World Series Preview: Mighty Offenses Will Collide as Cardinals and Rangers Meet
Quite honestly, not many analysts saw this coming.
Before the season, the Phillies-Red Sox and Phillies-Yankees were the most common World Series predictions. Those teams were widely regarded as being loaded with top talent.
The Texas Rangers were, last year’s American League champions, but in the offseason they lost talented southpaw pitcher Cliff Lee and 115-RBI man Vladimir Guerrero, among others. There was little question whether or not the deep Ranger line-up would shine, but their starting rotation (minus Lee) was seen as a major concern.
Even as recently as August 25, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves third in the NL wild card race, 10.5 games behind the leading Atlanta Braves. At that point, even the Giants were a game in front of the Cardinals. Many gave up on the Cards.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, they went on to win 22 of their last 31 games, as the Braves stumbled to a 10-20 finish. It was an improbable combination of spectacular play by the Cardinals and an utter collapse by the Braves, partially triggered by significant injuries to their starting rotation.
St. Louis remained resilient, but a positive attitude would have meant little without solid production to back it up.
Albert Pujols, who has been a model of consistency throughout his entire career, finished the year strong with 20 RBIs in the month of September. Lance Berkman, the surprise player of the year for the Cardinals and probably the entire league, batted a whopping .374 in September.
The entire Cardinals' starting rotation also came together during the stretch run.
In addition to Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia and Edwin Jackson pitched well enough to give the Cardinals a fighting chance to make the playoffs (and that, they did). Even Jake Westbrook turned in three decent outings in the final month.
Let’s look at some trends that may play a significant role in this year’s World Series:
Regardless of whether he can blame this season’s sub-100 RBI output on injuries (he was reduced to 147 games this season due to a left wrist injury) or age starting to catch up to him, Pujols (pictured left) appears to be in top form these days. As previously mentioned, he powered his team to the playoffs with 20 September RBIs. More recently, the big first baseman recorded six extra-base hits along with 9 RBIs in the National League Championship Series. Pujols is batting .419 and slugging .721 this postseason.
He’ll be 32 years old, but as of now, the Santo Domingo native is certainly not playing like it. Whether or not Pujols is playing with added motivation heading into free agency is beside the point. If you’re the Rangers, don’t pitch to this man if a base is open. The Rangers have got to be careful with this powerful slugger.
Heart of the Cards
Pujols has been terrific especially as of late, but he’s had some invaluable help this season – help that should not go unnoticed.
Matt Holliday has contributed a very solid season. Although Holliday was at his best before the All-Star break, the 6-foot-4-inch outfielder has seemingly rediscovered his stroke, compiling three consecutive multi-hit games. More importantly for the Cardinals, Lance Berkman has been the glue that has held this offense together. At the age of 35, Berkman stunned the baseball world with an impressive offensive season after many assumed he had lost his power for good. With Berman batting behind Pujols, this 1-2 punch has created many headaches for opposing pitchers.
New Card on the Block
Along with future Hall of Famer Pujols, surprise player Berkman, and the solid Holliday, the Cardinals boast a secret weapon. His name is David Freese.
Third baseman David Freese has absolutely taken the baseball world by storm.
The man had only hit five home runs in his entire career prior to 2011. In the 2011 postseason alone, he has already hit four home runs and driven in 14 runs. That’s right--14 RBIs in just 11 games. With Freese’s extraordinarily hot bat, the Rangers must beware – the Cardinal batting order from spots three through six is extremely formidable. As an opponent, if you take them lightly, they’ll burn you.
But the Rangers are Stacked
This is true. In fact, from top to bottom, the Rangers have a much deeper line-up than the Cardinals.
Michael Young finished third in the race for the AL batting crown, just six points behind Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera. Offseason acquisition Adrian Beltre drove in 105 runs. Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton would have easily topped 100 RBIs if they hadn’t missed about 40 games apiece. Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli hit 32 and 30 home runs, respectively.
We saw the Rangers’ offensive depth on full display in both series leading up to the championship round.
In Game 4 of the ALDS, the Rangers could only muster six hits, but Beltre picked the team up with three home runs, by himself. The Rangers won 4-3 thanks to three RBIs from the third baseman.
They made short work of the red-hot Tampa Bay Rays in four games despite the fact that their two best hitters (Young and Hamilton) combined for a mere two RBIs over the four games.
But there’s more evidence of this offense’s unbelievable depth. Cruz (pictured right) was a one-man wrecking crew this ALCS. In the series, he torched the poor Tigers to the tune of six home runs and 13 RBIs.
He’s their seventh batter. You heard me right.
C.J. Wilson Needs to Regain Form
All season long, C.J. Wilson was not only the Rangers’ ace, but one of the better starters in the American League.
He won 16 games, but more importantly his ERA was under 3.00, batters hit a mere .232 against him, and he struck out nearly three times as many hitters as he walked. He was dominant.
In his three postseason starts, however, Wilson has appeared to be a less confident pitcher.
Whether or not he is less confident, it cannot be disputed that he’s been significantly less effective.
Wilson is plagued with an 8.04 ERA this postseason, and he has been especially burned by the home run ball, surrendering six home runs in just 15.2 innings. That statistic contrasts sharply with the fact that the lefty only gave up 16 home runs all season.
With the rest of the Texas rotation not pitching that well either, Wilson (pictured left) will be counted upon to showcase the old C.J. – the one that left batters scratching their heads this season. Even against a talented Cardinal squad, many believe Wilson is capable of turning around, but the question remains…will he?
Carpenter Has Been Solid
The 35 year-old veteran Chris Carpenter has been the only solid starter for the Cardinals this postseason.
Specifically, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson have struggled. Yes, Lohse and Jackson have each turned in a solid start, but neither has offered any semblance of consistency.
If Carpenter remains solid and one other St. Louis starter can contribute a quality start or two, the Cardinals will be in good shape. That is easier said than done, however, when you consider the line-up they’ll be facing.
Bullpen to the Rescue
With severely struggling starting rotations on each roster, both bullpen units have come to their team’s rescue.
The Ranger bullpen has really made up for the miserable performances exhibited by the team's starters.
If we exclude the struggling Koji Uehara, who has only thrown 1.1 inning this postseason, the Ranger bullpen has thrown 39 playoff innings and boasted a miniscule ERA of 1.15.
Now, that’s impressive!
Throughout the NLCS, St. Louis’ starters were ousted so quickly that St. Louis became just the second team in postseason history to win a best-of-seven series after getting more outs from its relievers than starters.
That’s a troubling statistic regarding the poor starting performances, but that stat is also a testament to the phenomenal effort put forth by the Cardinal bullpen.
Winning Game 1 Trumps Home-field Advantage
Yes, the Cardinals have a slight home-field advantage, but not much.
In the last eight World Series since the All-Star/home-field rule was invoked, the winning league has gone on to win the World Series five times (slightly more than half of the time).
With that said, the Rangers and Cardinals alike are fully capable of winning on the road. In fact, the Cardinals won the NLDS and NLCS despite starting those series away from home. To their credit, the Rangers are 3-2 on the road this postseason.
What’s way more important is who wins Game 1. Eight of the last nine World Series champions have won the inaugural game. For that reason, I believe that the Rangers’ chances in the series depend heavily on their first game performance.
If the struggling Wilson can be good enough to allow his offense be themselves, the Rangers should be fine. Wilson doesn’t have to be dominant, just solid enough given his team’s offensive depth.
However, if Wilson continues to allow home runs at an alarming rate and cannot last beyond the fourth inning...well, then the Rangers will likely be in trouble.
It's for good reason that the World Series s a best-of-seven series.
One game will not determine the winner, and of that, I’m well aware. Even so, the importance of winning Game 1 should not be underestimated. Game 1 sets the tone for the rest of the series.
For that reason, be sure to pay attention Wednesday night. The fans at Busch Stadium and all around the country should be in for a great game.
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