To many, the St. Louis Cardinals in this year’s post-season looked to be repeating their celebrated, longshot run of last year. This time around they snuck into the playoffs by an even thinner margin, winning the brand new second wild-card, then beating the favoured Braves in Atlanta in the one-game, loser-goes-home playoff. When they shockingly beat the young and talented Nationals by scoring eight runs in the final three innings of Game Five, erasing a 6-0 deficit, it seemed like the “team of destiny, never say die” Cards were roaring back from where they left off last year.
A funny thing happened on the way to that destiny though, the Cards met a team even less interested in saying “die” than them, namely the San Francisco Giants. When the Giants gambled and lost in sending a struggling Tim Lincecum to the hill in Game Four of the NLCS, getting pasted to go down three games to one, I thought they were done, as did many. It again put them in a position of having to win three straight games to take the series, which they had just done against Cincinnati in the NLDS, winning the three very impressively on the road. But, it seemed too much to ask that they could pull this off again against the brimming Cardinals, who looked to be firing on all cylinders – pitching, hitting, defense, confidence.
The key was Game Five in St. Louis, if the Giants could manage to win it, they might have a chance, playing the final games back at home. They sent the veteran left-hander Barry Zito to the mound and he pitched the game of his life as the Giants shut the Cards out, 5-0. Zito has spent his entire career in the Bay area, formerly pitching for the Oakland A’s and the last time the Giants were in the post-season in 2010, Zito was struggling so badly he was left off their roster and had to watch as they won it all. He’s had a turnaround season, winning fifteen games for the Giants this year, which helped make up for the sudden and mysterious ineffectiveness of erstwhile ace Tim Lincecum; Zito has been hot at just the right time, as the club has won each of his last fifteen consecutive starts. Against the Cardinals, his curveball looked like it was dancing on a string, they were just flailing at it, striking out in bunches and this seemed to unnerve them as they began making defensive mistakes, which the Giants capitalized on with timely hitting, savvy and aggressive base running and some luck – the worm was beginning to turn.
It continued to turn as the teams returned to San Francisco for Game Six and a possible Game Seven. The Giants had their two best starters going in Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain, both were just brilliant as the Cards continued to play poor defense and their pitching just fell apart. The Giants outscored them 20-1 in the final three games, I can’t recall such a huge reversal of form or fortune in a League Championship Series – Boston against the Yankees in 2003 comes to mind, but three of those four Red Sox wins were extremely close, this was a slaughter. What the Giants have pulled off so far this October, winning six straight elimination games, four of them on the road, is just incredible and ties the post-season record held by the 1985 Kansas City Royals. It fits right in with the rest of this wild post-season so far though – I’ve lost track of how many individual or team records gave been set or broken, of how many firsts there have been this year on both the good and bad sides of the baseball ledger. The Giants may have a chance of setting a new elimination game record in the upcoming World Series, we’ll see.
This World Series marks the first ever post-season meeting between the Tigers and Giants, remarkabe when you consider each has existed for well over a century. This is refreshing and makes this Series a hard one to predict the outcome of (not that I’m in the business of doing this), because there’s no track record between these teams, no history or scores to settle.
Purely as a fan, I feel like a guy who owns both entries in a two-horse race – I like both teams, but only one can win. I’m pulling for the Tigers by a hair, partly because I’m mostly an American League fan and because they haven’t won it since 1984 and have had some lean times since. But, the Giants are my favourite National League team and even though they won the Series so recently, I could easily live with them winning it again because they’ve had decades of suffering and underachievement to make up for. They also have the red-hot Marco Scutaro, whom I love and am just thrilled for, I wouldn’t mind seeing him on a winner after all his years of toil, ditto Zito. I never understood the Blue Jays letting Scutaro go – he’s far better than anyone else they’ve had in the middle infield since and would have been a bargain; he’s the real deal and I don’t expect him to cool off in the Series, he’s in that zone of hitting the ball where it’s pitched.
These teams seem evenly matched, it should be a good Series and I expect it to go at least six games. It’s just a feeling, no more than a hunch, but I don’t have a good feeling about the Tigers in this one. Things were maybe too easy for them against the Yankees, then they had the long lay-off. True, this allowed them to set their rotation as they chose, with their ace Justin Verlander starting Game One and thus available to pitch once or even twice more. This would seem to be a huge advantage, his numbers show that he’s been pitching lights out baseball. But, here are a couple of caveats to consider.
Although he has a great track record in interleague games, I get this feeling Verlander is uncomfortable pitching against the NL in big games. He was just shellacked in the All-Star Game this year, didn’t look good at all and didn’t seem to care – I know it’s just a pageant game, but generally the players care about winning it, especially now that the winner gets the extra home game in the World Series. It may not be fair to consider this because he was a much younger rookie pitcher, but Verlander was 0 – 2 with a pretty high ERA in the 2006 Series against St. Louis.
But here’s the real kicker – even if Verlander pitches as well as he can, not even he can win a game unless his team scores some runs, and I think the Tigers will struggle to do this against Zito and the other Giant pitchers, I think S.F.’s pitching is quite a bit better than people realize, better and deeper overall than the Tigers’.
The Giants have some other advantages – better defense, the extra home game, experience, a better bullpen. They also have what a lot of people call momentum, which is a term I don’t care for. I would say instead that they have a lot of confidence, a collective will, a team culture where guys pick each other up. A good example of this is their pitching – the big heroes from 2010, Lincecum and Bumgarner, are struggling, but Zito and Ryan Vogelsong have compensated and Lincecum has taken his demotion to the bullpen without a whimper. Similarly, Buster Posey has slumped at the plate, so Scutaro has carried them. If one other key Giants’ hitter gets hot – say Hunter Pence, Posey or Pedro Sandoval, then look out. If the Tigers come out of S.F. with a split, they’ll have a good chance, but it won’t be easy.
(P.S. This was written in the afternoon of Wednesday Oct. 24th before the Series started, but I wasn’t able to post it until today due to some technical glitches.)
© 2012, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.