Tuesday, October 24, 2006

World Series So Far a Snoozer

By Diane M. Grassi

Major League Baseball fans by nature and necessity are both optimists and pessimists. At the beginning of each spring season, even the most forlorn just the season prior drink the Kool-Aid which allows team devotees to believe again that their team can win and get to the playoffs. We the fans remain optimistic until about June when the image becomes clearer as to which teams can begin to be taken seriously.

Yet, it usually is not until after the All-Star Break and the July 31st trading deadline that the optimists amongst us get a dose of reality when the true contenders start to emerge. The dog days of August used to be the ultimate test of grit and perseverance, but given the wildcard races coupled with the best-of-five divisional championship series, luck, the disabled list, and remaining depth of pitching rotations have but made the length of the baseball season ever the less meaningful.

So why should anyone be stunned that most sports fans would much rather do chores around the house in between college and NFL football televised games than watch the tail-end of the MLB season? And why should casual fans care about the MLB playoffs and the World Series when they do not seem to be enamored at season's end?

The reason this writer is asking these questions is because as an avid MLB baseball fan for several decades now, it has been difficult to watch any of this 2006 postseason. It has been lethargic and limp. Aside from Detroit's Cinderella story and the stunning resurgence of Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers, neither the St. Louis Cardinals nor the Detroit Tigers have given us much reason to care thus far in the postseason, let alone the World Series. Thus, why not throw in a little controversy over pine tar on Kenny Rogers’ throwing hand in Game 2 to perhaps fuel the fires in order bring baseball back to the front page?

After the Tigers stunned the New York Yankees, the Eastern Division champions in the ALDS, and swept the Oakland Athletics, the Western Division champs, they sat around for a week in freezing weather in Detroit while the Cardinals won the National League pennant and overcame the New York Mets, who looked like they did not want to win it as badly.

The St. Louis Cardinals had one day in between their National League championship crown to refocus on the well-rested Detroit Tigers. Having stumbled into the postseason with their 83 season wins, it was the fewest amount of wins for a team appearing in a World Series since the 1973 Mets. The Cardinals finished with a 35-39 second half record, losing nine of their last 12 games and slated as the underdog.

And we have heard ad nauseam about the lack of depth in the Cardinals' bullpen and the injuries still plaguing their stars, Albert Pujols, (hamstring) Scott Rolen (shoulder) and David Eckstein (shoulder, side). We have also been inundated with stats of the mostly young roster of Detroit pitchers which were clearly better in the first half of 2006 than in the second.

Detroit also was not nearly as impressive in the second half of their season, having finished with 95 wins, but struggling in their last 50 games, finishing with a 31-50 record. They also sacrificed their once commanding lock as American League Central Division winners and would up as the American League wildcard team. But their combination of youth, veterans, and dominant pitching was what manager Jim Leyland used to sell to his team on becoming contenders, regardless.

But it comes down to actually playing the games and there have been more than enough off-field decisions which at least could eventually end up providing a compelling World Series. However, it's getting late early.

Game 1 gave us the first World Series game ever featuring two rookie starting pitchers. The Tigers' Justin Verlander (17-9, 3.63 ERA) dominated most of the year, although he did fatigue at times in his first big league season. Anthony Reyes pitched for the Cardinals. He was not even expected to start Game 1, given his truncated season with St. Louis with only five wins as a big leaguer. Due to the length of the NLCS, he was it. And he floored everyone and most of the Detroit lineup, pitching into the ninth inning and at one point retiring 17 batters in a row. Clearly, Verlander left his high heat at home in Game 1, and some say that between the frigid playing-time temperatures combined with adrenaline, he simply could not get it done.

Detroit looked lost in Game 1 with little offense except for centerfielder, Curtis Granderson, known more for his strikeouts with an American League-leading 174 than his on-base-percentage. Yet, leading up to the World Series, he struck out only 8 times. He has consistently been on base in the first two Series games along with left fielder Craig Monroe, who hit homers in each of the first two Series games and 5 for the postseason, tying Tiger-great Hank Greenberg. With veterans like right fielder Magglio Ordonez, catcher Pudge Rodriguez, and second baseman Placido Palanco, these two have been refreshing surprises.

The Cardinals won Game 1 by a score of 7-2, looking more like the NY Yankees than the Cardinals, so stingy in their offense previously during the postseason. But clearly, the poor defense, marginal pitching, and lack of offensive support, combined with the week's layoff and cold temperatures, caught the Tigers off-guard and immediately dubbed them underdogs again.

Game 2 saw the continuance of the uncanny performance of one Kenny Rogers on behalf of the Tigers. Although selected to the 2006 all-star starting rotation, Rogers has had the stigma of being a first-half pitcher the past few years, yet he finished the year with a record of 17-8 and 3.84 ERA. But he was preceded with a 0-3 record with a 8.87 ERA in postseason appearances.

But since Rogers' win against the Yankees in the ALDS, he is 4 innings shy of tying Christy Mathewson for his performance in the 1905 World Series with 27 scoreless innings. Rogers' 8 innings of shut-out baseball, surrendering only two hits in Game 2, has now reversed his prior 0-3 record to 3-0 in the 2006 postseason.

Cardinals starter Jeff Weaver, working on a resurrection of his own career having been released by the Anaheim Angels half-way through this 2006 season, in favor of his little brother Jered, is now with his fifth MLB club. He wore out his welcome in Detroit in the dawn of his career, was run out of town by the NY Yankees and was kicked out of Dodger Town prior to Anaheim. His dismal prior postseason record was 0-2 with a 9.76 ERA.

Weaver, too, looked like a man in disguise during the NLDS and NLCS and it was only a matter of time when the real Jeff Weaver would show up. While he did not have his usual type of meltdown in Game 2 of the Series, it indicated that he is cooling off. Much heralded Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan is not done yet in rehabilitating Weaver's mechanics and helping him control his inner demons.

The Cardinals could not figure out Kenny Rogers in Game 2, although closer Todd Jones gave them a glimmer of hope in the ninth inning when they were able to score a run and ruin the shutout. But perhaps with each team not knowing for sure which pitcher will really appear each night as the Series goes forward, it might be salvageable to witness, after all. Game 3 on Tuesday in St. Louis serves up 2005 Cy Young award winner Chris Carpenter (15-8, 3.09 ERA) against Detroit's upstart Nate Robertson (13-13, 3.84 ERA).

But despite Detroit's story about the 13-straight losing seasons, second most losses in history with 119 in 2003, their 90 losses in 2004, and 91 in 2005, they now have arrived. No, this World Series is not anticipated to come close to competing with the Cardinals/Tigers Series of 1934 when St. Louis prevailed or the 1968 Series when the Tigers pulled it out.

But hopefully, the present-day Tigers' story alone will be enough to garner enough interest in baseball to keep sports fans engaged. For without fan support, MLB, the national pastime, is headed to becoming past its prime in the not too distant future. And that simply cannot happen on behalf of us optimists!

So let's put some energy into this thing and play ball! (Before it snows again...)

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