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Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Why that other team (Rockies) will win in six

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The team with the most household names is not going to be the team that wins this World Series.

The team that plays in Ben Affleck's favorite hallowed ballpark is not going to be the team that wins this World Series.

Oh. And one more thing. The team that thinks it has finally lifted all its curses and busted all its ghosts is not going to be the team that wins this World Series.

Yeah, we recognize that, to most of America, this World Series feels like a battle between the World-Famous Red Sox and That Other Team, Whoever The Heck They Are.

But get back to us in a week and a half. By then, we predict you'll know exactly who That Other Team is.

That'll be the Colorado Rockies -- the team planning its parade route.

Rockies in six. That's how we see it.

Don't think it isn't tough to pick against the Red Sox. They have Josh Beckett. They have proven October warriors. They have four games in their one-of-a-kind home park. And they just pulled off an ALCS comeback that looked frighteningly reminiscent of October 2004.

But the Rockies aren't just this Series' designated punching bag, stopping by to give the Red Sox somebody to play on the way to their inevitable ticker-tape shower.

No, no, no. This is the best, and most complete, team in the National League. A team that led the league in hitting. And led the league in defense. And led the league in ERA after the All-Star break. And had the best record in the NL after May 1, June 1, July 1, Aug. 1, Sept. 1 and Oct. 1.

WORLD SERIES

Rockies-Red Sox
series page

So why wouldn't this be a team eminently capable of winning the World Series?

Well, it is. And we're not alone in thinking that, believe it or not. We surveyed six of the sharpest scouting minds in America this week. The first question we asked all of them was whether we were crazy to think the Rockies could beat the Red Sox.

"You're not crazy," said one of them. "I was thinking exactly the same thing."

"That's not crazy at all," said another. "Just because the Rockies have never been in the World Series doesn't mean they can't win it. That's a really good club, whether people know it or not."

Clearly, most people don't know it. Yet. But they'll be finding out shortly. What makes us think so? Just check out these Five Reasons the Rockies Are Going to Win the World Series.

1. They're the real team of destiny

We would never diminish what it took for the Red Sox to bash their way out of that 3-1 cavern against Cleveland. But when you get right down to it, all they had to do to survive was win three games in a row. The Rockies, on the other hand, had to win every game they played (or just about) for two weeks. Now that's pressure.

"I think this is destiny, man. Destiny," said longtime Rockies icon Vinny Castilla, now a special assistant to GM Dan O'Dowd. "For us just to get to the playoffs ... we had to win 14 out of 15. We couldn't even lose two games. So I think this team -- it's a team of destiny. It's not going to be beat."

SEE THE ROCKIES' RUN
How did the Colorado Rockies win 21 of 22 games, including seven straight playoff games, to reach the World Series? Check out a game-by-game account of their historic streak.

Obviously, in this sport, a 12-strikeout Josh Beckett two-hitter can derail anybody's Destiny Express rather quickly. But ask anyone who has watched the Rockies in person during this astounding 21-1 blitz. Much like the 2003 Marlins, a low-budget team that upset an experienced Yankees conglomerate similar to these Red Sox, the Rockies have been playing like a team that expects to find a way to win every single game.

"That team is a buzz saw," said one NL executive. "Right now, mentally, there's no question they think they're destined to win this thing. I haven't seen a club in a long time that played with more confidence than Colorado is playing with."

We've never had a team roll into a World Series riding a 21-1 streak. So there's no precedent to help us predict how this team will fare. But it's at least notable that the Rockies are the fifth team in the wild-card era to rip through the first two rounds with no more than one loss. And three of the previous four ('95 Braves, '99 Yankees and '05 White Sox) won the World Series. Two of them (Yankees and White Sox) even swept their opponents.

The exception, though, is a big one -- because it's last year's Tigers, a team that never seemed to recover from its six-day layoff between the LCS and World Series. Which brings us to this:

2. That eight-day layoff was overrated

So how does an eight-day pre-World Series sabbatical affect a Team of Destiny? How would anyone know? Only one team has done it, and that was nearly 100 years ago (the 1910 A's).

We'll concede that a team this hot would never prefer to do it this way. Heck, you can play 1,000 simulated games, but you can't possibly simulate October.

And you can't possibly simulate the feeling of having to win every day, a feeling that fueled this team's magic-carpet ride.

LONGEST SERIES LAYOFFS
Teams that had six or more days off between games entering the World Series:
TEAM DAYS OFF WS RESULT
2007 Rockies 8 ?
2006 Tigers 6 Lost in 5
1996 Yankees 6 Won in 6
1995 Braves 6 Won in 6
1946 Red Sox 6 Lost in 7
1911 Athletics 7 Won in 6
1910 Athletics 10 Won in 5

And most of all, you can't possibly simulate having to face Beckett in Fenway in the first World Series game in the history of the franchise. Can't be done.

But just because the Tigers couldn't regenerate their momentum last October doesn't mean it's impossible. And here's the evidence:

• Of the three teams in the divisional playoff era that have had six-day breaks before the World Series, the '06 Tigers are the only team that didn't turn around and win the Series. The other two -- the '95 Braves and '96 Yankees -- both won in six.

• Of the nine teams that have had breaks of five days or more before the World Series, six of those nine went on to win the Series. The most recent example: the 2005 White Sox, who were so screwed up by their five-day layoff, all they did was go out and sweep the Astros.

• And back in 1989, when the Bay Bridge World Series took an 11-day intermission for seismological reasons, it had zero effect on the Oakland A's. They'd won six of seven postseason games before the earthquake. Then they came back and won the next two by a combined score of 22-13.

So you can probably make an argument that a little rest, a little sleep and a little mental break is a good thing, nearly seven months into the marathon.

"I don't think the break is that big a deal," said one scout. "They'll still be amped up. How can they not be? It's their first World Series ever. They're not veterans of this stuff, so they don't even have a routine, let alone a routine to get thrown out of. I think they'll be fine."

3. The Rockies have the real home-field advantage

Granted, there's no place in baseball quite like Fenway. But there's no place even close to Coors Field -- humidor or no humidor.

Think about how Games 3-4-5 in Coors will affect the Red Sox. It's tough to make a case they don't hurt Boston just about every way possible. Take a look:

ON OFFENSE -- Anybody want to argue that losing the DH won't change the whole personality of the Red Sox lineup? "Their hottest hitter is Kevin Youkilis," said one scout. "But when they go to Colorado, he can't play -- either him or Big Papi [David Ortiz]. So that's a huge hole in that lineup." It's also possible the Red Sox could play Youkilis at third, but that takes Mike Lowell out of the lineup. Or Youkilis could try to sneak by in right field for a night, but that's a big defensive gamble in the most spacious outfield in baseball. And if the Red Sox go with Coco Crisp over Jacoby Ellsbury in center for defensive reasons, that hurts them offensively, too.

ON THE MOUND -- The Coors Effect is so powerful here, it actually affected how the Red Sox structured their original rotation. Curt Schilling (4-4, 5.51 lifetime at Coors) is president of the Coors Haters of America. But the Red Sox were prepared to send him out there to pitch Game 3 in Denver, at least in part because he was still a better altitudinous option than Tim Wakefield, a guy who has been dodging all games in Denver since 1993 (when he went 0-2, 9.31, in two starts at Mile High Stadium). Now, thanks to Wakefield's health problems, they'll both dodge Coors. But if you're curious about how a knuckleballer might have fared in that thin Colorado air, we looked at the four most prominent knuckleball kings of the last 20 years -- Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and Steve Sparks. And their 10 trips to the mound (six starts) in Denver were definitely less scenic than those snow-capped mountains. They went winless (0-4), allowing 50 hits, 69 baserunners, 41 runs and 36 earned runs in 33 innings. That computes to a 9.82 ERA and a disastrous 2.09 WHIP. Oh, and Daisuke Matsuzaka could have his issues, too. "You need power arms to win there," said one scout. "With Dice-K, a guy who has to rely on his screwball or his gyroball, you can't be too sure what that altitude will do to those pitches."

ON DEFENSE -- Just about every scout we spoke with had the same horrifying thought. "I'm trying to envision Manny playing left field in Coors," said one. "That's a little scary." Another put it this way: "Manny will be so lost out there, he'll need radar to find his way back." No matter how you compute it, the Red Sox have leather-working issues at Coors -- whether it's Manny in left, Ortiz wearing his first-base mitt or Youkilis moving to third base or the outfield. Now contrast that to the home team, a team that will have no issues like that, a team that just compiled the highest fielding percentage in baseball history. Definite edge: Rockies.

INTANGIBILITY -- The Rockies are terrors in Coors to begin with. They're 42-15 there since June 2, the best home record in baseball. Now add in the fact that the Red Sox haven't played there since 2004. "So they're not going to have a good feel for what they need to do there, as far as (adjusting to) the lightness of the air and the lack of oxygen," said one scout. "To me, that means if the Rockies split the first two in Boston, they're in good shape."

4. No fear of Fenway

Anyone who watched that ALCS should have no doubt that Fenway Park had a lot to do with why the Red Sox are still standing.

Fenway's inimitable nooks and crannies were a big reason Kenny Lofton never scored the tying run in Game 7. And the occupants of Fenway -- jammed into every seat, lurking right on top of the enemy -- did their part to intimidate the Indians once they fell behind in Games 6 and 7.

Jeff Francis

Francis

Starting Pitcher
Colorado Rockies

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
34 17 9 63 165 4.22

So granted, the Rockies haven't played in Fenway in that atmosphere. But they did play in Fenway as recently as four months ago. And they sure lived to tell about it.

They took two of three there in June. They handed Beckett his first loss of the season, bombarding him for 10 hits and six runs in five innings. The night before, they mugged Schilling for six runs on nine hits in five innings.

And Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook and Josh Fogg -- the three Rockies starters in that series -- combined to allow only four runs in 17 1/3 innings (a 2.08 ERA).

OK, so all those fond memories -- plus a few bucks -- will get the Rockies a ride through the Ted Williams Tunnel. But it's likely to make them less intimidated than your average team as they head into a park where the Red Sox went 51-30 this season.

"That's something that definitely plays into their mental state coming into this thing," said one scout. "Right now, that team thinks it can beat anybody. And they can look at those three games in Fenway and say, 'Here's the proof.'"

5. Lean to the left

We can make too much of the left-right chess match this time of year. But in case you hadn't noticed, the Red Sox almost went into this series with no left-handed starters, and only one left-handed reliever (Hideki Okajima) they trust.

LEFTIES IN RELIEF
How Rockies left-handers Franklin Morales, Jeremy Affeldt and Brian Fuentes fared against left-handed hitters during the regular season:
  MORALES AFFELDT FUENTES
Opp. BA .129 .250 .204
HR 0 1 0
OBP .200 .344 .297
SLG .226 .400 .206

The Rockies, meanwhile, will kick off this World Series with a left-hander (Jeff Francis). And now that Aaron Cook is off the disabled list and lined up for a Game 4 start, they'll move Franklin Morales to the bullpen to join Brian Fuentes and Jeremy Affeldt (against whom Ortiz is 1-for-13 lifetime).

So why does that matter?

Because the Rockies went 70-49 this season when a right-hander started against them -- the best record in the National League. So Boston's tentative Game 4 starter, Jon Lester (who should replace Wakefield in the rotation), suddenly looms as a key figure in this Series. "With [Todd] Helton and [Brad] Hawpe and those guys, and no left-handers to face them, I think that's a factor," said one NL executive. "Look at the one pitcher who was able to control them in this postseason -- Jamie Moyer. Off-speed lefties can control that lineup better than right-handers."

And the Red Sox went 25-23 this year when a left-hander started against them (versus 71-43 against right-handers). "You've got to have left-handers to come in and neutralize Ortiz and [J.D.] Drew," said the same executive. "And Colorado has them. Plus, I think that staff showed in the Philadelphia series that they can shut down good hitters with their power arms -- and not just their starters. With their bullpen, too."

So don't think the Rockies don't have enough pitching to deal with a lineup this good. They'll have to pitch inside relentlessly and wear out the strike zone. But they match up against the Red Sox every bit as well as the Indians did, if not better.

"Oh, they can win," said one scout. "Absolutely. And I think Game 1 is crucial -- to Boston. Beckett has to win Game 1. If he doesn't, Colorado is going to win the Series. You can mark that down."

Heck, you can mark it down anyway. Colorado in six. You heard it here first.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.