It comes down to the most disparate of World Series opponents: The high-priced, long-haired Boston Red Sox, with their $143 million payroll and their stacked lineup, against the $54 million, straight-laced Colorado Rockies, on a late-season surge of unparalleled nature.
Those who argue that Major League Baseball is perennially dominated by the super-teams have the Red Sox to support their argument. Those who say the league is fine and fair have the Rockies, who may well become the sport's eighth different champion in eight different seasons, a streak unmatched at the moment by any of the capped leagues.
There are other unusual aspects to consider, beyond the unlikely identity of the National League participant. The Red Sox have come back from a 3-1 deficit to Cleveland in the American League Championship Series. The Rockies already are 8-0 in October, if you count their dramatic one-game playoff with San Diego. Altogether, Colorado has won a stunning 21 of its last 22 games going back into the regular season. The Dodgers of 1963 were the last team to run the postseason table, and they were only required to win four games.
But you have to wonder: Are the Rockies really still hot, after an eight-day layoff between series? Maybe they beat the Diamondbacks too easily. Here, a closer look at this diverse matchup:
The Red Sox feature both intimidation at the front end of their rotation, and decent depth for a long series. Josh Beckett is at the top of his power-pitching game. He was the ALCS MVP, going 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 14 innings. In the postseason, he's 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 26 strikeouts. Curt Schilling isn't the overpowering ace of a few years ago, but he's a perfect No. 2 guy and is 2-0 with a 3.38 this October. Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese rookie, was in a serious, late-season slump until he broke out with a solid two-run outing in the decisive Game 7 of the ALCS. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is less than ideal as a possible Game 4 starter, particularly in the thin air of Colorado. His ball may not find enough friction to dance.
Lefty Jeff Francis (17-9, 4.22 ERA during the regular season) was the workhorse of the Colorado staff, and has excelled so far in the postseason (2-0, 2.13). Ubaldo Jimenez has stepped up with a great October, and a 1.59 ERA. After that, things are a bit Fogg-ier. Aaron Cook (8-7, 4.12) was the Rockies' opening day starter, but he hasn't pitched since Aug. 10 because of an oblique strain. He thinks he's ready. If he is, then Josh Fogg (10-9, 4.94) may return to the bullpen. Franklin Morales, another lefthander, has started two playoff games with limited success.
EDGE: Red Sox.
Jonathan Papelbon comes into games late and throws 98 mph fastballs. He hasn't allowed a run in 6.1 innings this October, although he's walked four batters. The evolution of Hideki Okajima into a reliable setup man has been a key development for Boston. Like Papelbon, he hasn't allowed a run in the postseason in 7.1 innings.
The Rockies largely employ a two-armed bullpen of lefty Brian Fuentes and righty Manny Corpas (19 for 22 in save opportunities during the regular season). Although they split closing duties during the regular season, Corpas has taken over that role while Fuentes is now the key setup guy.
EDGE: Red Sox.
The Red Sox own the most frightening top-to-bottom lineup in baseball, particularly at home and when the table-setters like second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.345 for the ALCS) and first baseman Kevin Youkilis (.500, 3 homers against Cleveland) are putting up big numbers in front of sluggers left fielder Manny Ramirez, DH David Ortiz and third baseman Mike Lowell. Ramirez was quoted, in his inimitable fashion, as saying it would be no big deal if the Red Sox lost the ALCS. Then he went out and nonchalantly batted .409 for the series, proving that playoff intensity is a very overrated quality.
Center fielder Willy Taveras and second baseman Kaz Matsui are the table-setters for the Rockies. Left fielder and No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday has been as hot in the playoffs as he was during his breakout regular season (.340, 36 homers, 137 RBI). The strength of this team lately has been the clutch hit, from unexpected sources. You never know where the next big hit is coming from -- catcher Yorvit Torrealba, first baseman and cleanup man Todd Helton or right fielder Brad Hawpe.
EDGE: Red Sox.
The Red Sox are vulnerable on the left side of the infield, where Lowell and shortstop Julio Lugo combined for 34 errors this season. Jason Varitek threw out 20 of 83 runners this season, although his fireballing pitchers aided him. Doug Mirabelli catches whenever Wakefield pitches, a thankless and perilous task. Ramirez knows how to play the Green Monster at Fenway Park, which may come in handy.
The Rockies are impeccable on defense, the best ever. They set a Major League record for the highest fielding percentage (.98925) in a season, committing just 68 errors. Center fielder Willy Taveras personified all of those numbers, and turned around a series, with his diving catch off the Diamondbacks' Tony Clark in the seventh inning of Game 2 in the NLCS. Lugo and Coco Crisp could test the arm of Torrealba, who threw out only 15 of 76 runners.
Terry Francona has great job security and a large reservoir of goodwill after taking the Red Sox to the "promised land" in 2004. He has molded a bunch of fun-loving, rag-tag individualists into a solid unit, and has handled his young pitchers with aplomb.
Clint Hurdle survived five straight losing seasons with the Rockies before this remarkable turnaround, so you know he isn't about to panic now. But this is new to him.
EDGE: Red Sox.
The Red Sox have proven again they will not quit just because they're down two or three games in a series. It's easy to get them on the ropes, tough to knock them out. Fenway is a very real home advantage for them. The Sox were 51-30 at home this season, and are 5-1 at Fenway this postseason.
The balls no longer fly out of Coors Field, because they are placed in a humidor before the games. But the place still has an otherworldly feel, and the fans in Denver demonstrate the zeal and innocence of baseball converts. The Rockies were 51-31 at home during the regular season, and only 39-42 on the road.
Red Sox in six. A very tough series to read because of Colorado's long layoff. You can't ignore the Rockies' hot streak, but on paper alone this would be a Boston sweep.
Filip Bondy is a sports columnist for the New York Daily News.
Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.