 15-game lead in the AL Central before wrapping up a division crown.
“It’s going to be a real attractive and weird World Series because you’ve got two teams that aren’t supposed to be there,” Guillen said.
“You’re not going to see the big-name franchises. Nothing against them. I think it’s just good for baseball, these two franchises that have never been there—one the first time ever, the other people forget when was the last time.”
While Bagwell could be winding down his big-league career because of a slow recovery from shoulder surgery, the 39-year-old Biggio is still a critical component of Houston’s lineup from the leadoff spot.
“Anybody who puts that much time and effort into a city and organization like they did in Houston deserves at least one shot to go to the World Series,” said White Sox utilityman Geoff Blum, a former Astro. “I’m sure they are looking forward to it. But I sure as heck hope they don’t get their first win against us.”
Though Bagwell is unable to throw due to his right shoulder injury, he is likely to start as the designated hitter in games played at Chicago.
“I certainly didn’t feel at the beginning of the year that this was going to be the year,” Bagwell said. “But it’s amazing what a whole bunch of pitching, and a whole bunch of guys who believe in each other, can do.”
Bagwell could add some punch to an offense that managed just 22 runs in its six-game NLCS victory over St. Louis.
The lineup is not considered a major strength for Houston or Chicago.
Despite finishing the regular season with an AL-high 99 victories, the White Sox tied for third-worst in the league with a .262 team batting average. Houston was tied for third-worst in the majors at .256.
Houston and Chicago often relied more on speed than power, among just eight teams in baseball to steal more than 100 bases this season, but both have shown the ability to go deep in the playoffs. The White Sox have 12 homers in eight games, four by ALCS MVP Paul Konerko, and the Astros have hit nine, including two from sudden postseason hero Chris Burke.
Both teams have strong bullpens, though clearly Chicago’s is better rested, and maybe more rusty, after an ALCS in which it had to record just two outs— both by Neal Cotts.
Astros closer Brad Lidge got a much-needed break after giving up a mammoth three-run homer to Albert Pujols with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 in the NLCS. That gave St. Louis a 5-4 win and prevented Houston from clinching the pennant at home.
It was the seventh appearance and 10th inning in 12 days for Lidge, who had 42 saves during the regular season and saved three straight in the NLCS before blowing Game 5.
“I just can’t wait to get back,” Lidge said. “I’m going to be so pumped up to get out there in the World Series. It’s going to be amazing.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Astros - NL wild-card winners; beat Atlanta Braves 3-1, NL division series; beat St. Louis Cardinals 4-2, NL championship series. White Sox - AL Central champions; beat Boston Red Sox 3-0, AL division series; beat Los Angeles Angels 4-1, AL championship series.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Astros - 2B Biggio (.264, 26 HRs, 69 RBIs, 17 HBP), CF Burke (.248, 5, 26), 3B Morgan Ensberg (.283, 36, 101), LF Lance Berkman (.293, 24, 82, 91 walks), 1B Mike Lamb (.236, 12, 53), RF Jason Lane (.267, 26, 78), SS Adam Everett (.248, 11, 54); DH Bagwell (.250, 3, 19), C Brad Ausmus (.258, 3, 47). White Sox - LF Scott Podsednik (.290, 0, 25, 59 SBs), 2B Tadahito Iguchi (.278, 15, 71), RF Dye (.274, 31, 86), 1B Konerko (.283, 40, 100, 98 runs), DH Carl Everett (.251, 23, 87), CF Aaron Rowand (.270, 13, 69), C A.J. Pierzynski (.257, 18, 56), 3B Joe Crede (.252, 22, 62), SS Juan Uribe (.252, 16, 71).
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Clemens (2-1, 4.50 ERA). The 43-year-old Clemens is 20-11 with a 3.07 ERA in 39 games against the White Sox, though he was ripped in losing his last two starts against them, the most recent of which came on Aug. 26, 2003. He’s 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA in 33 postseason appearances.
WHITE SOX PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Contreras (2-1, 2.81 ERA). The right-hander has picked up where he left off in the regular season. Contreras won his final eight starts and went 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA after the All-Star break. He’s never faced the Astros, and the only player on Houston’s roster with an at-bat against him is reliever Dan Wheeler.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - Though Ensberg leads Houston with nine RBIs this postseason, he has not homered in 21 games since Sept. 20. … Bagwell has not had more than one at-bat in a game since May 3, and has not hit a homer since April 29. Only three of his 449 career homers came this season. … CF Willy Taveras tops the team with a .357 batting average in the playoffs, but started only half of the Astros’ LCS games and could end up coming off the bench against right-handed starters in this series. White Sox - Konerko has hit .444 (8-for-18) with two homers against Clemens. … Seven of Podsednik’s 22 career HRs are against the Astros. He has four steals this postseason after finishing third in the majors with 59. … Crede batted .368 with two homers and seven RBIs in five ALCS games. He’s homered twice in five at-bats against Clemens.
POSTSEASON ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 3-2 on the road. White Sox - 3-1 at home.