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A Dream Series In The Works?

New York vs. Boston would be a match made in heaven, but...

It's not that NBC, which will broadcast the World Series, is insensitive to the recession in Houston, nor is it true that baseball purists want to punish Orange County fans who file out of Anaheim Stadium no-hitters after seven innings. There certainly would be nothing wrong with a World Series that had Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan and Gene Mauch in it.

It's just that a Mets—Red Sox confrontation would be near-perfect theater, not to mention a boost to the air-shuttle wars that recently heated up. It would be the first time since Fenway Park's inaugural season, 75 years ago, that a team named Boston met a team named New York in the Fall Classic. It would bring Tom Seaver back to Shea Stadium (and Bob Ojeda back to Fenway). It would match last year's once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, Dwight Gooden, against this year's once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, Roger Clemens. It would raise the possibility of the Red Sox' first world championship since Babe Ruth pitched for them. It would bring together America's Sparta and Athens, and pull the men of letters, music and history out of the woods. Really, now, could John Updike have written "Dome Fans Bid Kid Adieu"?

A Sept. 4 exhibition between the Mets and the Red Sox sold out Fenway Park and attracted a media crowd in the hundreds. Last week NBC filmed its World Series commercial on the Boston streets. Two weeks ago the president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, told a Boston audience, "I'm happy to be back in Boston, especially happy now that Roger Clemens and the Red Sox are going to win the World Series." Yes, the Eastern Seaboard is braced for the inevitable clash of New York power and New England destiny.

There are, of course, two distinct possible obstacles to this multimedia Fantasyworld. Even though they play in ballparks with all the character of shopping malls, and even though their audiences may be better attuned to football and the beach, the Houston Astros and the California Angels could end up playing each other in the Series.

After an anticlimactic year in which, for the first time, every division was clinched with at least a week to go, the playoffs present the four best teams in baseball—something they haven't done since 1977, when Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and Kansas City won. Every one of these teams has a legitimate right to believe that it can win the Series, because each has what the Royals had in 1985: outstanding pitching. Certainly the Mets were the most overpowering regular-season team, outscoring their opponents by 181 runs (compared with Houston's advantage of 71), but Mike Scott, Bob Knepper, Ryan and Jim Deshaies could beat any team in a seven-game Series. Sure, the Red Sox blew away the best division in baseball, but the Angels' Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, John Candelaria and Sutton, who happen to be a combined 42-18 since mid-June, had a composite ERA of 1.88 against Boston this season.

So anybody sitting back and waiting for New York versus Boston might miss the drama of two very competitive league championship series. The playoffs don't lack for irony, either. The Astros and the Mets are both celebrating a silver anniversary, and Houston has former Met manager Yogi Berra and Miracle Met Ryan on its traveling squad. The Red Sox will take the Angels' only MVP winner, Don Baylor, and their previous manager, John McNamara, back to Anaheim, while one of New England's prime heroes of the '70s, Rick (Roostah) Burleson, comes home to Fenway. The AL series holds the possibility of the first-ever postseason clash of 300-game winners for Game 4, Seaver versus Sutton. In fact, only five other 300-game winners have appeared in World Series: Steve Carlton (1983), Grover Cleveland Alexander (1926 and 1928), Walter Johnson (1924-25), Christy Mathewson (1912-13) and Cy Young (1903).

Since all four teams have had plenty of time to arrange their rotations, the playoffs open with the mouth-watering match-ups of Scott against Gooden and Clemens against Witt. Heroes of the '60s like Seaver, Reggie, Sutton and Ryan will face emerging stars who might just play until the turn of the century—Gooden, Clemens, Darryl Strawberry and Wally Joyner. And there is the watch to see if manager Mauch finally gets into a Series after 25 seasons of trying. Jim Rice, Gary Carter and Jose Cruz could also experience their first World Series after distinguished careers.

The Mets seem to have been preparing for this since they were eliminated a year ago. They were the preseason consensus favorites, and their stars have already been fully marketed, published and MTVed. When they had the NL East seemingly sewed up by Memorial Day, comparisons with the Yankees of the '20s, '30s and '50s began. The Astros, on the other hand, were supposed to finish toward the bottom of the NL West, a division that was no great shakes to begin with. Except for Ryan, the Astros were all about as recognizable as the Colt .45s were. But Houston turned back nearly every challenge this year. Shortly after Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers, who still thought his club had a chance, predicted in June that the Astros would be out of first place come September, Houston beat L.A. three straight. When the Reds made a September charge, the Astros swept two series, home and away. When it came time to win the division championship last Thursday, Scott didn't just win, he became the first man ever to throw a clinching no-hitter, beating the Giants 2-0.

The Astros open with one immediate factor in their favor: Because of baseball's capitulation to television and the NFL schedule, they get the home-field advantage with Games 1, 2, 6 and 7, even though it is rightly the NL East's turn to open the series. Not only do they get the one-game edge, but, as one National League advance scout points out, "They get their feet wet before they have to deal with the New York Factor." Don't let anyone tell you that playing in New York isn't different. By comparison, the Astros have been performing in a summer stock theater. Opening in Shea Stadium, with the media and the roar of the planes and a crowd every bit as intimidating as the extras in West Side Story, could have unraveled them.

The Astros are also a far better team in the Astrodome. While the Mets won the season series 7-5, the Astros took 4 of the 6 games in Houston. Besides, Scott may be the one NL pitcher besides Fernando Valenzuela who can walk out and be considered an even bet with Gooden. Scott's 18-10 record is less an indication of his season than his 298 strikeouts and 180 hits allowed in 268‚Öì innings. He had the Mets shut out into the ninth in Shea before blowing the lead, and only 4 times in 36 starts has this former Met allowed more than three earned runs. He has been successful on three days' rest, so if manager Hal Lanier decides to use him in Games 1, 4 and 7, it won't be a novel experience for Scott.

There's also Knepper. He won only one game in the last month, but he beat the Mets three times (one of those in relief) during the season. The Mets are also a decidedly different team against lefthanders, who can negate Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman at the top of the order and neutralize Strawberry in the middle. Ryan has been bothered periodically by elbow problems, and he is a much better pitcher in the Astrodome (a 2.65 ERA at home, 4.56 on the road), but in one stretch he allowed three or fewer hits in 8 of 10 starts. The day before Scott's gem, Ryan took his own no-hitter into the seventh inning. The day before Ryan's excellent performance, the lefthanded Deshaies established a modern major league record by striking out the first eight Dodgers he faced.

The Dome is geared to the Astros' style of play, both because of its customized pitching mound and its AstroTurf. Lanier came over from the St. Louis coaching lines and brought Whiteyball with him. "He doesn't care what the score is or who's on base, he'll run," reads one club's scouting report. "And if you throw that guy out, he'll run the next one." In September Lanier made a double switch and a triple switch, using two first basemen and three centerfielders, in one inning—and won. Centerfielder Billy Hatcher, second baseman Bill Doran, rightfielder Kevin Bass and utilityman deluxe Davey Lopes could put a lot of pressure on a Mets staff that is generally slow to the plate, and on Carter, who threw out barely 20% of opposing base stealers. Hatcher, Bass and Cruz cut balls off in the alleys as any successful turf outfield must, and the Astro middle infield has a decided defensive advantage over the Mets' DP combo.

Houston finally does have firepower, with Glenn Davis, Bass, Cruz and the third base platoon of Denny Walling and Phil Garner (22 homers, 99 RBIs). Davis's 29 home runs include 16 in the Dome, once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. That performance must rank as Wonder No. 9. With four switch-hitters and platooning at short and third, the Astros are seldom susceptible to left-right bullpen switches. With Lopes, Terry Puhl and the platoons, they are one of the few teams whose depth can approach the Mets'. The Houston bullpen is tied for the league lead in saves, although there is concern over the condition of Dave Smith's elbow. And, more than any team in 1986, they seem to be destiny's darlings, having won 23 of their games in the final at bat.

That said, the pick here is the Mets. They accepted the pressure of the preseason buildup and proceeded to prove that they were the best team in baseball. By now we all know how hateable the Mets are. "There are 24 other teams who will be Astros fans beginning October 7," said one Phillie. "The Mets are the only team in baseball that high fives in BP." We also all know how good they are. Their starting rotation was the best in the regular season. The foursome Davey Johnson dispatches out there—Gooden, Ojeda, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez—is 63-22; it went 6-2 in the season series with Houston. Gooden may have proved himself human, but 16-6, 2.90 aren't exactly Tim Lollar's numbers, and neither is his 8-1 lifetime record against the Astros. Ojeda had a 1.35 ERA against Houston, while Darling was arguably the best Mets pitcher in the second half. There was concern over Fernandez's elbow and his overstuffed shirt, but he held the Pirates to one run over eight innings last Friday night to break a second-half slump. The Astros beat Roger McDowell thrice during the season, but he and Jesse Orosco still give New York a tremendous right/left combination coming out of the bullpen.

The Mets have more ways to score runs than any NL team. For most of the season the sparks have been provided by Dykstra and Backman at the top of the order, so Johnson may play them even against the lefthanded Knepper, while leaving Mookie Wilson in left and keeping Kevin Mitchell for the bench. Dykstra and Backman get on base 38% of the time; they steal bases and they antagonize. Then come the production hitters in the middle—Keith Hernandez, Carter and Strawberry—followed by Wilson and clutch-hitting Ray Knight. What is remarkable is that the Mets led the league in runs without Carter or Strawberry having big years. Carter didn't reach 100 RBIs until the last week and batted .224 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Strawberry was roundly booed by Shea Stadium regulars, went five weeks without a hit at home, struggled near .260 and knocked in only 84 runs.

But like their media hype or not, these are the two men to watch. Carter has the makings of another Reggie Jackson, someone who thrives in the spotlight. And the immensely talented Strawberry may also take center stage. By mid-September he had stopped wrapping his bat around his neck and again looked like a young Ted Williams. Mets officials are privately predicting that he will be the player to have the monster October—which is why the Mets have to be the favorites over Houston.

Having the American League playoffs start in Boston in Fenway's 75th season isn't just a sentimental delight—it's a decided advantage. The Angels handled the Red Sox 7-5 during the season and took advantage of Boston's July slump to win four of the six games in Anaheim; Clemens won the other two. In many seasons Witt might have won the Cy Young. The Red Sox did beat him twice, but it took a Bruce Hurst Fenway Park shutout and a 3-2 Clemens victory to do that. If there's one pitcher in the American League who could beat Clemens head-to-head, it might be Witt. The Angels also start McCaskill, who didn't give up an earned run to Boston in two games; Sutton, who beat the Red Sox twice, once on a shutout; and Candelaria, whose seven-inning one-hitter against the White Sox on Sept. 21 served notice that he is more than ready for the postseason, despite his chronically tender elbow.

Boston's coaches and scouts are also concerned about the veteran California hitters, especially in Fenway, where they outscored Boston 32-19 in their six meetings. Jackson, who still has more career homers in Fenway than Baylor, began tuning up in the stretch, ditching his slap-hitting style and launching 450-foot homers. Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing and Bobby Grich are all streak hitters capable of considerable damage. The Angels are also stronger up the middle defensively, but then Boston's power pitchers don't necessarily need a great infield behind them.

There are two other significant factors. First, Bob Boone. There is no finer receiver in the American League than this 38-year-old marvel. His ability to steal strikes for pitchers by framing his glove drives opponents crazy, and he can confound the best of hitters with his pitch selection. "Marty Barrett, Dwight Evans and Bill Buckner are out complaining to the home plate umpire about Boone before games even start," says one American League umpire. "I swear he psychs those guys out." Says Wade Boggs, "California's always tough because Boone never pitches me the same way twice in a row. I try not to think when he's catching."

The other significant factor is California general manager Mike Port. "The Angels in the past have died in the clutch," says one rival manager. "The players never had any motivation. Well, Port has about eight of them worried about being free agents once the season is over, so for the first time, he's got at least one third of the ballclub playing for their careers."

The Red Sox, like the Astros, overcame preseason predictions of mediocrity with excellent pitching. Clemens, Hurst and Boyd are 53-21, and they won 11 straight decisions before Boyd lost on Sept. 23. They were 4-2 with a 2.33 ERA against the Angels. Clemens's superiority is clear. Hurst was only 13-7 because of a six-week layoff due to a groin injury. But he was 8-2 with a 2.12 ERA in Fenway, with four shutouts, including a 2-0 beauty over the Blue Jays Saturday that clinched a tie for the division crown. Boyd finished the Jays off the next afternoon in a 12-3 victory. Clemens, Hurst and Boyd have now won 13 of their last 14 decisions. Boyd could be very tough for the Angels, because their big hitters look for particular pitches and Boyd throws 57 varieties. Seaver is a question mark because of a knee injury that caused him to miss his last two starts. The Sox would certainly like to call on him for Game 4.

Several scouts feel the pitching difference will be Boston's bullpen, with Calvin Schiraldi closing, Bob Stanley (13-3 lifetime against the Angels) in the middle and Joe Sambito for lefthanders. The Angels have three lefthanders in the bullpen and Doug Corbett in the middle, but forkball specialist Donnie Moore is an uncertainty, especially because of his uncertain shoulder.

Clemens is the main man, as he has been all season. He's scheduled for Games 1 and 5, but if the Red Sox fall behind 2-1, he'll start Games 1, 4 and 7. He'll have five days' rest before the opener; with five days between starts, Clemens was 8-0 with 67 strikeouts in 64 innings, including the 20-strikeout game on April 29. "Clemens in Fenway in the opener might be unbeatable," says one scout. There is an awful lot of Larry Bird in this 24-year-old who likes to shoulder the pressure for his team, who won 14 games following a Red Sox loss.

Clemens and the Red Sox have faced a succession of challenges over the season from the Yankees, the Orioles, the Tigers and the Blue Jays, and they turned back each one—Clemens was 8-1 against that foursome. While California has a balanced attack, the Red Sox are simply more dangerous. McNamara believes that as Boggs goes, so goes the offense, and the batting race with Don Mattingly will keep Boggs primed right up to Game 1 of the LCS. Barrett and Buckner are two very tough outs in the clutch, and then comes the power of Rice, Baylor, Evans, and Rich Gedman. That prodigious lineup beats lefthanders and righthanders alike, and what's more, they all seem to be swinging the bat very well lately. This just might be the team to give Boston its first world championship since the year 1918.

So, with Gooden, Strawberry and Carter on the one hand and Clemens, Boggs and Rice on the other, baseball may get its dream World Series. The romance of the Green Monster versus the reality of Queens. A team trying to live down ghosts versus a team trying to live up to expectations.

This just might be a Series every bit as good as that one 75 years ago. That World Series came down to the 10th inning of the eighth and final game (Game 2 had ended in a tie). For those of you who don't remember, Smokey Joe Wood of the Red Sox gave up a run in the top of the inning, but Boston rallied for two runs off Mathewson in the bottom of the 10th to beat New York 3-2. Some people might see an omen in that.

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V.J. LOVERO

Rice (.319, 107 RBIs) will be at the heart of a lineup that's armed and very dangerous.

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V.J. LOVERO

Witt (18-10, 2.74 ERA) makes a worthy opponent for Clemens in the opener at Fenway.

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BILL SMITH

Scott's split-finger may give the Mets a splitting headache—just ask his no-hit victims.

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V.J. LOVERO

Boone's spry for an old catcher, but it's his plate work that scares the sox off Boston.

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BILL SMITH

Houston will have to try to keep Dykstra and Backman—shown here hanging tough against the Cubs' Ryne Sandberg—off the bases.