Playoffs without Yankees, Red Sox means better games, worse ratings

It’s that October time again. Time for the announcers to document all the past history, the scalpers to raise prices to extraordinary levels and the Yankees and Red Sox to engage in yet another classic American League Championship Series. What? The Red Sox were swept? The Yankees went down in five at the hands of a 22-year-old rookie? Jessica Alba wants my phone number? Well, two out of three isn’t bad … unless, of course, you’re Commissioner Bud Selig, ESPN, Fox or any of the other individuals or corporations hoping to profit from a Yankees/Red Sox series. Apologies if you are one of those previously listed because I’m sure you have been banking on both — or at least one -— in the championship series. Unfortunately for you, the Red Sox and Yankees’ combined $330 million dollar payroll bought nothing more than a pair of first-round exits.

However, one man’s waste of a small fortune is another fan’s beautiful result. All year, sports talk radio, television shows and crazy guys on the streets have been utterly obsessed with the Sox and the Yanks. Aside from local newspaper coverage of the local team, you wouldn’t know any other teams had even decided to play a full schedule this year. Every month another HUGE Red Sox-Yankees matchup was featured, while teams like the Cardinals and White Sox, who respectively led the majors and the American League in wins, were overlooked. Now, with the two most overrated teams in the league mercifully eliminated, we are left to watch great baseball by four of the other 28 underrated teams.

American League

Championship Series

The two teams responsible for the giant-killings now are set to meet up. Instead of the clash of power and paychecks we assumed would take place, we get a small-ball matchup that will be about great pitching, great defense and great baseball. (Except for the hitting part.)

The White Sox got off to a huge start and had a commanding lead in their division until the last couple weeks, when the Cleveland Indians actually made it a contest. The pressure the Indians put on the White Sox seemed to be beneficial, providing them with meaningful and uplifting games to prepare a team of mostly inexperienced postseason players for a playoff atmosphere. Add the second-half resurgence of Jose Contreras to the solid seasons of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia and the blazing speed of Scott Podsednik, and this is a team that could legitimately make it to the World Series for the first time in 46 years.

The Angels, on the other hand, were just in the series three years ago, when they improbably beat the Giants behind the strength of rookie sensations Francisco Rodriguez and John Lackey.

Rodriguez is now the Angels closer and Lackey will be carrying much of the pitching load with injuries likely to hamper ace Bartolo Colon. This leaves 22-year-old rookie pitcher Ervin Santana as the key to success. Santana filled in for Colon after the Cy Young candidate was unable to make his game-five start against the Yanks. Santana took care of the collection of All-Star hitters en-route to the game-five win and now will probably have to do the same if the Angels, be they of Los Angeles, Anaheim, California or Tijuana, hope to advance.

A rain-out in New York forced the Angels into playing three games in three days in three different cities, leaving many wondering how this team, possibly missing two of their starters, can muster enough energy to even compete. Attention must be paid to whom they are playing against. The White Sox and Angels have been called mirror images of one another with their similar small-ball tactics. The only difference is that while the Angels had some struggles at the plate this year (Steve Finley, this means you), the White Sox didn’t have a single player who hit .300 during the regular season. Paul Konerko is the only White Sox player to get 100 RBIs during the regular season.

Betting on a team whose lineup may be only marginally better overall than that of the White Sox and whose rotation looks far worse would be a dicey proposition. Fortunately, the Guardian does not endorse gambling.

Joe goes with: Angels in seven.

National League

Championship Series

Did you know the Astros were once 15 games under .500? Did you know the St. Louis Cardinals have been the best team on the planet all year? Did you know these two teams met last year in a great Championship Series that proved Jim Edmonds a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player?

One player everyone does know is the ageless Roger Clemens. The Rocket has been around so long that he actually played with home-run hitters who were drunks, but not druggies. Despite his seniority, Clemens led the league in E.R.A. and led his Astros deeper into the playoffs than he did any of his former teams.

The Cardinals never really had to claw back into the race like the Astros, nor did they have to hold off charges from division foes like the Angels and White Sox. The Cardinals, in fact, haven’t actually played a pressure-filled game in about three months. This team has simply been built upon consistency, calmness and cool uniforms.

The big acquisition of Mark Mulder from the A’s was supposed to give the Cardinals a true ace who would help to avoid the embarrassment felt after being swept in the World Series. The Cardinals did in fact get an ace, but it wasn’t Mulder.

Instead, Chris Carpenter emerged and, after ending his season prematurely last year, went on to lead the majors in wins and will almost assuredly capture the Cy Young.

The strength of the Cardinals is not simply a pitching staff that includes Carpenter, Mulder and three other guys who won at least 13 games, but a complementary lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker, David Eckstein and the pride of Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, So Taguchi.

Last year, these two teams duked it out in an epic seven-game series. It wouldn’t be at all strange if they did that again this year. Any of the Astros’ top-three pitchers, Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettite, could be a definitive number-one starter on most other teams, be they fantasy or major league.

Last year, however, it wasn’t pitching that got them to seven games, but the clutch hitting of departed players Jeff Kent and Carlos “I Tricked the Mets into Paying Me a lot of Money” Beltran.

This year, their batting order is so anemic that Clemens was used as a pinch-hitter against the Braves and is probably good enough to hit in the middle of the order. It’s widely believed that pitching wins championships, but when it takes you an entire game’s worth of extra innings to score a run, the pitching advantage isn’t large enough to advance.

Joe goes with: Cardinals in six.