Upset Specials The underdogs are having their day in October, setting the stage for two unexpected matchups in the League Championship Series

October 13, 2002

ALCS: ANGELS VS. TWINS
The Great Unknown

Francisco Rodriguez is too young to legally drink alcohol but
good enough to be bathed in it. So there he was last Saturday,
dripping champagne and beer from head to toe in the Anaheim
Angels' clubhouse, only 17 days removed from his first major
league game, one year from Class A ball and four years from
leaving Caracas, Venezuela, and his 13 younger brothers and
sisters to become a pro baseball player at age 16. The Angels
had not only won a postseason series for the first time in their
41-year history but had also brought a resounding end to the
mythopoeia about the modern New York Yankees dynasty,
embarrassing the defending American League champs three games to
one in the Division Series.

Rodriguez, a 20-year-old righthander who didn't have a major
league win entering the playoffs, came on in relief in each
Anaheim triumph, earning two victories. He imposed his will on
the series as surely as a hot branding iron makes its mark on the
backside of a steer. In 19 at bats against his nasty repertoire
of fastballs and sliders, New York hitters struck out eight
times, missing 16 of the 35 pitches they swung at. "I am still
young," says Rodriguez. "But when you have a big heart and big
stuff, anything is possible."

Rodriguez, brought up from the Triple A Salt Lake Stingers on
Sept. 17, is largely unknown, even on his own club. The name tag
above his locker reads rodrigues. But he's not the only surprise
in the American League Championship Series, which was scheduled
to begin on Tuesday. The Minnesota Twins, part of commissioner
Bud Selig's contraction plan last winter, joined the Angels in
the coming-out party with a 5-4 win over the Oakland A's on
Sunday in Game 5. The A's again proved to be pretenders to the
Yankees' throne. Over the last three seasons they have played six
postseason games with champagne on standby and lost every one of
them.

Without New York and Oakland, the American League Championship
Series will be contested by two teams that are unwanted by their
owners and unloved by the television networks but that play
baseball with similar attention to detail. Considering the way
both clubs emphasize defense and move runners along, this is a
connoisseur's series.

The Angels, for instance, finished off the creaky Yankees in Game
4 with an eight-run fifth inning in which they had 10 hits in a
23-pitch span against three hurlers. In the series Anaheim, the
league's toughest team to whiff, batted .344 with two strikes in
the count, and fouled off 107 pitches. "They scratch and claw
until they get a pitch they can hit, and then they don't miss,"
said New York's Mike Mussina, who gave up four runs in four
innings of a Game 3 loss. "If they continue to play like this,
they're going to win everything. They are one hot team."

Oakland first baseman Scott Hatteberg says of the Twins and the
Angels, "They're very similar teams, clones in fact." They faced
each other nine times in the regular season, with Minnesota
winning five and each club scoring 43 runs. "There's no standout
guy in either of their lineups, but top to bottom they're
battlers and overachievers. And both teams have good bullpens.
It'll be an interesting series. I couldn't pick it."

The Twins haven't played the Angels since July 16, when Rodriguez
had recently been promoted to Triple A. Anaheim general manager
Bill Stoneman said he didn't summon Rodriguez until after the
minor league season had concluded because "the guys we had here
were doing the job, and we wanted him to work and develop." With
fellow power pitcher Troy Percival behind him, Rodriguez gives
Anaheim the ability to lock down games after six innings the way
the Yankees did with Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland in the
mid-1990s.

Says one scout, "He's the secret weapon, the X factor in the
series. The Twins have never seen him. If he's throwing that
slider and the Twins stay aggressive, he's going to eat them
alive."

It was only four years ago that Rodriguez was pitching for a
Venezuelan amateur team at a tournament near Chicago. Several
major league clubs offered him a contract, but the Angels outbid
everybody, including the Yankees, with a $900,000 signing bonus.
Asked if he claimed the game ball or another souvenir from his
first win, in Game 2, Rodriguez shook his head and then pointed
to his heart. "It will be in here," he said. "I don't need a ball
for that."

NLCS: Cardinals vs. Braves
Help from a Higher Power

They're sitting together on the edge of a cloud, wearing red
caps, with a perfect view into Busch Stadium. And when Jack Buck
and Darryl Kile watch their favorite team play, they make sure to
sprinkle a little angel dust, just for good luck.

If you think this sounds silly, you'd be wise not to enter the
St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse, where 25 men seem
convinced--beyond even the slightest of doubts--that they are
destined to roll past the San Francisco Giants in the National
League Championship Series and then win the team's first World
Series in 20 years. During the Cards' three-game laugher over
the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series last week, no
St. Louis player would take sole credit for anything. After
righthanded ace Matt Morris allowed just one earned run over
seven innings in his Game 1 victory, he acknowledged Kile for
teaching him calmness under pressure. After Rick White threw an
inning of one-hit relief in Game 2, he cited Buck's "spiritual
presence." After second baseman Fernando Vina, whose .600 series
average led the assault, was asked to explain his playoff
heroics, his reply was automatic. "Bro," he said, "that comes
from above."

Vina was not referring to the beams 10 feet over his head in the
St. Louis clubhouse, from which Kile's white home jersey dangles
like a Christmas ornament. No, ever since Buck, the club's
broadcaster for 48 years, and Kile, the crafty starting pitcher,
died in June, the Cardinals have gazed skyward and drawn
inspiration from their grief.

"They had a choice when all the tragedy struck," said Arizona
outfielder David Dellucci. "They could have folded, and nobody
would have blamed them. But they became stronger. They're going
to win the World Series. I mean, how do you stop a team on a
mission?"

If there's one man who has the answer to that question, it's
Giants righthander Livan Hernandez, who five years ago, with the
Florida Marlins, was faced with a similarly daunting task. In
1997 the hard-luck Cleveland Indians, appearing in their second
World Series in 43 years, were everybody's choice to beat the
upstart Marlins, who were in only their fifth season of
existence. Instead Hernandez won his two starts and the Series
MVP award as Florida took the world championship in seven games.
Five years and, oh, 7,876 Big Macs later, Hernandez is still one
of the game's top playoff performers. On Sunday night, with the
Braves needing one win to advance, Hernandez produced a masterful
8 1/3-inning, three-run performance in San Francisco's 8-3 win. It
was the 27-year-old Cuban's sixth career postseason decision
without a loss, and it spoke volumes about the Giants' mound
strength. Like Hernandez, righthander Russ Ortiz (2-0, 2.19 ERA
against Atlanta, including a win in Game 5) is fearless in the
playoffs. "Livan's a guy who doesn't get rattled or feel any of
the pressure," says Ortiz. "I definitely feed off him. We all do.
This whole team does not get rattled."

But what makes the Cardinals the thinking man's pick to reach the
World Series--other than their guardian angels--is a lineup that,
top to bottom, has no holes. Whereas the team's three primary
starters (Morris, lefthander Chuck Finley and righthander Andy
Benes) know they can pitch around San Francisco sluggers Barry
Bonds and Jeff Kent, the Giants' staff does not have that luxury.
In the Division Series, for example, after third baseman Scott
Rolen suffered a shoulder sprain in Game 2 that will keep him on
the shelf indefinitely, the Cardinals appeared down and out for
about 17 seconds--until utilityman Miguel Cairo stepped in,
delivered the winning hit in that game and then went 3 for 3 in
the finale. Until then Cairo, who lacks Rolen's power and Gold
Glove, was best known this season for his 19 pinch hits, second
most in the NL.

"When it comes to the playoffs, there are intangibles that are
more important than anything else," rightfielder J.D. Drew says.
"Things that you normally wouldn't think of can make all the
difference between winning and losing. It's that certain special
something." Drew was referring to Cairo's clutch performance,
though he could have meant divine intervention.

Either way, who can argue?

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [T of C] TWINS PEAKING Minnesota catcher A.J. Pierzynski and closer Eddie Guardado celebrate their Division Series victory (page 46). COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO END GAME Rodriguez (left) and Percival give the Angels a one-two knockout punch much like the Yanks' old Rivera-Wetteland combo. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK J. TERRILLION/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: V. J. LOVERO SURPRISE! Torii Hunter and the Twins snuck past Eric Chavez's A's, who thought they were on the brink of a breakthrough. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO GIANT STEP Keyed by a couple of strong pitching performances, Bonds and San Francisco rallied to bounce the Braves. COLOR PHOTO: DIANE L. WILSON/AP INSPIRATIONAL Kile was absent from the Cardinals' rotation, but his presence was still felt as St. Louis swept Arizona.

SI'S FINAL FORECAST

ALCS
Angels over Twins in 6 games
Anaheim has more weapons on offense and the edge in the bullpen.

NLCS
Cardinals over Giants in 7 games
The hottest team in baseball (23 wins in 27 games) keeps on
rolling.

WORLD SERIES
Angels over Cardinals in 7 games
St. Louis doesn't have enough pitching to stop the relentless
Anaheim lineup.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)