People seem to be shocked that the last-second entry in the National League playoffs – the St. Louis Cardinals – has made their way into the World Series. This squad waited until Game 162 to secure a seat at the table.
I’m not! Memories of 2006 spring immediately to mind when the Cards (two years removed from being steamrolled by the famed Red Sox curse braking machine) defeated the Detroit Tigers in six games, with a team not much over .500. In fact, the similarities to that team are striking.
The AL champion Texas Rangers WILL be the favorites, no doubt. They have a fantastic, potent lineup and a bullpen that won all four games against Detroit (a playoff first).
However, thanks to Rangers starter C.J. Wilson (who served up the All-Star gopher ball to Prince Fielder and lost the All-Star Game last July), four potential games in the World Series will be played in Buschland … and the road doesn’t do Texas many favors.
Here are my keys to victory in the Series:
Starting pitching – Frankly, both teams had poor starting performances, with Texas unable to secure anything resembling a quality start in the entire ALCS (and only one in the ALDS). As potent and vaunted as is the Rangers bullpen, at some point, cracks will emerge and St. Louis has proven to be quite opportunistic in the playoffs.
St. Louis has already beaten the best starting rotation in baseball (edging Philadelphia, the team most fans anointed to be in this position at this moment). It has THE best starter left standing in former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and is a potential three-game pitcher in this Series. His forte is keeping the ball down and NOT surrendering home runs.
Texas has lots of potential in its starting staff, but its best reliever on the ALCS was a starter (Alexei Ogando) and no starter went past the fifth inning. A team cannot keep that pace and win a World Series.
Cruz Controlling – Any baseball fan of a level above average knows about Texas OF Nelson Cruz. His power display was NOT unusual and he is NOT a no. 7 hitter in anyone’s lineup.
However, Cruz is a hamstring waiting to be pulled. He hit the disabled list three times in 2011 – all for the same basic reason. When he’s healthy, he’s as tough an out as there is in Major League Baseball; especially when pitchers cannot keep the ball out of his power zone (inside and up). Anything up-and-in flies away like a Saturn rocket.
Lineup maintenance, keeping players off the bases ahead of Cruz is critical to St. Louis’ success. And keep the damn ball down and away.
Mr. Tasty Freese – The middle of the St. Louis lineup is as potent as any team. The combination of Albert Pujols (arguably THE best hitter, most powerful slugger and most feared batter) switch-hitter Lance Berkman (NL Comeback Player of the Year) and outfielder Matt Holliday can slam home runs in all directions, including into the jet stream in right-center field at The Ballpark at Arlington.
But the “X” factor (after all, the games ARE on FOX) could be Cards 3B David Freese, who was hurt half of the year for St. Louis but has responded with a thunderous bat in the playoffs. He doesn’t have the same post-season credentials of Pujols, Holliday or Berkman, but could be more important than either of that trio. If the top of the Cards’ lineup can reach base, Freese could drive in a ton of runs.
Also look for the Series to be a good battle (offensively and defensively) between the two shortstops – Elvis Andruss for Texas and veteran Rafael Furcal for St. Louis. This is Furcal’s swan song and he will want to exit on a high note.
Auction time – The biggest potential free agent on the 2012 open market is the game’s best all-around player – Pujols. One gets the feeling that he will demonstrate exactly why he is worth every freaking penny to be offered (by St. Louis, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Angels – you name it). Each swing means ka-ching in the piggy bank.
And real baseball fans can only imagine seeing Pujols hit into the wind tunnel in Arlington. I’d pay merely to watch batting practice on Saturday if Pujols can spend quality time in the cage.
On the other side, Wilson (another potential FA) will continue watching his stock go DOWN, as he has thrown four unimpressive outings in the post-season.
My prediction for the Series is a second visit to St. Louis ... and those fans celebrating at home after a Game 6 clinching victory. It just seems to be that kind of season…like 2006.