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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

2011 World Series Preview

Another October…another Fall Classic is upon us. This year gives us two very different, almost opposite teams. One team is in the National League, the other is in the American League. One team won its division, leading for most of the season and pulling away in the final two weeks of September. The other was a Wild Card team, mounting a record September comeback and defying seemingly insurmountable odds just to reach the post season, clinching on the most dramatic final regular season day in the history of baseball.

One team is loaded with pitching talent and explosive hitters, from top to bottom. The other is loaded with experienced, reliable hitters, but pitchers who, collectively, did not appear to come to life until the final six weeks of the season. One team has just clinched its second consecutive pennant*; the other had not won a playoff game in 5 years, prior to this postseason. One team has won 10 World Championships. The other team only had one playoff win in its history before 2010. One team is a legacy franchise, in operation since 1882. The other team came into existence in 1961 as the Washington Senators, only to move 11 years later.


Unless you have had zero interest in baseball during the past 20 years, you know that the underdog team with the lasting legacy is the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds story of reaching the playoffs after being more than 10 games back of the Wild Card in August is historic and incredible, to the point where the story sounds like something from a movie script.

Often lost in that story is how the Cardinals took the heavily favored National League East Division champion Philadelphia Phillies to a decisive fifth game in the best-of-five National League Divisional Series. The Phillies, with 102 wins, had the best regular season record in baseball. The Cardinals could only muster a single run against the Phillies, with their ace, Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA), on the mound. However, one run was enough as Chris Carpenter, who pitched only four complete games all season, threw a shutout.

One other story that will not go unnoticed is that future Hall of Fame first baseman Albert Pujols (.299, 37 HR, 99 RBI) is in the final year of his contract. With an asking price of $300 million, we may be seeing the last of Prince Albert on his St. Louis throne. The Cardinals success or failure will depend heavily on how consistently Albert can produce in key situations.

Another story is the “Mr. October” story. Every season, one player rises up and is exceptional in the postseason. A journeyman becomes household name, a good player plays like a great player, or a great player becomes legendary. With only two years of service, Cardinals third baseman David Freese (.297, 10 HR, 55 RBI) has been that story in the National League playoffs. Freese is the Cardinals leading hitter in the postseason, with a .425 batting average, 4 home runs, and 14 RBIs in October, including 4 multi-RBI games.

"FREESE IT!" David Freese is emerging as a star in the postseason. 2


The Rangers, of course, are the favorites. As underdogs against the New York Yankees in the 2010 American League Championship Series, the Rangers were able to conquer the then-defending world Series champions with smothering pitching and defense. In their four wins over the Detroit Tigers in this year's ALCS, they held the Tigers down with pitching, then beat Detroit senseless with their bats.

Texas is no underdog. They proved, convincingly, that 2010 was no fluke. When challenged by a late season run from the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West Division race, the Rangers stayed with their core strengths and tightened up their loose ends. The Rangers were in the top 6 in the majors for team totals in runs scored, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, quality starts, walks and hits per innings pitched, and batting average against. Texas is solid, top-to-bottom and across-the-board.

The Rangers' Mr. October, unequivocally, has been right fielder Nelson Cruz (.263, 29 HR, 87 RBI). Cruz hit 6 home runs and 13 RBIs in the ALCS (including a walk-off grand slam in Game 2), after going 1 for 15 against the Rays in the ALDS. In spite of nearly going 0 for the first round, Cruz's on base plus slugging percentage is over 1.000.

The Rangers have had two heroes out of the bullpen in the postseason. Closer Neftali Feliz (32 saves, 2.74 ERA) has four postseason saves and a postseason ERA barely north of 1.17. Alexi Ogando (13-8, 3.51 ERA) has received relatively little fanfare, but has been the quiet champion of the Rangers' bullpen. Ogando recorded two wins in the ALCS, has a postseason ERA of 0.87 and 12 postseason strikeouts over 10.1 innings pitched.
Cruz hit a walk off grand slam, the first, ever in MLB postseason history in Game 2 of the ALCS.

Because the National League won this year's All-Star Game, the St. Louis Cardinals, champions of the National League, have home field advantage in the best-of-seven World Series. Still, in spite of a valiant effort to come back from a historic deficit in September and clutch performances, thus far, in October, I think the Cardinals may have finally met their match. With a Cinderella storyline, the clock may finally strike midnight as they face a hot Texas team that has no glaring weaknesses.

Still, the games are played for a reason. The stage is set. Someone will go down as World Series Champions and someone will go down as the pennant winning footnote.

Hat Trick Projection: Rangers in 5 games
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