Friday, October 21, 2005

CHICAGO — A funny thing happened somewhere between the Boston Red Sox’s World Series-clinching celebration at Busch Stadium last season and the Houston Astros’ pennant-clinching celebration at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night.

The formula for postseason success underwent a seismic shift.

While the Red Sox, Florida Marlins, Anaheim Angels and other top ballclubs of the early 21st century won with lineups loaded with mashers top to bottom, the class of 2005 took a different path to success.

Call it “small ball.” Call it “old school.” Or call it “winning with pitching.”

But whatever you call it, it’s hard to escape the fact that the Astros and Chicago White Sox didn’t reach the World Series in a manner we had grown accustomed to during the last decade or so.

Take a good look at the two clubs when they line up along the basepaths for player introductions tomorrow night before Game 1 at U.S. Cellular Field. The Astros and White Sox are practically mirror images of one another. And neither bears much resemblance to other recent World Series participants.

Quick: Who’s the biggest-name hitter on either side? Paul Konerko? Lance Berkman? Morgan Ensberg?

With all do respect to those guys, fine ballplayers to be sure, they still pale in comparison to the superstars who have played on this stage in past seasons. Where’s Manny Ramirez? Albert Pujols? Derek Jeter? Barry Bonds?

They’re all watching the 101st Fall Classic at home.

In their places are a couple of rosters full of solid but hardly spectacular hitters, some of the game’s premier top-of-the-order men and some quality bottom-of-the-order players as well.

It’s time for Scott Podsednik and A.J. Pierzynski, Willy Taveras and Adam Everett to get their due. These are the guys who make their respective teams run. They may not make your jaw drop with 450-foot home runs, but they will make you appreciate the finer points of the game: good baserunning, well-executed bunts and timely hitting.

The real stars of this series make their living on the pitcher’s mound. Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle — those are just the top three starters for each team.

Add Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, Bobby Jenks and Neil Cotts to the mix. Don’t know much about these relievers? Start studying up because they are going to be major players before this series is over.

This is the new formula for success in the post-steroids era. Have three top-notch starting pitchers. Have a deep bullpen. Have a lineup good at manufacturing runs. Don’t take Earl Weaver’s advice and wait for the three-run homer. Because chances are it ain’t gonna happen.

The days of the 9-7, four-hour October slugfest are over. We may not see either team score more than four runs in a game during this World Series. Perhaps we will be rewarded with some sub-three-hour ballgames for a change.

The folks at Fox, who view the World Series as nothing more than an endless promotion of their prime-time lineup to a wide audience, will tell you nobody’s going to pay attention to a series pitting two clubs from the Central time zone.

No Yankees or Red Sox? What’s left to care about?

Don’t listen to them. Big-market teams don’t make a World Series memorable. It’s the quality of the games.

It’s an evenly matched series between two fundamentally sound clubs who have been playing at the top of their game for the last two weeks.

It’s the compelling stories of these two championship-starved cities, one seeking its first title ever, the other its first in 88 years.

This is the kind of World Series you grew up watching, the ones you remember from the “good old days.” Twins-Braves in 1991. Royals-Cardinals in 1985. Cardinals-Brewers in 1982.

No off-field drama. No one player bigger than the rest. Just two good teams playing for the prize.

After a decade of big-market dominance, perhaps parity has found its way into baseball. Consider this: Ten different teams have competed in the last six World Series. The Yankees, with appearances in 2000, 2001 and 2003, are the only repeat customers.

This year’s champion will be the sport’s sixth different one in as many years. During that span, 18 of baseball’s 30 teams have made it to the postseason.

It’s a new day at the World Series. Enjoy it and hope it’s a sign of good things to come.

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