- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

CHICAGO — In one dugout is the National League’s second-best pitching staff, one that boasts the league’s only back-to-back 20-game winner, a man who has made 33 career postseason starts, perhaps the game’s best closer and (oh, yeah) some guy named Clemens.

On the other side is the American League’s top pitching staff, one that boasts four 14-game winners with ERAs under 3.90 and a bullpen that was needed for all of seven pitches during the five-game AL Championship Series.

Welcome to the World Series of Pitching. Chicks who dig the long ball need not show up, because if you believe the hype about the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, every game of this series will be 1-0.

“I’ll tell you what: If it’s not, it seems like people are going to be let down,” White Sox right-hander Jon Garland said. “If somebody scores two or three runs, people are going to be shocked.”

Make no mistake, pitching will be front and center when these two clubs kick off Game 1 tonight at U.S. Cellular Field. And it will remain the focal point throughout this series until either the Astros or White Sox are crowned champions. Or until one team runs out of arms (and considering Houston’s 18-inning win over the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series two weeks ago, don’t count on that happening).

There’s just too much talent on the mound between the two teams to believe otherwise.

“This series is going to be pretty interesting,” Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. “You’re going to see a lot of good pitches. … It’s going to be tough. Whoever has the clutch hitting is going to win.”

The Fall Classic opens tonight with a matchup befitting its title. The White Sox, making their first World Series appearance since 1959, send ageless workhorse Jose Contreras to the hill. The Astros counter with their own ageless wonder, Roger Clemens, making his eighth — and perhaps final — World Series start.

In a twist of fate, the two were teammates with the New York Yankees in 2003. Contreras, who had just defected from Cuba, learned some tricks of the trade from Clemens, who at the time thought he was on the verge of retirement.

“Every time I did something wrong with my mechanics, he helped me correct my errors,” Contreras said yesterday through a translator. “Just facing him tomorrow is an honor.”

The big right-hander, dubbed the “Bronze Titan” by none other than Fidel Castro himself, has enjoyed a renaissance since being traded to the White Sox in 2004 for Esteban Loaiza (now of the Washington Nationals). He has blossomed into the ace of Chicago’s four-deep rotation, going 11-2 with a 2.96 ERA after the All-Star break.

“It was a long process,” Guillen said. “But it paid real well.”

There’s no pitcher in baseball today (and perhaps ever) that has commanded the kind of respect Clemens is afforded. At 43, he’s about to become the second-oldest starter in Series history.

There has been speculation about Clemens not being 100 percent because of a hamstring injury that plagued him down the stretch in September, but the Rocket displayed his trademark determination yesterday in insisting he’s ready to start the first World Series game ever featuring a team from his native Texas.

“I don’t care how my body feels this time of year,” Clemens said. “If you need more aspirin, if you need more heat, if you need more ice, this is the time you get it, and you don’t ask questions.”

Healthy or not, there may be reason to question Clemens’ likelihood for success against a White Sox lineup that has been surprisingly effective against him. The nine Chicago players who have faced Clemens have a collective .294 average against him (32-for-109).

The White Sox have enjoyed nearly as much success against Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte, batting a collective .290 (31-for-107) against the veteran lefty.

The Astros, meanwhile, know precious little about their pitching counterparts in this series. The only player ever to face Contreras is reliever Dan Wheeler, and he’s 0-for-1.

They may not know much about them, but Houston’s players have the utmost respect for the White Sox staff. How could you not after Guillen’s hurlers tossed four straight complete games (after Contreras went 81/3 in Game 1) to win the ALCS against the Los Angeles Angels?

“That’s special,” Pettitte said. “To throw four complete games, almost five complete games, in the postseason … I mean, that’s just mind-boggling to me.”

The Astros face a daunting task. Not only must they get quality outings from Clemens, Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, but they need to string together hits against the fearsome foursome of Contreras, Garland, Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia.

Houston had enough trouble scoring runs against the Cardinals in the NLCS, going just 6-for-45 with runners in scoring position.

Garner’s ballclub, though, has defied the odds all season, rebounding from a 15-30 start to make the playoffs, then bouncing back from Albert Pujols’ dramatic home run in Game5 of the NLCS to win its first pennant.

“I don’t think our ballclub will be intimidated,” Garner said. “We’re certainly not in awe of anybody. We’ve been through some pressure together, and we’ve done some things well together. We’ll be prepared. We’ll be confident.”

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