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Old Hands Now

After more than 40 years of waiting for a Series shot, White Sox and Astros bring their vintage stuff tonight

October 22, 2005|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It was the summer of 1986 and Aaron Rowand was playing his first season as, he recalled, a good-field, no-hit Little Leaguer.

He wandered the aisles at Anaheim Stadium before a game between the Angels and Boston Red Sox. He remembers stopping at a short rail and peering over it, down into the visitors' bullpen.

It wasn't what he saw that so fascinated him, but what he heard.

"The pop of the catcher's glove," he said. "I thought, 'There's no way anybody could ever hit something like that.' "

Tonight, in his first World Series, Rowand will bat sixth against Roger Clemens.

Maybe he will recognize the sound of the fastball.

"It's amazing," Rowand said. "It's amazing he's done what he's done in his career. For him to be on top of his game at 43, it's just amazing."

The Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox begin the 101st World Series tonight at U.S. Cellular Field, a best-of-seven that may be decided by the best of four, Astro starters against White Sox starters.

Nearing the end of his 22nd major league season, Clemens starts tonight against former New York Yankee teammate Jose Contreras. It is Clemens' eighth World Series start, the first seven of which yielded a 3-0 record and a 1.90 earned-run average.

"It'll be interesting," Rowand said. "It'll be exciting. It'll be all kinds of things. Ultimately, it'll be about us going out and trying to beat him."

There should be a lot of that going around. Against two of the lighter-hitting teams in recent World Series history, and given that both were constructed with pitching and defense in mind, and that both staffs pitched their teams through the first weeks of October, this Series figures to belong to Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe for the Astros, and Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia for the White Sox. And then, maybe, to the bullpens.

Clemens and Pettitte have the postseason pedigrees, Oswalt the authoritative pitches and precision to lead even his own staff.

The White Sox rotation just pitched a five-game series against the Angels in which it was so dominant it required only two outs from its relievers. White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, so far, has found only one game for Garland, an 18-game winner in the regular season.

And so there is poetic justice in Clemens, winner of 341 games and seven Cy Young Awards, taking the ball for Game 1, for a franchise that had never been here, against a franchise that hasn't won for 88 years.

He no longer throws as hard, or generally for as long, but he remains a commanding presence, particularly in October, the later the better.

He called it, "A lot of responsibility, which I've had in the past, but it does not diminish the fact at all that I know that so many people are counting on me. I enjoy that. I expect it. It's the career I've led. So, here we go again."

In their leagues, the Astros were second and the White Sox were tied for first in regular-season ERA, and both lowered them in the playoffs. The White Sox had a remarkable 2.50 in eight games against the Red Sox and Angels.

They have similar, dynamic pitching coaches who like to see early strikes, breaking balls in fastball counts and pitchers avoiding predictable patterns.

White Sox coach Don Cooper turned Contreras and Garland into big winners, and Astro coach Jim Hickey nudged along veterans Clemens and Pettitte, and convinced Oswalt that he had the velocity and the command to be a fastball pitcher.

In Wednesday's clincher in St. Louis, Oswalt threw only a few breaking balls and forced fastballs into the strike zone. As a result, in the most important game in franchise history, he threw his signature game.

"Roy, he's a power pitcher, and that's it," Pettitte said. "He's going to come at you, no matter who's standing in the box. He can do things me and Roger can't do. He is so aggressive in the strike zone, with such great stuff. He is special."

The Astros will get to him eventually, in Game 3, after Pettitte. First, there is Clemens, again in the National League Cy Young running, again thinking about retiring, again with so much left. The Astros hardly ever scored for him in the regular season, and his back and hamstring bothered him down the stretch, and he still started 32 games, won 13 and had the lowest ERA of his career, 1.87.

In the ruckus of the clubhouse, catcher Brad Ausmus smiled thinly and said, "Yeah, and I'm sure [the White Sox] feel good about Contreras starting too."



Inning eaters

The success of the White Sox and Astros is in part a result of their starting pitchers' abilities to last deep into the game. The games started by pitchers on each team, along with the percentage of time they pitched at least a specific number of innings:

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