Major League Baseball's final four have been set, and the Angels' 5-3 victory over the Yankees on Monday in Game 5 of the AL Division Series drove home the sudden realization: There is no Yankees-Red Sox drama to be explored this time around. After back-to-back years of seven-game ALCS epics between those rivals, it's time for something new.
And while the White Sox will be trying to win their first World Series title since 1917 by getting past an Angels club that won it all just three years ago, the baseball world is in for something incredibly familiar on the NL side. St. Louis beat Houston in the 2004 NLCS, which went seven games, and here those two teams are again.
In the final four are three teams that won their divisions and posted the three best regular-season records in the Majors (the Angels' 95 wins matched the total reached by the Yanks and the Red Sox). And the fourth team, the Houston Astros, is here via the Wild Card for a second straight year and is bidding to become the fourth club in as many years to win the World Series with that distinction.
Here is at look at where this postseason is going and where we've been:
What you need to know about the ALCS
It will be one of the most extreme examples of one team being rested and the other team without a breather. The Angels flew back out to California from New York after Sunday's game, clinched Monday night and headed for a night flight to Chicago immediately afterward. They will be playing their third game in a span of 51 hours that included some 4,700 miles of air travel. On top of that, now the availability of possible Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon is questionable -- a potentially huge blow.
The White Sox, on the other hand, are so rested they have had to pinch themselves to remind them that the postseason is still going on. They clinched against Boston on Friday and have the opposite concern of being too rested. Here's what manager Ozzie Guillen had to say about that:
"I told my players, 'The shorter the season could be, the better, because the 11 games you need to win will be the toughest ones.' I said I want to win the Game 3 in Boston. Right now, I think our minds are clear, we're healthy -- that's the more important thing. We've played these type of playoff games all year long, and that's an advantage to us because we win a lot of games by one run, and we continued that during the season and the playoffs."
White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski advised anyone who thinks his team will be rusty to check the club's record after the similar break for July's All-Star Game. Chicago won its first five to start the second half. "The last time I checked, we came out after the break and played pretty well," Pierzynski said. "It's always nice when you win and win early and set everything up."
Keep in mind that the Angels recently made a very loud statement in Chicago. The two clubs were going in opposite directions when they met in mid-September for three games at U.S. Cellular Field, and Los Angeles left with a convincing sweep to take the season series, 6-4. The Angels have won their last four games in Chicago dating back to a June 1 victory.
"Any time you're playing a playoff-caliber team," Angels pitcher John Lackey said after working seven scoreless innings in that last meeting on Sept. 11, "it is always good to show well, because you don't know when you'll be seeing them again."
Well, they're seeing them again now. And amazingly, no one in this postseason has seen Sox right-hander Jon Garland, Chicago's dominating force on the mound all season. Jose Contreras, after dominating Boston, gets the nod for Game 1. As for the Angels, the need to use Ervin Santana in long relief Monday means that Paul Byrd, coming off a subpar outing in a no-decision during the Angels' Game 3 victory in New York, will go for the Angels.
What you need to know about the NLCS
If the sequel is anything like the 2004 NLCS, then everyone is in for an amazing show.
The home team won all seven games last year, and if the Cardinals -- who have home-field advantage -- follow that formula again, then they'll go to another World Series. But anything can happen in baseball's modern era. The Astros proved that Sunday, coming back to force extra innings against Atlanta before clinching in the 18th inning of a game that will be talked about for generations.
The Cardinals won the season series over the Astros, 11-5, but the Astros won three of the final five meetings, all played in September. Close games are the norm for these clubs.
This time there is no Carlos Beltran in the Astros' lineup, but nor is there a Scott Rolen (injured) in the Cardinals' lineup. Two guys who are there this time are Andy Pettitte of Houston and Chris Carpenter of St. Louis, both of whom missed the last postseason but will oppose each other in Game 1.
David Eckstein is new to this year's matchup as the Cardinals' leadoff hitter and shortstop, and he said he expects the same intensity that people saw in last year's NLCS.
"The way Jimmy [Edmonds] hit the home run in Game 6, and making the catch he made in Game 7 -- it just seemed like every one of those games was so intense," Eckstein said. "Home-field advantage was a real key, so you definitely have to be ready to play."
"Our fans are fired up, and it's great to have an opportunity to have another round with the Cardinals," Astros veteran Craig Biggio said. "We have another chance, we have a shot at it. There's only so many that you get. Coming from where we've come from, and to have a chance at this again, it's pretty special."
What would a World Series title mean to any of these four teams?
If the Angels win it all: They'll have won their second title in a span of four seasons, after not having won any since entering the Majors in 1961. And Vlad Guerrero, after all these years as an elite all-around Major Leaguer, will finally get a ring.
If the Astros win it all: They'll clinch their first World Series championship. Houston joined the Majors in 1962 as the Colt .45s, and three years later -- the inaugural season in the old Astrodome -- they became the Astros. Houston also can become the fourth consecutive Wild Card to go all the way.
If the Cardinals win it all: St. Louis will become the second franchise to reach double-digits in World Series championships, well behind the Yankees (26). A World Series win would end a drought that matches the longest in club history, dating back to the 1982 triumph over Milwaukee, and winning it all would be an appropriate sendoff for Busch Stadium. For the second time since 1989, the team with baseball's best record would go all the way, joining the 1998 Yankees. And Tony La Russa would join Sparky Anderson as the only person to manage world champs in both leagues.
If the White Sox win it all: They'll get their first World Championship since 1917, when they beat the New York Giants in six. They have reached the World Series twice since then: losing to Cincinnati in 1919 (marred by subsequent revelations that some Sox players conspired to "throw" the Series) and 1959 (beaten by the Dodgers).
What are some of the intriguing World Series possibilities?
If the Astros and White Sox advance: Two unbelievable studies in defiance. The Astros were 15-30 at one point this season and counted out; the White Sox were generally expected to finish around fourth in their division this season. They are probably the most feared starting rotations in their respective leagues, too.
If the Cardinals and White Sox advance: White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf would get his reunion series with La Russa, his friend and former White Sox manager. A Cards-Sox series would also be an extremely rare case of the teams with the two best regular-season records meeting for all the marbles.
If the Astros and Angels advance: People will talk about Roger Clemens and how he helped eliminate the Angels from the playoffs while with Boston in 1986. There will be a tug-of-war over Nolan Ryan, who starred for both the Angels and the Astros. And fans can catch two star closers on the rise in Houston's Brad Lidge and L.A.'s Frankie Rodriguez.
If the Cardinals and Angels advance: Three catching Molina brothers (Bengie and Jose of the Angels, Yadier of the Cardinals) would be in the same World Series, bringing to mind when brothers Ken (Cardinals) and Clete (Yankees) Boyer both played in the 1964 Fall Classic. Eckstein would play against the team that he helped to the 2002 World Series title, and Jim Edmonds would also be facing his old team. Angels manager Mike Scioscia would be matched up against La Russa, who was managing Oakland in 1988, when Scioscia and the rest of the Dodgers watched teammate Kirk Gibson hit his miracle homer.
Gone but not forgotten
The Braves, Padres, Red Sox and Yankees are watching to see what happens next. Baseball fans will remember:
Brian McCann's homer in his first postseason at-bat -- off Clemens, at that -- leading the Baby Braves. Adam LaRoche's grand slam that seemed like it might send the NLDS back to Atlanta for a Game 5. A 14th consecutive division title by the Braves was again a consolation prize for the fans with the tomahawks.
The first playoff game at PETCO Park. Unfortunately for Padres fans, the experience was short-lived. San Diego's season has been noted by most for how it ended barely above .500, but it did include a phenomenal 22-win May.
The magic disappeared this October for the Red Sox. But what a year it had been -- starting with the 2004 ALCS and World Series sweep, continuing through the Rolling Rally, and stretching across a full year of touring the World Series trophy around Red Sox Nation. For Red Sox fans, it was fun while it lasted.
The Yankees are going to be without a World Series title for the fifth consecutive October, but they won an eighth consecutive division title, and a young second baseman named Robinson Cano emerged as a future star. Fans at Yankee Stadium will remember the ovation for Bernie Williams in Sunday's game, which may have been the last of his pinstriped career.
Who's going to win this thing
Be honest. No one has a clue. Never in recent memory has a postseason begun with such a wide-open field, where so many teams could go all the way. Now, looking at the final four, absolutely nothing has changed. Four hot teams, four fairytales in the making. Take a deep breath and get ready for round two.