Intriguing matchups await in World Series
The World Series starts Wednesday night at AT&T Park with the National League champion San Francisco Giants hosting the American League champion Detroit Tigers (8:07 p.m. ET, ESPN Radio and Fox). Need to get caught up? We've got you covered.
History already being made
The Giants and Tigers collectively represent 240-plus seasons of baseball history. Yet, these two historic franchises with 10 combined championships have never faced each other in the World Series. AL Central champion Detroit makes its 11th trip to the World Series, seeking its fifth title and first since 1984. It's the Giants' 19th World Series appearance, second-most behind the New York Yankees (40), who the Tigers dispatched in a four-game ALCS sweep to advance. It took a remarkable playoff run for the NL West champion Giants to make this historic meeting possible. San Francisco is aiming for its seventh title (and second in three years).
The Giants became the second team (joining the 1985 Royals) to win six consecutive elimination games in the same postseason. If the Series goes six games (and I believe it will), we'll have Halloween baseball in San Francisco. This is perfect not just because of the Giants' orange-and-black color scheme but because the team plays what I call "zombie baseball." Given the Giants' success in win-or-go-home games, the Tigers need to make sure San Francisco never faces an elimination game. Wait, what?
Ah yes, here's where we talk about the impact of the Tigers' being well-rested after wrapping up the ALCS five days ago. The team's biggest advantage is its ability to line up the starting rotation, with Justin Verlander in Game 1, Doug Fister in Game 2, Anibal Sanchez in Game 3 and Max Scherzer in Game 4, with Verlander able to pitch on full rest in Game 5. How big of a factor is that? That all-right-handed rotation notched a 0.66 ERA against the Yankees in the ALCS (and has a stellar 1.02 ERA in the postseason). Verlander is 7-0 in his last seven games (including the playoffs) with a 0.69 ERA, 52 strikeouts and an opponents' batting average of .181. His Game 1 start should get home-field advantage for Detroit.
The flip side of being well-rested is being rusty. This represents a legitimate concern for the Tigers, since the team experienced this scenario in 2006 and lost the World Series in five games to the Cardinals after sweeping the A's in the ALCS. Since 2006, only the 2008 Phillies won the World Series after a layoff of at least three days. The Tigers took precautionary measures and brought up minor league players from Florida to allow the team to face live pitching and actual hitters during the break. Will it work? We'll find out soon enough.
Based on a small sample size, a team coming off a seven-game series win has an advantage over a team coming off a series sweep, which favors the Giants. Since baseball went to a seven-game LCS format in 1985, only three World Series have provided such a matchup. The team that won the seven-game series won the World Series each time -- the 1988 Dodgers (over the A's in five), the 2006 Cardinals (over the Tigers in five) and the 2007 Red Sox (sweep over the Rockies).
The Giants enter the World Series on a three-game winning streak, outscoring the Cardinals 20-1 in those games. They're confident and undaunted by adversity. Unfortunately, having to go seven games means the Giants' rotation is in disarray. Ace Matt Cain won't pitch until Game 4 and Barry Zito will get the Game 1 start. Zito, the former Cy Young Award winner (2002) who was famously left off the Giants' 2010 postseason roster, pitched brilliantly in the team's must-win NLCS Game 5 and will make his World Series debut. The Game 2 starter will be Madison Bumgarner, who has an 11.25 postseason ERA and hasn't pitched since Oct. 14. Ryan Vogelsong, who dominated the Cardinals in NLCS Game 6, will pitch Game 3 in Detroit. Tim Lincecum will remain in the bullpen. Fun fact: Wednesday night is the fourth time that two previous Cy Young Award winners will meet in a World Series Game 1.
This time it matters
Every summer since 2003, baseball fans and writers have gotten up in arms over the stupidity of the All-Star Game's determining home-field advantage for the World Series. Remarkably, this year's Midsummer Classic in Kansas City actually has much more than a tangential relationship to the Fall Classic. Matt Cain, the National League's All-Star Game starting and winning pitcher, will start Game 4. Justin Verlander took the loss for the American League after a first-inning implosion in Kansas City to the tune of four hits, two walks and five runs allowed (45.00 ERA). The reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner is one of the main reasons why this series starts in the NL park. Fun fact: Verlander is the first pitcher to start the All-Star Game and Game 1 of the World Series in the same season since David Wells in 1998 for the Yankees.
I should also mention erstwhile Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, the All-Star Game MVP (2-for-3, two-run home run, double) who was suspended on Aug. 15 for a positive testosterone test and isn't even on the team's postseason roster. Bonus connection: Phillip Phillips, the "American Idol" winner who performed before the All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium, will perform the national anthem before Game 1 (yeah, I didn't know who he was either).
Perhaps you've heard of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who won the first Triple Crown since 1967. Cabrera is the fifth Triple Crown winner to play in a World Series and hopes to join Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle as champions. Prince Fielder managed to have a pretty quiet 30 home run/100-plus RBIs season while batting .313 behind Miggy. The two have combined for two home runs and eight RBIs this postseason (they didn't need too much against the dormant Yankees), but I have a hunch they'll break through in the World Series. We can't really expect ALCS MVP Delmon Young to carry the entire offensive load again. The Tigers have an edge in power -- they hit 163 home runs this season, compared to the Giants' 103, dead last in the majors. Note that despite the power disparity, the teams' regular-season run differential is only eight (726 for Detroit, 718 for San Francisco).
I keep waiting for NL MVP favorite Buster Posey to bust out. He had a grand slam in ALDS Game 5 but is just 8-for-45 this postseason (including one hit in Monday night's offensive explosion against the Cardinals). Will matching up with Cabrera give him that extra push? Other than red-hot NLCS MVP Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval (RBI in five straight games), the Giants' offense has been inconsistent. The team also benefited greatly from the Cardinals' defensive sloppiness, scoring 10 unearned runs, an LCS record. With the exception of center fielder Austin Jackson and some brief flashes of leather from second baseman Omar Infante and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, Detroit's defense isn't known for being Gold Glove-caliber (the team finished 27th in defensive efficiency). The Giants might be able to capitalize on a defensive miscue or two.
If the games come down to the teams' bullpens, the Giants have the clear advantage. San Francisco doesn't miss closer Brian Wilson since Sergio Romo is pitching well in that role, with his slider, beard and glorious striped high socks . The Giants' bullpen (consisting primarily of Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Romo) has a 2.42 ERA this postseason (12 earned runs in 42 innings). Romo has been lights-out, surrendering just one earned run (1.17 ERA) and four hits with four strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings.
Though the highly energetic Phil Coke has emerged as the Tigers closer in the wake of Jose Valverde's struggles (27.00 ERA this postseason), Coke is still largely unproven. Setup man Joaquin Benoit has also struggled with a 4.91 ERA in October. Coke looked unhittable against the ice-cold Yankees. Will his scoreless streak (7 1/3 innings and counting in the postseason) continue? Jim Leyland and Tigers fans everywhere undoubtedly hope Verlander pitches a complete game in Game 1 so no bullpen decisions will be necessary until at least Game 2.