Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez are revved up. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt are rarin' to go. Baseball fans are ready, too.
The shadows are getting longer, the leaves are starting to turn and pumpkins are showing up. And that means just one thing: It's October, and it's playoff time!
All of a sudden, all those wins hardly matter. The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees were the only teams to top 100 victories, yet both start the playoffs Tuesday without a true ace and concerns about their ailing pitchers.
Now, Boston and Houston become truly dangerous as they hope to catch the wild-card wave that produced the last two World Series champs. The Red Sox and Astros feature potent 1-2 combos in their rotations, a perfect recipe for the postseason.
''When you get down to a game or a short series, it's the beauty of the game of baseball,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Monday. ''Bucky Dent can hit a three-run home run or your hottest hitter can go up there and the guy throws the best slider of his life and gets him out, or your best pitcher hangs a slider.
''That's why you've got to play the games. To me, that's part of the thrill, that uncertainty,'' he said.
Starting this week, Vladimir Guerrero gets a chance to really boost his reputation. He'll play in the postseason for the first time, as will stars Eric Gagne, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran and Oswalt.
Barry Bonds is out, as are Josh Beckett, Jack McKeon and the World Series champion Florida Marlins. Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs faded and missed the playoffs this year, and so did Oakland's trio of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson.
Andy Pettitte, Tim Salmon and Darren Dreifort saw their teams reach the playoffs, but injuries denied them the opportunity to participate. Orlando Hernandez, Jason Giambi and Scott Rolen are banged up.
The chase begins anew Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, when Woody Williams and the Cardinals face Odalis Perez and the Los Angeles Dodgers in their best-of-five NL series.
Care to make a prediction, Mr. Perez?
''If we beat St. Louis, we're going to win the World Series,'' he said. ''If we beat them, this is it: Dodgers, champions.''
Later, Schilling and the Red Sox visit Jarrod Washburn and the Anaheim Angels in the AL.
''When you get to the playoffs, you're not going to be facing pitchers who have ERAs of 7.00 or 8.00,'' Angels first baseman Darin Erstad said. ''I mean, to win it all, you've got to beat the best, so we might as well face the best right away.''
Said Boston first baseman Kevin Millar: ''I don't think anybody wants to play us.''
At night, superb lefty Johan Santana and the Minnesota Twins take on Mike Mussina at Yankee Stadium.
From the introduction of the starting lineups, the Twins will be on their toes in a rematch of a first-round series they lost in four games last year.
''You remember a lot of the things,'' Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. ''This may not mean much to you, but I looked over at the Yankees and they were standing inside the white line and our team was standing outside the white line.
''They were like, champions stand inside the white line. We learned something. So I tell my guys, stand inside the damned white line now,'' he said.
On Wednesday, the other series starts when Clemens and the Astros visit Jaret Wright and the Atlanta Braves.
For Astros stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, it will be a chance at redemption. The Braves beat Houston in the first round in 1997, 1999 and 2001, with B&B going a combined 11-for-75 (.147) with no extra-base hits and zero RBIs in those 10 games.
''I think the odds are in our favor,'' Astros owner Drayton McLane said. ''It's our turn.''
In any case, everyone is even, at least for a day.
''I feel good about where we are right now. We're very comfortable,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ''When I say comfortable, that doesn't mean we're taking someone for granted, but it's comfortable with who we are right now and how we're playing.''
Twins center fielder Torii Hunter also knows what to expect this time of year, especially at Yankee Stadium.
''Your eyes get bigger, your heartbeat gets faster,'' he said.
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