Baseball's 162-game regular season schedule performed an admirable job of weeding out the postseason pretenders -- such as the Oakland Athletics, who learned the dangers of relying on a trio of great starting pitchers (not to mention Arthur Rhodes as a closer), and the Chicago Cubs, who acted as if October was their birthright yet who played astoundingly undisciplined baseball for the last six months.
It was not an easy task whittling down this field. Three races -- the American League West, the National League West and the NL wild card -- came down to the final 48 hours of the season, and the Houston Astros needed game No. 162 to lock up the final spot.
This postseason will have a difficult time matching last year's for story lines and drama. Last October gave us Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who stuck a hand in front of Moises Alou's glove, giving the Florida Marlins new life and sending Chicago to an unfathomable loss.
It also gave us Aaron Boone, a bit player in the first six games of the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox ALCS -- a series that offered the unforgettable sight of Pedro Martinez pile driving Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer into the ground. But it was Boone's pennant-clinching homer in the 10th inning of Game 7 that ended the whole thing.
Last October also gave us Yankees ace Roger Clemens's touching farewell from the game, as The Rocket waved goodbye during Game 4 of the World Series to a standing ovation at Florida's Pro Player Stadium.
Which brings us to the Astros' starter in Wednesday's Game 1 of their Division Series against Atlanta: Roger Clemens. Wouldn't it be fascinating to see Clemens facing his old teammates in the World Series, just to see what sort of reaction Clemens would get at unforgiving Yankee Stadium?
Well, the Yankees will have to get there first. Never before in the Joe Torre era have the Yankees seemed so vulnerable on the eve of the postseason. Not only is Jason Giambi, their $118 million first baseman, about to get left off their postseason roster, but their starting staff, in the minds of some scouts, is the weakest of all eight playoff teams.
Right-hander Mike Mussina, still looking for his first World Series ring, will start Game 1. But after that . . . what? Orlando Hernandez has a dead arm. Kevin Brown has a sore left hand. Javier Vazquez has a 7.06 ERA in the second half. Does anyone have David Cone's phone number?
Although the Boston Red Sox had to settle for the wild card -- finishing runner-up to the Yankees in the AL East for the seventh straight season -- many observers believe their combination of crazy-deep lineup and frontline starting pitching makes them the team to beat.
"Our guys felt a lot of heartache last year, with how close we came and how hard it was to get there," Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon said. "But [this year] we're deeper in our pitching staff. This is a team that can do it."
At one point in late September, five teams from California were in contention -- the Padres, Angels, Dodgers, Giants and A's. Only Anaheim and Los Angeles made it, but this marks the first time both made the playoffs the same year, setting up a potential I-5 World Series.
"It's great that we're both there, because I know how hard the Dodgers worked and I know how hard we worked," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters. "I think it demonstrates that baseball on the West Coast is incredible."
Here are some of the trends to follow as October unfolds:
1.Who's hot? Who's not?
Recent postseason history is littered with examples of teams (see: Florida, 2003; Anaheim, 2002) that got hot down the stretch and carried that momentum into October. In many cases, it's not the best team that wins the World Series; just the hottest.
With that in mind, watch out for Houston (36 wins in their final 46 games, including seven straight wins to wrap up the wild card), Boston (a 40-15 closing stretch) and Atlanta (21-12 since Aug. 30). In the not-hot category are Minnesota (7-10 since its nine-game winning streak in mid-September), St. Louis (2-5 in the final week of the season) and Los Angeles (10-11 since Sept. 12).
2. Pair of aces
Recent history also favors teams that can run two premier pitchers to the mound four (or five) times in a seven-game series. In 2001, for example, Diamondbacks aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson pitched 382/3 of a possible 532/3 innings over seven games to carry Arizona to the World Series title over the Yankees.
Now in Boston, Schilling is paired with Martinez to give the Red Sox an exceptional 1-2 punch -- although it looked much more formidable before Martinez dropped his final four decisions of the season.
"I'm not worried about Pedro," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said. "He's going to come out and pitch the kind of game we're used to seeing him pitch."
The Twins clearly have the best pitcher in baseball at the moment in left-hander Johan Santana, who went 13-0 with a 1.18 ERA in the second half. Lately, though, right-hander Brad Radke has also been pitching like an ace, going 2-1 with a 1.97 ERA and two no-decisions in September.
In the NL, the Astros clearly have the best tandem of aces in Clemens and Roy Oswalt, who were a combined 38-14 with a 3.25 ERA this season.
3. The final six outs
The Yankees were never more dominant in October than during those years when they had the tag-team of lefty Mike Stanton and right-hander Jeff Nelson setting up for incomparable closer Mariano Rivera.
Nowadays, the Yankees head into the playoffs without a lefty Torre can trust in the late innings. Instead, the eighth inning almost always belongs to right-hander Tom Gordon, no matter the matchups.
"Ideally, you'd like to have a lefty [set-up man]. But we haven't had one, for the most part, all year, so you get used to it," Mussina said. "What we have, basically, is two closers -- Flash [Gordon] in the eighth, and Mo [Rivera] in the ninth."
The Angels, too, have what amounts to two closers in Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez and Troy Percival.
No one could have gotten this far without an excellent bullpen and a solid closer, but many of them (including Houston's Brad Lidge, Minnesota's Joe Nathan and the Dodgers' Eric Gagne) are unproven in October.
Where does that leave us? It leaves us with the Astros and Red Sox winning their respective pennants, and with Houston winning the World Series in seven games. Clemens retires and un-retires between Games 6 and 7.