Brewers vs. Cardinals. Tigers vs. Rangers.
Major League Baseball's "final four" is set on the road to the 2011 World Series. Think of them as competitors in the mid-America series.
For the preseason pundits who saw the Phillies and either the Red Sox or Yankees as the last teams standing heading into the fall classic, it might be worth remembering Yogi Berra's over-quoted line (so, yes, we'll quote it) "it ain't over till it’s over."
The Red Sox headed into September having turned first place in the American League East over to the Yankees but enjoying a nine game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League's wild-card slot. That lead vanished as the Red Sox collapsed and the Rays surged to capture the wild card berth – only to lose to the Texas Rangers three games to one in their initial play-off duel.
In the end, Detroit sent New York to an earlier-than-expected off-season after a five-game series that saw New York breeze by the Tigers in two games. Yet Detroit regrouped after each loss and ultimately took the series three games to two.
Friday evening, the Milwaukee Brewers captured a National League Championship Series berth by beating the Arizona Diamondbacks with a dramatic walk-off single from outfielder Nyjer Morgan, a.k.a Tony Plush. His hit came in the bottom of the 10th inning, sending Carlos Gomez scampering from second base toward a successful slide at home plate.
Friday night the Phillies – who had the best record in baseball during the regular season – ended their season with a loss to the Cardinals in a game that might be described as the battle of the buds.
The starting pitchers for both teams – the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter and the Phillies' Roy Halladay – are close friends, former roommates during their days in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system. Both have earned Cy Young awards. Halladay, dubbed the best pitcher of his generation by Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci, ended the regular season with the second lowest earned-run average in either league. Carpenter came in at 32nd. But during the play-offs, they stood ninth and 10th, respectively.
In the end, a highly touted pitching duel lived up to its billing. Halladay gave up one run on six hits in eight innings before Phillies reliever Ryan Madson took over to pitch a scoreless ninth. But this was to be Carpenter's night – pitching a nine-inning, three-hit shutout. Final score: 1-0.
Beyond the ain't-over-till-it's-over lesson, the final four may also represent an object lesson in the value of desire over drachmas in advancing through the playoffs. In his online column at SI.com, Verducci notes that not one team among those with the nine largest payrolls will be appearing in the World Series this year.
"The baseball middle class rises," he writes.
Only the Texas Rangers came out of their divisional series with a few days' rest. The other three teams are heading into their league championship games – where they need to capture the best of seven – after emotionally exhausting and physically bruising battles that ran the full five games.
Middle class, mid-America Series, here we come.