Don't Bet Against Long-Shot Rockies

Josh Beckett, Jeff Francis
Game 1 starters Josh Beckett, left, and Jeff Francis faced off once earlier this season with Francis pitching five scoreless innings as the Rockies handed Beckett his worst loss of the year. (Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

If the Colorado Rockies can overcome the rust of an eight-day layoff and win just one of the first two games against the Red Sox in Fenway Park this week, then baseball will have a World Series that is as long, intricate and fascinating as anybody could wish. And the Rockies, who just benefited from two last-minute pitching rotation changes yesterday, may well become the most unlikely world champion in baseball history.

However, if the Rox can't sustain the momentum of their current 21-of-22 winning streak, if the October klieg lights and their own inactivity paralyze them tonight and tomorrow, then they'll probably never recover. When incredibly hot teams turn cold, especially under playoff pressure, they often turn to ice completely. Then this will be a quick, dull, star-crossed series.

Which will it be? At least we've had a perfect preview. Game 1 will not be the first time this season that Boston's Josh Beckett faces Colorado southpaw ace Jeff Francis on a crisp night in Fenway Park. In fact, it won't be the first time these pitchers have met with exactly the same players at every position as those who'll probably start tonight.

The last time Colorado played at Fenway Park, on June 14, Beckett had a 9-0 record, an extra day of rest and eight strikeouts in his previous start. But he also knew how tough the Rox could be. The previous night, Colorado had clubbed Boston, 12-2, knocking out Curt Schilling in five innings.

Then, something unexpected happened. Beckett didn't dominate. And Francis didn't fold, like a typical lefty at Fenway. On a 56-degree evening with a breeze from center field, the Rockies lit up Beckett. In a 7-1 loss, Beckett allowed six runs on 10 hits -- both season highs -- in five innings; he fanned only one man -- a season low. Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday, two of the Rockies' top three RBI men, both had a homer and a double off Beckett. Atkins's was a grand slam. Francis needed 103 pitches to nibble his way through five scoreless innings but he still got the win.

Regular season results don't predict October outcomes. The Yankees went 6-0 against Cleveland this year and then were eliminated by the Indians in four games in the division series. However, that June Sox-Rox series was full of fascinating information. Don't ignore it. Colorado outscored Boston 20-5over three days at Fenway.

Most pertinent may be the game of June 12. Boston's Tim Wakefield beat Aaron Cook, 2-1. The Rockies' best-known hitters went 0 for 18 against Wakefield; the Red Sox got just seven hits in 7 1/3 innings against Cook. Few pitchers ever prosper against either powerhouse lineup. When somebody does, take note. Yesterday, guess what happened? The Red Sox took Wakefield off their World Series roster because of a shoulder injury, depriving them of the game's best knuckleballer. Simultaneously, Colorado announced that Cook, who hadn't pitched because of an oblique injury since August, would start Game 4.

If the Red Sox are simply a much better team, as many think, all this may be irrelevant. But in the World Series, being better isn't always important. The '90 Reds swept the mighty Bash Brothers of Oakland and the badly injured '88 Dodgers beat those haughty A's, too, in just five games. The little-known Marlins were supposed to have no chance against the Yankees in 2003. And the Tigers' pitching staff was supposed to crush the injured, 83-win Cards last October. Yet, in every case, the underdog matched up well and got hot. The favorites panicked and folded. It happens. And it can happen again.

Most fans think this series is a mismatch, as the 2-1 Vegas line implies. The Red Sox tied for the most regular season wins in baseball (96), have a garish $145 million payroll and, most important, boast the experience and swagger that comes from a core of stars who won the '04 world title. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez led the Red Sox back from a three-game deficit against the '04 Yanks, then outscored the Indians 30-5 in the final three games of this year's ALCS to abscond with the pennant. Why would they have trouble beating a team that spent 149 games hidden in the pack in the inferior National League?

Besides, the Red Sox have the same home-field advantage that rattled the young Indians because the AL won the All-Star Game. And who was the winning pitcher of that July exhibition? Beckett. See, it's practically preordained.

All fair points. At the most basic level, the Rockies may simply lack the first-rate starting pitching to compete. Josh Fogg has a recent history as a dragon slayer for beating several big-name pitchers. But his 60-60 career record tells the truth, doesn't it? Cook's career mark is 36-35. Those are humble credentials to take onto the mound in the World Series. In contrast, the Red Sox are trying to figure out when to pitch Daisuke Matsuzaka, for whom they paid $103 million.

Despite this fundamental superiority in proven starting pitching, the Rookies have an important but underappreciated advantage. Recently, they've had one too many good hitters. They couldn't get both speedster Willy Taveras (.320) and Ryan Spilborghs (.299), who had 51 RBI in just 264 at-bats, in the lineup. With the designated hitter in the games played at Fenway, the Rockies' frightening lineup, which scored only seven fewer runs than Boston this year, will be even tougher.

In Colorado, the Red Sox will have exactly the opposite problem. With no DH, who on earth do they bench? The choices are Ortiz (no way), Mike Lowell (team RBI leader) or Kevin Youkilis (their hottest hitter at the moment). Losing any one of those bats, and allowing the Rockies suspect pitcher to work around Boston's No. 8 hitter, may hurt the Red Sox at Coors Field where plenty of runs are still needed, whether the baseballs are now kept in a humidor or not.

Before we say, "The Rockies can keep it up," or, "The Red Sox are just too good," we should remember that, of all America's major sports events, the one that has most consistently produced spectacular and memorable results over the last third of a century has been the World Series. Going back to '75, I gave each Series a quick grade. Of the 31 Series, 22 were an "A" in my book, including 10 seven-gamers, plus those big upsets by the '88 Dodgers, '90 Reds, '03 Marlins and '06 Cards, as well as the '04 Red Sox title (first in 86 years) and the '80 Phils (only title ever). Some other Series can be recalled by a simple phrase, like "Reggie-Reggie-Reggie," or "Joe Carter's Walk-Off Homer," or "Atlanta's One in 14."

Make your own list. Going back to '75, I could find only four outright World Series duds, including '89 with the earthquake by the Bay. Anticipating boredom in October baseball just bucks all the odds. Go ahead and yawn. Say the Red Sox will win in a laugher, that the Rockies will be killed by their layoff and that the NL can't upset the superior AL two years in a row.

Prediction: Rockies in seven games.

How do they win Game 7 at Fenway? Surprise me.

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