Rangers, Cardinals unlikely foes
THIS is the World Series that should never have been. Fifteen months ago the Texas Rangers were in bankruptcy (courtesy of an owner named Tom Hicks, whom fans of Liverpool FC will remember with a warm and fuzzy glow).
As for the St Louis Cardinals, six weeks ago they were 10 games out of the wild-card place in the National League with just 30 days of the regular season left. Their chances of getting to the play-offs, according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers, were less than one per cent.
Yet it is the Rangers and the Cardinals who will take the field in game one of baseball's showcase event at Busch Stadium, against the glistening backdrop of St Louis' 600-foot Gateway Arch - the Rangers thanks to careful team rebuilding half-obscured by the financial misadventures, the Cardinals by dint of one of the most spectacular late-season comebacks in the history of the game.
As Yogi Berra, baseball's wisest man, noted: "It ain't over till it's over." First St Louis won 18 of their last 28 games to snatch the NL wildcard - helped admittedly by an epic collapse by the Atlanta Braves. Then the team downed the muchfancied Philadelphia Phillies, owners of the best set of starting pitchers in baseball, before seeing off the Milwaukee Brewers and capturing the NL championship pennant.
The Cardinals are baseball aristocracy, second only in number of World Series victories to the New York Yankees. But an 11th title in 2011 would be the most heroic of them all, one achieved despite losing their pitching ace Adam Wainwright for the entire season, and a host of other disruptive injuries to key players.
To do that however they must overcome the Rangers. Texas, a franchise that has existed only since 1971, may be a parvenu, better known for its owners (who before Hicks included a certain George W Bush) and without a championship to their name. But the Rangers made the World Series last year, only to be defeated by the San Francisco Giants, and are now an established force in the game.
Still, few would have predicted they and the Cardinals would this time be the last men standing. Not just the Phillies, but traditional powerhouses like the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, have fizzled out when it mattered most - the latter with a late-season implosion remarkable even by Boston's mastery of the art of self-destruction.
Even more remarkable, both Texas and St Louis have given the lie to a baseball law once set in stone, that good pitching always beats good hitting. Not in post-season 2011, as purists wept and home runs soared through the floodlit skies in record numbers.
The final games alone of the respective pennant battles tell the story. In the American League, Texas completed their 4-2 series victory over the Detroit Tigers on Saturday with a 15-5 rout. The following night the Cardinals blasted the Brewers 12-6 in a game that featured six home runs, three apiece for each side, in the first three innings alone. "This is not fun," said a drawn Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' manager, even though his team were leading 9-4 at that point.
Never in a League Championship series had the winners seen their relief pitchers secure more outs than the starters - until the Cardinals managed it this year. As for Texas, their starters have a dismal combined ERA (earned run average) of 5.62 in the playoffs, the rough equivalent of a football defence letting in four goals a game. Every one of their wins over Detroit was achieved by a reliever. Simple arithmetic alone suggests that the World Series too will be decided by sluggers and bullpens.
In the first category the teams are well matched. Texas boast the experienced Michael Young and the fearsome Josh Hamilton (who overcame drug and alcohol addiction to be voted the AL's most valuable player in 2010) - not to mention Nelson Cruz (left) who hit a record-breaking six homers in the series against Detroit.
In the St Louis corner are Matt Holliday, Lance Berkmann, and home-town boy made good David Freese, who went an unprecedented 12 for 22, or .545, in the NL Championship Series. But the Cardinals' biggest weapon of all is Albert Pujols, not merely the best slugger but arguably the best player in baseball. After the World Series, Pujols will be a free agent, whose services will cost his next employer up to USD30m ($AU29.4m) a season.
Among relief pitchers however, the edge - and thus the role of marginal overall favourities - probably goes to St Louis. No manager uses his bullpen with the deftness of La Russa, matching pitcher to opposing hitter with scientific precision. But, as Yogi Berra knew, nothing in baseball is certain. The 2011 World Series will probably produce low-scoring games and starting pitching for the ages.