When you watch the World Series, at least you deserve to know which team should be favored, so that if you see an upset you'll appreciate it. The White Sox are most people's pick. That's wrong. Houston has been the better team for five months.
Baseball tends to dote on the result of the entire season, all 162 games, or else fixate on the last few days. Either we look at the biggest possible picture or gaze at the smallest available snapshot. Often, that gives useful information, but not this time. By these measures, Chicago looks better. The White Sox won more regular season games, 99 to 89, and have won 12 of their last 13 games. Those facts, coupled with the four straight complete-game wins by the Chicago rotation in the ALCS, has folks mesmerized. And it's taking some of the pre-Series fun out of a matchup that is, in reality, very close. But distinctly tilted toward the Astros.
Chicago was the hottest contender of the early season (24-7) and Houston the coldest (15-30). That's distorted everybody's perspective. Since then, both teams have changed radically. Since late May, the Astros have played .643 baseball. That's a 104-win pace over a full season. This Houston team is not some wild-card fluke.
Over their last 116 games, including the playoffs, the Astros have outscored their opponents by 127 runs. They aren't just sneaking by on luck and grit. They've found a style of play, gotten reasonably healthy, survived a tough wild-card race, knocked off the Braves and broken the hearts of the Cards, who truly thought they were the best team in the game. Except for one swing by Albert Pujols, Houston would've won four straight from the 100-win Cards in the NLCS. The Astros are more than "real." They have one of the best pitching rotations in the last 50 years of Series play and one of the most overpowering closers.
Meanwhile, the White Sox have staggered and stumbled since the end of June, when they were a scalding 50-22. Has everybody suddenly gotten amnesia? Exactly one month ago the White Sox' 15-game division lead on Cleveland had shrunk to 11/2 games with 10 to play. Chicago was on the verge of the biggest collapse in baseball history. Fans may have forgotten. You can bet the White Sox haven't. For much of September, every Pale Hose fan was out on the ledge with a blindfold. Out of perversity, I watched much of the slump on TV, perhaps to see if color man Ken "Hawk" Harrelson would actually climb out of the booth, run onto the field and try to strangle one of the offending White Sox players.
Now the same guys who made the hometown announcers quit on them are going to glide through the World Series? Right.
From July 1 until the end of the regular season, Chicago barely outscored the league -- by 14 runs in 90 games. That's a long streak of mediocrity. And the reason for it was basic to the White Sox. Their starting rotation faded. Before the all-star game, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Orlando Hernandez were a combined 36-12. After the all-star break, they were 19-23. Buehrle started the year 10-1 then went 6-7. Garland began 12-2 then 6-8. Garcia opened 9-3 then 5-5. Contreras was the exception. He came to the wire blazing, winning his last eight starts. Luckily for the Chisox, he starts Game 1.
By the time you get to October, what happened in April, May and June doesn't matter much (ask the Nationals). Teams morph, even within one season. And both the Astros and White Sox are extreme -- and misleading -- examples.
Before we get carried away, let's make it clear that the gap between these teams isn't large. A fine case can be made for the White Sox. They not only have deep starting pitching and a good bullpen but hit 200 home runs, steal plenty of bases, field well, have the home-field advantage and must feel lucky every time they glimpse at their human October talisman, A.J. Pierzynski. Whether he strikes out, dribbles a ball back to the pitcher or interferes with a hitter, he always wins the lottery.
However, the White Sox' case is no fun to make, because everybody already has. And it's flawed. To like the White Sox' chances, you have to be so impressed with what they've done right in the past two weeks that you forget what went before it.
And what exactly have they done recently? And how much help did they get from the teams they beat?
The Indians pulled an awful last-week fold and simply refused to win any of their final last-weekend games in Chicago. In the ALDS, the White Sox beat an exhausted Red Sox team that fought with the Yankees until the final day of the regular season then didn't get a single postseason pitch from Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke. Then the White Sox benefited from facing the Angels just as they were coming off three games in three cities in three days, including a coast-to-coast flight. The Angels didn't even have their injured 20-game winner, Bartolo Colon. Perhaps the proper question from the ALCS is how the White Sox came so close to falling into an 0-2 hole at home against the tired and wounded Angels.
Of course, when a franchise hasn't won a World Series in 88 years, how can you begrudge them some breaks? However, the White Sox' five-day layoff before the Series may be too much of a good thing. Few hitters are helped by so many days without seeing live pitching in game conditions. As for the Chicago starters, they couldn't possibly pitch any better than they did against the Angels. So how will weird amounts of rest, as much as nine days off for Buehrle, help them?
The Astros, however, fell into a perfect rotation cycle by closing out the Cardinals in six games. If the NLCS had gone to a Game 7, the Houston staff would have been a mess. Fourth starter Brandon Backe would probably have pitched twice.
Sometimes we lose sight of the obvious. None of the Chicago starters has ever won 20 games. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt have all won 20 games multiple times. Chicago closer Bobby Jenks has six career saves. Brad Lidge has 71 the last two seasons. The Cardinals were a higher-scoring team this season without a DH than the White Sox were with a DH. Yet the Astros completely shut down the Cards in the NLCS. So, why should the Astros' staff have much trouble with the White Sox, especially in the three games in Houston when Chicago loses its useful DH, Carl Everett?
Over 162 games, the Astros had a major weakness -- rotation depth. Gentlemen like Backe, Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio started almost 40 percent of Houston's games. But now, with two off days next week, the Astros' Big Three will start six of seven potential Series games (86 percent). You'll need binoculars to find Wandy and Ezequiel.
If the White Sox pull off their 88-year project, don't damn them with faint praise. Don't say they "only" beat the wild-card Astros, a light-hitting team with four fancy-name pitchers and nothing else. Houston's been a first-rate outfit for many months. And they're playing their best right now. If Chicago whips 'em, the White Sox deserve every drop of champagne they can guzzle.