The Giants and Rangers open the 106th World Series at AT&T Park on Wednesday night. Congratulations if you had that exacta at the start of the playoffs; if you had it at the start of the season, I want some of what you were smoking.
Shed no tears for the accountants at Fox; Dallas-Fort Worth and the San Francisco Bay Area are hardly small markets, and fresh faces in the World Series aren’t ratings poison. Since 1990, the highest-rated Series was Atlanta against Minnesota in ’91; the big-market Yankees were in five of the ten lowest-rated in that period.
Texas got here by running away with the American League West, riding Cliff Lee’s golden October arm past favored Tampa Bay, and then making the New York Yankees look like an old, tired boxer in the late rounds of a fight he shouldn’t have taken.
They won with a diversified offense – speed at the top, power through the heart – and held on with their pitching, getting superior games out of C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. They are a team in its prime; their two most important hitters, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, are both late bloomers, 29 and 30 respectively. Ian Kinsler is 28, Michael Young just turned 34; only Elvis Andrus, among their most important run producers, is precocious at 22.
The Rangers’ bullpen will be one of the keys to the Series. It will not be as lefty-dominated as it was against the Yankees; Texas loaded up on southpaws for the LCS to neutralize Robinson Cano and to keep fly balls out of the Yankee Stadium jet stream towards right field.
Texas closer Neftali Feliz has one of the most valuable arms in the game, particularly if the club follows through with plans next season to shift him to the rotation (his primary spot in the minors before last season). Sidewinder Darren O’Day was nearly as effective against lefties as righties, so needn’t be reserved for duty against San Francisco’s right-handed hitters (Cody Ross, Juan Uribe, Pat Burrell, Buster Posey).
The weak link for Texas in the playoffs has come from the cleanup spot, where DH Vlad Guerrero had 115 RBIs in the regular season but just one in the first ten postseason games before picking up three in the ALCS finale. The first two games will be in San Francisco, so the pitchers will hit for themselves; Rangers manager Ron Washington intends to put Guerrero in the outfield, where he’ll be part of an early/late offense/defense platoon with David Murphy.
The Giants will face the opposite issue when the Series moves to Texas: It’s hard enough for them to find eight batters who belong in a starting lineup, let alone nine. San Francisco had just two hitters rank among the top 50 qualifiers in the National League in OPS. They won two playoff series (ten games) while scoring just thirty runs, the fewest of any team since the divisional series was introduced in 1995.
The San Francisco story is pitching, pitching, and just enough timely hitting from a rotating band of heroes. Against Atlanta, it was Cody Ross and the Braves’ leaky defense that eked out enough runs to support Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner. In the Philadelphia series, Ross continued his hot hitting –he has four homers in the postseason, one more than he had with the Giants after being picked up on waivers in August – and Juan Uribe contributed game-winners with a sac fly on Wednesday and a home run on Saturday (the blast raised his playoffs average to .143 for the year).
The Phillies scored four or more runs in three of the six games of the NLCS. That matched how often the Giants allowed 4+ runs in a twenty-five game stretch from September 4 through October 1. That run of games included 18 straight giving up three or fewer, the second-longest such streak since 1920.
It’s tempting to say that the Giants will need superlative pitching to defeat the Rangers, the kind they got from Matt Cain (and Brian Wilson, the other hero of the NLCS) against Philadelphia. Tim Lincecum was merely good, while Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner were downright human. But I’d have said the same thing about the Phillies series, and San Francisco’s hunt-and-peck offense against Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels kept the starters from having to win every game by 2-1 or 1-0.
There are many compelling matchups in this World Series: Lincecum and Cain against a hot Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, young Neftali Feliz against the more seasoned Brian Wilson in the pen, Cliff Lee against the greatest postseason performances of the past.
Beyond these biggest names, the Series will be decided by the depth throughout the order and in the pitching staff. Even if you get past Hamilton and Cruz, the Rangers have Guerrero, Kinsler, Young, and Andrus to create runs; how do the Giants counter? Those four are a fine match for the Giants’ Posey, Ross, Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres – but those are the Giants’ top producers, not the supporting cast.
I’m looking forward to seeing Lincecum and Lee, but I expect Texas’s overall talent to continue its coming-out party. Rangers in six.