Care to guess which teams are tied for the most wins in baseball since Sept. 5?
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Yes, just as you suspected: St. Louis and Texas.
The theory that the World Series is a meeting of baseball’s hottest teams, not necessarily baseball’s best teams, is alive and well. The Phillies and Yankees, who finished with the best records in each league, didn’t survive the first round, while the Cardinals and Rangers will take the field Wednesday night at Busch Stadium (World Series on FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET).
“Watching them play, they are incredibly talented — but so are we,” St. Louis reliever Mitchell Boggs told FOXSportsMidwest.com after the Cardinals clinched the pennant Sunday night. “It’s going to be a heck of a series. We’re going to play our tails off and so are they. The team that executes and plays the best is going to win.”
The Cardinals and Rangers are more similar than you may realize, raising the possibility that this could be the first seven-game Fall Classic since 2002.
• Both relied heavily on their bullpens to reach the World Series. The Rangers’ rotation had a 6.59 ERA and zero wins during the American League Championship Series. The Cardinals’ rotation had a 7.03 ERA and one win during the National League Championship Series.
• Both had an unlikely LCS MVP who began the series hitting in the No. 7 spot: Nelson Cruz for Texas, David Freese for St. Louis. Cruz, in fact, never batted higher than seventh in the AL playoffs despite an ALCS in which he became the first player in postseason history to amass six home runs and 13 RBI in one series.
• Both rosters have evolved considerably since Opening Day. The Cardinals have added shortstop Rafael Furcal, starter Edwin Jackson, and relievers Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Marc Rzepczynski. The Rangers, meanwhile, fortified their bullpen by acquiring Mike Adams, Michael Gonzalez and Koji Uehara in trades and shifting internal options Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman into relief roles.
• Both had potent offenses during the regular season. They ranked among the majors’ top five in runs scored, while finishing with the fewest strikeouts in their respective leagues.
• Both teams clinched the pennant with blowout victories in Game 6: Texas beat Detroit, 15-5; St. Louis beat Milwaukee, 12-6.
The World Series SHOULD be decided by starting pitching. At least, that’s what the hardball cognoscenti would say. But maybe the Rangers are about to disprove one of the game’s sacred theories. Not once in these playoffs has their starting pitcher recorded an out in the seventh inning. According to STATS LLC, no team has won the World Series without having at least one starter do so during the postseason.
So, the Rangers have two options: 1) wring 19 or more outs from a starter; or 2) make history.
In fact, both the Texas and St. Louis rotations are averaging fewer than 5.0 innings per start in this postseason. Only two teams have won the World Series under those circumstances, according to STATS LLC. The most recent: the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Texas rotation may find that St. Louis is a favorable matchup. The Cardinals were just 20-20 against left-handed starters during the regular season, and the Rangers have three in their postseason rotation: C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
The Cardinals struggled against the last southpaw starter they faced, Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf, so perhaps Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux will use that fresh scouting data to revise the game plan for his left-handers.
The most compelling individual in the series, of course, will be Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. He has responded to the pressure of a contract year by hitting .419 with two home runs and 10 RBI in 11 postseason games. If he is going to sign elsewhere after this season, will another world championship be his parting gift to the St. Louis fans?
Pujols was roughed up on a play at first base Sunday night, hurting his right forearm and having his left knee stepped on by Rzepczynski as he dove to tag Ryan Braun. But he remained in the game and indicated to reporters afterward that he wasn’t concerned. “This is the postseason,” he said. “Nothing hurts. You don’t think about it.”
As always, there will be plenty of intrigue about how the AL and NL rules will impact each team’s lineup. The Rangers won’t be as concerned as they were last year, when designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero played in San Francisco’s spacious right field — with disastrous results. This time, Texas manager Ron Washington has a relatively easy fix: He can bench the slumping Mitch Moreland (as he has already) and insert Michael Young at first base in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals have a ready-made DH in Allen Craig, a .315 hitter during the regular season despite not having an everyday role. Craig has a career .862 OPS against left-handed pitching, which should be particularly helpful given the makeup of the Rangers’ rotation.
The Rangers appear to be the favorites. They won more games during the regular season while playing in what remains (according to interleague play) the superior league. Their relievers have better pure stuff than the St. Louis relievers. They have better overall team speed, which makes a bigger difference in October than at any other time of year. They have experience/initiative of having lost the World Series just last year.
But those who expect the Cardinals to be overmatched and swept simply haven’t been paying attention to one of the most entertaining postseasons in recent memory.