In the World Series, home-field advantage means so much more than a supportive crowd and customized walkup music.
The fact is that American League teams — excellent, balanced American League teams — have struggled mightily in National League ballparks during recent World Series. In the last seven Fall Classics, including Detroit’s current two-games-to-none deficit against San Francisco, the AL is just 5-14 when playing under NL rules.
The NL representative has won the last three World Series it had home-field advantage, and now the Tigers must take four of five games beginning with Game 3 Saturday in Detroit (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX) to prevent the Giants from making it four in a row.
Yes, the designated hitter — or lack thereof — makes that much of a difference.
The Texas Rangers could tell you that much. They went 1-5 combined under NL rules during the last two World Series, when one more victory in St. Louis last year would have been enough to win the franchise’s first title.
On both occasions, defensive gaffes by the Rangers’ usual designated hitters contributed to Series-turning defeats. Vladimir Guerrero started in right field during the 2010 opener in San Francisco, and his misplays contributed to a tone-setting 11-7 loss. One year later — in the Game 6, near-clinching heartbreaker more closely associated with closer Neftali Feliz and outfielder Nelson Cruz — two errors by Michael Young at first base led to two unearned runs in the Cardinals’ 10-9, 11-inning win.
Without Young’s mistakes, the Rangers might have won in nine innings — and there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for David Freese to become an October legend.
The Tigers haven’t experienced a flash point of that magnitude in this Series, yet — but there have been subtler moments. San Francisco, in classic NL style, plated its only two runs of Game 2 on a groundout and sacrifice fly. The Tigers, unaccustomed to the small-ball methods often required in the World Series, failed in their effort to push across a run on Delmon Young’s second-inning double — when they could have accepted the second-and-third, no-out scenario in which a well-placed out would have been sufficient. The Giants went on to a 2-0 win.
While the Detroit pitchers have yet to record a hit or successful sacrifice, Giants left-hander Barry Zito delivered the RBI single that helped put Game 1 out of reach. Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks, relegated to the bench because designated hitter Young moved into left field, is hitless in two pinch-hit appearances.
Asked before Game 2 if the rules or home-field atmosphere conferred the greater advantage for NL clubs, Hall of Famer and Tigers legend Al Kaline said, “The rules, absolutely. The (AL) pitchers have a hard enough time hitting off a coach throwing 40 miles per hour, let alone bunting in a game.”
“No excuses: They’ve outplayed us,” Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said after Game 2. “They beat us twice. We haven’t swung the bats real well. But when you’ve got to sit guys like Dirks, it’s tough. He’s a huge part of our lineup.
“Now we get to go home and get back in our comfort zone with Delmon back at DH and Dirks in the lineup, where things flow for us. It’s definitely a different game for an American League team to come here and have your pitchers hit who haven’t hit since interleague play. It’s definitely a struggle. It can be tough.”
We’re talking about a relatively small sample size of World Series play in NL ballparks — 19 games over the last seven postseasons. Still, the AL’s .263 winning percentage is noteworthy because of how sharply it contrasts with its mark of .558 during regular-season interleague play over the same span, according to STATS LLC.
In fact, the AL has had the better interleague record in each of the last nine years, which suggests there is something fundamentally different about the World Series. AL teams are used to playing a certain style — exclusively — over the final three months of the regular season and throughout the AL playoffs. Then the rules change in the most important games of the year.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Leyland said. “It’s amazing because, over the last several years, I think I’m correct in saying that the American League has had the advantage in interleague play.
“It’s different, and I think it’s different for your pitcher not only in that he’s pitching a game, but those moments that he (normally) takes underneath to sit and relax between innings, now he’s hitting. Now he’s scuffling to get his helmet. Now he’s worried about, ‘Am I going to bunt?’ or ‘What am I going to have to do here?’ There’s another element that comes into play that affects the pitcher, I think, in a lot of ways.”
That’s not to say the system is broken. League identity is part of baseball’s fabric. As long as the AL and NL maintain different stances on the DH — which, by the way, may not be the case into perpetuity — it’s appropriate for home teams to play under the rules most familiar to them in the World Series.
Perhaps the impact will be lessened in future seasons, with the 15/15 alignment (with Houston moving to the AL) — which will result in interleague games being played throughout the entire regular season. The Tigers’ pitching staff will have a World Series tune-up in 2013 — they hope — when they finish next season with a three-game series at Marlins Park.
Here’s what we know for certain today: The Tigers aren’t going to win the 2012 World Series unless they win a game in which their pitcher is holding a bat.