Aside from the Detroit Tigers, my favorite sports team is the Houston Astros, since I stepped off a Trailways bus in 1987 in suburban Houston. I was in the far left-field corner for the 1980 National League playoffs against Philadelphia for the ill-fated Game 5 and suffered with each pitch in 1986 against the New York Mets.
Houston is not a Johnny-Come-Lately; it has been one of the best teams in baseball over the past 10 years (fifth among teams in victories). It has had enough talent to go to the World Series, but it has always been one of those things – mainly the inability of its offense (usually potent) to overcome the single most important commodity – pitching. Atlanta has had it; St. Louis has had it; Florida has had it; Houston has had it; last year’s Boston Red Sox had it. Strong pitching (quality starters, solid middle relief, lights-out closer) can put a cork into any offense. Just ask the 2005 Cardinals or ask last year’s playoff version of the Astros.
Both teams in this year’s World Series had similar paths to this championship. The Chicago White Sox used to be an offensive juggernaut but lacked enough pitching to make that important leap.
So what happened? They traded OF Carlos Lee, a 30 home run, 100 RBI player, for little Scott Podsednik of West, Texas (best kolaches in America) and altered the offense. Podsednik became a new kind of weapon – a dangerous leadoff hitter who could steal bases and score runs.
Chicago then strengthened its bullpen and traded for two important pitchers – Cubans Jose Contreras and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, each exiles from Castro and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Chiacgo already had a potential ace in Mark Buerhle plus solid arms in Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia (former Astro farmhand that Houston sacrificed in the Randy Johnson deal with Seattle).
Midway in the season, after a sensational start, Contreras became the pitcher everyone hoped, and feared, he would be – unhittable. Hernandez was the best fifth starter in baseball and suddenly, the offense didn’t need to bash people to death.
And what is this lineup? Paul Konerko slammed 40 home runs but hits around .240, the cleanup hitter is former Astro and Ranger Carl Everett and the remaining lineup sports a bunch of no-names. Looks just like Houston. Morgan Ensberg came into his own this season with 38 home runs and more than 100 RBI after a horrid 2004 season. But after him are a bunch of no-names.
The Astros overcame plenty of injuries and a 15-30 start to the season. Look what they changed. They dealt the hardest-throwing reliever in baseball, Billy Wagner, for a bag of old shoes, lost a two-time MVP (Jeff Kent) and potential MVP (Carlos Beltran) to free agency, moved a grizzled 39-year-old back to middle infield (Craig Biggio), played without their captain and eventual Hall of Famer (Jeff Bagwell) and suffered at the start without All-Star Lance Berkman, mending a damaged knee collected in a flag football game off-season.
They did not have a decent fourth starter with Brandon Backe on the disabled list for much of the time and three rookies – Willy Tavares, Chris Burke, Jason Lane – were forced into service. What happened? Tavares’ speed, legendary in the Houston minor league system, gave the Astros a legitimate leadoff hitter who could score runs ahead of known run-producers like Biggio and Berkman (multiple 100 runs season apiece). Biggio responded, at 39, with his best offensive numbers in years.
And the promise of the Astro pitching – the Big Three of Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte – came through with flying colors. They were strong, they were healthy and they were feared. And slowly, the offense discovered how to win 2-1, 1-0 and 3-2 games.
This will be a series of small ball, pitching, defense and little things (mistakes, executed plays and decisions) that decides the outcome. Chicago isn’t sweeping anyone. Its bullpen was not used against Anaheim/Los Angeles/California (pick a name) but it has had closer issues all season. It is not a battle-tested group, something that cannot be said for the Astros.
In fact, Clemens, Oswalt and Pettitte should pitch six of the seven games (including the three in Houston) and each has more playoff and World Series experience than Chicago (other than Hernandez). Clemens and Pettitte have won in the Series and that counts for something.
For the first time in Texas history, the World Series is being played on Lone Star soil, with the team that has earned the right to be there. Texas Rangers fans can only sit and contemplate what their front office needs to do to join that club (now the franchise with the longest absence from the World Series).
As I mentioned above, the clues are all there.