Let’s set aside many of the factors we examine at the outset of each World Series — home-field advantage, weather, layoff, no designated hitters in the National League park — to consider the one that tends to trump them all.
Starting pitching, more specifically.
By the time the World Series opens Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers will have had nearly a week to line up their rotation: Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. The same quartet swept the New York Yankees in the ALCS, while combining for a 5-1 record and 1.02 ERA this postseason. At a time of year when additional rest can be valuable for pitchers, the Tigers’ starters are getting plenty of it.
Their National League opponent won’t have the same luxury.
Both the Cardinals and Giants have taxed their pitching resources during a captivating National League Championship Series, and they will spend two more top starters — Kyle Lohse for St. Louis, Matt Cain for San Francisco — in Game 7 Monday night (NLCS on FOX, 8 p.m. ET).
Consider the following scenarios.
If the Cardinals win, the World Series pitching matchups likely will be Verlander against Adam Wainwright in Game 1, followed by Fister opposite Lance Lynn or Jake Westbrook in Game 2.
If the Giants claim the pennant, Verlander and Fister will probably draw Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum, in some order.
The Cardinals have more pressing pitching concerns than the Giants, given the consecutive clunkers by longtime ace Chris Carpenter and Lynn’s inability to finish the fourth inning in a potential closeout Game 5. The Giants, meanwhile, can’t have much confidence in Lincecum, who was no match for Wainwright in Game 4.
Does that mean the Tigers will be immediate favorites to win their first world championship since 1984? Not necessarily. But they have an excellent chance to split the first two games on the road, before the Series shifts back to Detroit for Game 3 Saturday.
Verlander looms large for whichever NL team wins the grueling seven-game series. He is — as Tim McCarver said during Sunday’s NLCS telecast on FOX — “the best pitcher on the planet” right now. Verlander is in the midst of a dominant postseason, with a 3-0 record and 0.74 ERA, and in Game 1 he will have the chance to take back home-field advantage for his team.
(Verlander, of course, is among those most responsible for the fact that the Tigers don’t have home-field advantage to start the Series. He took the loss in the All-Star Game after allowing five earned runs during a first inning in which he admittedly overthrew in an effort to light up the radar gun before a national television audience on FOX. San Francisco’s Cain threw two shutout innings to earn the victory — and ensure the World Series begins in the NL city.)
Psychologically, either opponent would have a reason to believe Verlander is beatable. The Cardinals hung two losses on him in the 2006 World Series, including when the unheralded Anthony Reyes opposed him in Game 1. The Giants heard mythical tales of Cliff Lee’s postseason dominance and promptly beat him twice en route to the 2010 world title.
But Verlander — in his prime at age 29, enjoying one of the best two-year stretches for any starter in recent memory — is primed to win the ring that is required of all October icons. Today’s Verlander is very different from the rookie the Cardinals defeated six years ago. He’s less anxious, more at ease on the big stage. “Having been in these situations helps a lot, being able to feed off those past experiences,” Verlander said recently.
Verlander is probably the worst type of starter to face when a team has had less than 48 hours to recover from a champagne celebration — possibly much less, if Monday’s gloomy forecast for the Bay Area pushes back the first pitch. And it’s not as if the Detroit rotation falls off much after its ace. The Tigers have the lowest team ERA in this postseason (1.74), and they proved against the Yankees (who did not have an off day before the ALCS) that they are savvy enough to take advantage of weary lineups.
Over the past couple of days, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has taken his pitching staff through more game-speed activities — facing live hitters in scrimmage games, fielding bunts, throwing to bases — than during a similar layoff before the ’06 World Series. Part of the reason for the change has been the unseasonably warm weather in Michigan, which has allowed the Tigers to practice outdoors.
But Leyland also is cognizant of how his pitchers’ throwing errors helped turn the ’06 Series against the Tigers. So, there’s been a reprise of the pitchers’ fielding practice more commonly seen in spring training. “We’re making sure we’re covering that, so you guys can’t say we’re (lousy) fielders,” Leyland quipped Sunday.
In all likelihood, the Tigers’ fate will be determined by how well their pitchers throw the ball over the plate. And that is just the way they want it.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Tigers will run out to a 2-0 lead in the World Series, even after winning consecutive games at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS. The odds are against them, based on the AL’s 3-9 record in NL parks during the last four World Series. But if there ever was a year for the AL team to seize momentum early in the Fall Classic, it’s this one — because of Verlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer and the draining NLCS that isn’t over yet.