AL, NL League Championship Series Preview

In the American League, it's a rematch of the classic battle between the Yankes and Red Sox. It doesn't get better than that. The National League features St.Louis and Houston, two teams from the Central Division. Once again, wild card teams are playing a prominent role in the major league post-season.

No Astro has appreciated the Astros' postseason run as much as RHP Brandon Backe, who won Game 3 to put the Astros ahead in the best-of-five Division Series against the Braves.

The Astros lost all seven of the franchise's previous postseason series, and Backe, 26, is just old enough to remember most of those difficult losses.

"For guys from this area like myself, we have a chance to fulfill our dreams," Backe said after holding the Braves to five hits and two runs with two walks and five strikeouts over six strong innings. "I'm doing it right now. There's no reason at all the young fans out there can't do the same thing."

Astros fans cannot forget that the Braves eliminated Houston from the Division Series in 1997, 1999 and 2001. With a sellout crowd of 43,547 at Minute Maid Park, Backe and his teammates moved a step closer to ending their postseason rut by taking a 2-1 advantage in the series for the first time in four Division Series the Braves and Astros have played.

"I don't want it to happen to me," he said. "It's happened to the Astros time and time again, and me being on the team, I definitely don't want it to happen. I'm going to do my best with whatever I can do to help out."


CF Carlos Beltran and LF Lance Berkman have led the offense in the postseason, and 1B Jeff Bagwell is hitting well. LF Craig Biggio came through with a three-run home run on Sunday in Game 4, and 2B Jeff Kent has picked it up in the last two games of the series after struggling in the first two. SS Jose Vizcaino hasn't been much of a factor. 3B Morgan Ensberg is one of the hottest Astros in the postseason.

RHP Roger Clemens, RHP Brandon Backe and RHP Roger Clemens have come through with three quality starts in the first four games of the Division Series. Clemens pitched five innings on three days' rest Sunday, allowing only two runs, in the only game that wasn't a quality start. RHP Brad Lidge blew the save in Game 2 or else the Astros already would have clinched the NLCS berth. Lidge collected the save in Game 3. RHP Russ Springer and RHP Chad Qualls haven't excelled in the postseason, but LHP Mike Gallo has been a pleasant surprise. RHP Dan Miceli, who gave up the winning two-run home run in the 11th inning of Game 2, has been decent. RHPs Dan Wheeler and Chad Harville haven't been used in the postseason even though they're on the roster.

The Cardinals' starting pitching, which was a concern as the club entered the postseason, was spotty in the Division Series round.

Right-hander Woody Williams pitched durably and won, right-hander Jason Marquis pitched poorly in a game the Cardinals eventually won and right-hander Matt Morris pitched well enough to win but got shut out. Right-hander Jeff Suppan had control trouble in his first postseason start but retired the last 14 hitters in beating Los Angeles 6-2 to win the series.

But it was apparent early on in the postseason that if the Cardinals can turn the game over to their bullpen, their chances of winning are good. In the four games of the Division Series, Cardinals relievers gave up just one run in 11 2/3 innings.

Left-hander Steve Kline was effective in two appearances, indicating that he could pitch successfully with a partially torn tendon in his left index finger. Right-hander Kiko Calero was impressive in his first playoff action, and left-hander Ray King continued to retire lefties.

The versatility of the Cardinals' offense was on display early as they scored eight runs in hitting five home runs in Game 1 and scored eight runs while hitting no homers in Game 2. But then they got a little anxious against right-hander Jose Lima, who blanked them on five hits in Game 3.

In their zeal to attack Lima, they hit too many flyballs -- there were 14 airborne outs out of 27. But the next night, right fielder Larry Walker, a power hitter for most of his career, played small ball, walking twice and singling twice.


RHP Chris Carpenter, who was going to start Game 1 of the playoffs, probably won't be pitching at all the rest of the season. Carpenter, a 15-game winner for the Cardinals after missing last season with shoulder difficulties, has a nerve problem in his right biceps, similar to what has plagued Los Angeles ace Brad Penny.

As worrisome as the Cardinals' starting pitching has been, their bullpen has been first-rate. In the four playoff games, the relievers gave up just one run in 11 2/3 innings. RHP Kiko Calero, holding right-handed and left-handed hitters alike under .180, might be a key pitcher as the playoffs roll on.

The barroom brawl that began in last season's Championship Series rolled right through offseason skirmishes over Curt Schilling and Alex Rodriguez, through a regular season that featured a memorable fight before finally returning exactly to where it began.

One year after an epic seven-game Championship Series that punched the Yankees' ticket to the World Series and punched Red Sox fans in the stomach, the two teams will tangle anew.

"We kind of knew it would have to go through New York," CF Johnny Damon said. "Here it goes."

Almost to a man, the Sox dismissed the rhetoric of their rut without a World Series victory that dates to 1918. So, too, did the club suggest that the 26 World Series titles by the Yankees mean little.

The recent past is another story. The feeling of despair after the Yankees erased a 5-2 eighth-inning deficit to win Game 7 by a 6-5 count last year remains as motivational fodder.

"Ninety percent of us were here last year. We remember that feeling when we walked off in Game 7. We remember that agony that you felt in your stomach for a long time after that," said Kevin Millar. "This team's burning with that desire to go out there and win."

Though the Sox (98-64) finished three games behind the Yankees (101-61) in the regular season, Boston feels emboldened by its 11-8 record in the teams' regular-season set. Adding to that sense are the additions of Game 1 starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke.

"Last year we were a little one-dimensional. We were really an offensive juggernaut," reflected GM Theo Epstein of a team that scored 961 runs. "We're now multi-dimensional. Our pitching staff is more talented. Our defense has improved. ... And I don't think we lost anything offensively from last year."

The true test of those improvements starts Tuesday in the crucible of Yankee Stadium. It is a challenge that the team relishes.

"To win a World Series and to go through New York on the way," admitted Epstein, "would probably mean that much more."


Though the battle of the bullpens in the first round of the playoffs was expected to prove no contest, the Sox more than held their own against the Angels' ballyhooed relievers, never more than when a trio combined to strike out the side in the eighth inning of Game 2. Still, the performance of the starters commanded the most notice as RHPs Curt Schilling, Bronson Arroyo and Pedro Martinez each turned in quality outings. The threesome allowed 8 runs in 19 2/3 innings.

As it is in every series for the Yankees, their playoff fate will be decided by the arms of their rotation, which entered the AL Championship Series in order because they were able to beat Minnesota in four games instead of five.

"It was very important," general manager Brian Cashman said of disposing of the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series early. "This gives us a chance to set up our rotation the way we want."

Although pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre wouldn't bite as to the order after the Yankees' Game 4 victory, there's little doubt they will play the same hand.

Mike Mussina gets Game 1, followed by Jon Lieber, 11-3 at the Stadium during the regular season, as the givens.

"Like I said before, whatever they want to do with me is fine," Lieber said.

That leaves health question Kevin Brown in Game 3 at Fenway Park and Game 4 the question between Orlando Hernandez and Javier Vazquez.

Brown's lower back was stiff after Game 3, but during the celebration said he was fine and Stottlemyre didn't appear worried.

"I think he'll be all right," Stottlemyre said. "The soreness he's feeling is normal after a start."

Hernandez's tired shoulder remains a question.

Hernandez didn't throw Saturday, as expected, or Sunday, but manager Joe Torre is hopeful of knowing the veteran pitcher's status after Monday's workout.

"He'll do a bullpen, and we'll see if we can slot him in somewhere."

If Hernandez shows even remote signs of being able to pitch by the end of this week, he'll stay on the postseason roster based on his playoff experience, Brown's tenuous health and the fact that it doesn't look as if Jason Giambi is ready.


Manager Joe Torre juggled the lineup at the top of the order, leading off SS Derek Jeter and moving 3B Alex Rodriguez to second ahead of RF Gary Sheffield. With DH Jason Giambi out for the playoffs, LF Hideki Matsui and CF Bernie Williams have gotten cleanup opportunities. The Yankees have nine players who had double-digit homers this season: Tony Clark, Giambi, Jeter, Matsui, Jorge Posada, Rodriguez, Sheffield, Ruben Sierra and Williams.

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