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Blast off

With Clemens part of opening act, World Series is already a classic

CHICAGO -- A World Series with a sentimental favorite? How about a World Series that could overdose on sentiment, not to mention a large dollop of nostalgia for the old-fashioned style of play based on pitching, defense, and the suicide squeeze, before either the Chicago White Sox or Houston Astros succeed the Red Sox as champions of Major League Baseball.

Start with the pitching matchup in Game 1 tonight at US Cellular Field in Chicago, Roger Clemens of the Astros vs. Jose Contreras of the White Sox. Brad Lidge, the Astros' closer, was watching on television with much of the nation two years ago, when Clemens still wore Yankee pinstripes and was pitching Game 4 of the World Series in what was believed to be the last sunset of a Hall of Fame career.

''I know the [flash] bulbs were going off everywhere," Lidge said yesterday. ''I'm sure it will be the same this year."

Clemens this time takes the hill as a native Texan pitching for the first Texas team to advance to the World Series. The Astros, trying to become the fourth straight wild-card entry to run the table, joining the Angels, Marlins, and Red Sox, have been at it for 43 years, as long as Clemens has been alive. Texas's other team, the Rangers, began life as the Washington Senators in 1961, have been playing in Texas since 1972, and have yet to make it to the ultimate stage. (Imagine, a Rangers owner, George W. Bush, became president of the United States before a team from Texas made it to the Series.)

And yes, Clemens said once again, this may be the end of the line, and this time, he may have finally run out of reasons to come back. At 43 years 2 months 18 days, he becomes the second-oldest pitcher to start a World Series game, behind only Jack Quinn, an old-timer in every sense of the word, who was 46 years 3 months 7 days when he pitched Game 4 of the 1929 World Series for the Philadelphia Athletics (Quinn did not figure in the decision).

''I ponder to myself," Clemens said, ''this could be my last couple of starts or my last one . . . I'm trying to get everybody that wants to be a part of this, and really share it with everyone. And that includes the entire city.

''That's the reason I came home. Everybody can say what they want, but it was a real hard decision for me to continue to play because I felt I'd touched just about every aspect of the game that I could."

Only two pitchers over 40 have won a Series game, and they pitched in relief, Dolf Luque (43) of the New York Giants in 1933, and John Franco (40) for the Mets in 2000. But there has never been a pitcher of Clemens's pedigree in that bunch, as he becomes the fifth to start a Series game for three teams -- the Red Sox (1986), Yankees, and now the Astros.

''I think Roger right now is a better pitcher," said Ozzie Guillen, who debuted as a player in 1985, one year after Clemens, and now encounters Clemens as a manager, the first from his native Venezuela. ''Before he was dominating; now he's still dominating. I'd rather see him as a manager than a player, because I know what I'm facing."

What is uncertain is whether the White Sox will be facing Clemens at his best. He came out of the bullpen and pitched heroically when the Astros eliminated the Braves in an 18-inning game for the ages in the National League Division Series, but struggled in six innings against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLCS, a strained groin possibly still problematic, though Astros manager Phil Garner insisted he is fine.

''I wouldn't even put a percentage on it," Clemens said when asked how close he is to being 100 percent. ''I don't know that it really matters. I'm getting the ball to go out tomorrow to get something done, to get this thing started, to get it started in a positive way for my ball club and I plan on doing it.

''That's the bottom line. I don't care how my body feels this time of year. If you need more aspirin, if you need more heat, if you need more ice, this is the time you get it, and you don't ask questions."

The Rocket is a towering presence in this Series, eclipsing even that of teammates Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, both potential Hall of Famers and the face of the franchise for years before Clemens arrived. Biggio has played in 2,564 regular-season games, most by a player making his first World Series appearance. He'll be at second base. Bagwell is third on that list (2,150); he's praying Garner will pick him to DH in Chicago this weekend, even with a shoulder that eventually will need replacing.

''This isn't about me, this is about the club," said Bagwell, speaking of a team that began the season 15-30 but caught fire with an infusion of new talent -- Willy Taveras and Mike Lamb and Jason Lane -- blending with young veterans Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, and Adam Everett to support a starting rotation of three aces: two ex-Yankees, Clemens and Andy Pettitte (who shared a phone call from former manager Joe Torre the other day), plus a holdover, Roy Oswalt, who is a back-to-back 20-game winner and may be the best pitcher in the tournament.

But on the other side there is Contreras, the object of a Yankee-Red Sox bidding war when he defected from Cuba, and who failed to live up to the hype in the Bronx. But like Clemens in his native Texas, Contreras, ace of a staff that threw four complete games in the ALCS, something that hadn't been done in nearly 50 years, has found a home in Chicago for a team that hasn't been in a World Series since 1959 and hasn't won since 1917.

Contreras, a teammate for one season with Clemens in New York, credited him with helping him, but the real lifelines came here, in Chicago, from fellow Cuban Orlando Hernandez, pitching coach Don Cooper, and Guillen. Contreras, the Titan of Bronze on his native island, concedes nothing in physical stature to Clemens, and would appear eminently capable of matching Clemens pitch for pitch, having won his last eight regular-season appearances and two of his three postseason starts, giving up no more than three runs in any of them.

Contreras acknowledged yesterday that he was mad when the Yankees traded him last year. ''But I just had to step through that, go through it, and I want to thank the [White Sox] organization for giving me the confidence, especially Ozzie. I'm happy that I've put up these numbers, and I can pitch Game No. 1 in the World Series."

This is how it will begin, for teams evenly matched in starting pitching and the bullpen, though it's been so long since anyone has seen the White Sox bullpen, lefthander Neal Cotts having thrown the only seven pitches tossed by the White Sox bullpen in the ALCS. The decided edge the White Sox have is power, especially in the bottom of the order. The White Sox also have A.J. Pierzynski, which is to say, an agitator of the highest order.

But the Astros were a team playing so poorly, the Houston Chronicle pronounced them dead, complete with a tombstone illustrating its point.

''Well, as you know, I feel a little bit more comfortable in the underdog role," Garner said. ''I don't know how I feel about the dead role. Truth of the matter is, we did look dead. But to our team's credit, we didn't let that bother us, we stepped up and answered the challenge."

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