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Thursday, October 20, 2005
Dominant starting pitching for both sides

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

White Sox Astros Why Chicago could win: Incredible starting pitching. Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia combined to go 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA in the American League Championship Series against Los Angeles. They struck out 22, walked only four and held the Angels to an aggregate .178 batting average. If they can make Vladimir Guerrero look feeble, they can certainly do it to Houston's lineup.

Why Houston could win: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt match up favorably with any Big Three -- including the 1963 Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres -- and Brandon Backe is no slouch in the fourth spot. Jason Lane, Chris Burke and Houston's kids experienced their growing pains early in the season, when the Astros were limping along at 15-30. Now they're playing with the confidence of veterans.

Late innings: Here's where Houston merits an edge, Albert Pujols' Game 5, ninth-inning home run notwithstanding. Brad Lidge converted 42 of 46 save chances during the regular season and was close to unhittable for extended stretches. Chicago closer Bobby Jenks has dominant stuff, but he never appeared in the ALCS and he's about to enter the kind of pressure cooker he has yet to experience. The Astros bounced back from Lidge's gopher ball to Pujols. How will the White Sox respond if Jenks blows one?

Style points: Neither team has a slugger with the reputation of a Pujols or a David Ortiz, but they took advantage of cozy ballparks to hit their fair share of home runs. The White Sox, led by Paul Konerko, banged out 200 homers, while the Astros hit 161 during the regular season. Scott Podsednik (59 stolen bases) and Willy Taveras (34) are top-of-the-order troublemakers. The White Sox consider third baseman Joe Crede a Gold Glover, but Taveras will challenge him with the bunt.

X-factor: For a .255 career hitter, Crede has impeccable timing. He helped the White Sox fend off Cleveland with a huge, game-winning homer off David Riske late in the season. Then Crede came up big several times against the Angels in the ALCS. He won the disputed Game 2 with an RBI double, and produced the tying homer off Kelvim Escobar and the winning infield hit against Francisco Rodriguez in the ALCS clincher. No wonder teammate Aaron Rowand refers to Crede as "Johnny Clutch.''

Pivot men: Craig Biggio is playing with the energy and verve of a young kid of, say, 35. He sets the tone for the Astros with his filthy helmet, his clutch hitting and his selfless play. And he continues to enhance his Hall of Fame credentials in the process. On the Chicago side, Orlando "El Duque'' Hernandez pitched wonderfully against Boston in the first round, but never made an appearance against the Angels. Still, he's a nice weapon to have in reserve.

Writer's block: This is an awfully fun series for baseball fans stricken with Red Sox-Yankees overload. Ozzie Guillen and Phil Garner fill notebooks better than any managers in the game, and there's the romantic angle of the Astros trying to win for Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and the Sox shooting for their first title since 1917. In a series this close, however, it could come down to bullpens, and Chicago's relief corps comes in with a full two weeks worth of rest. That's just too much for this late in October.

Prediction: Astros in seven.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.