Ten most important questions heading into the World Series
The Giants have a chance against Cliff Lee if they can get to the bullpen
Game 4 will be the most important game of this year's World Series
Josh Hamilton won't get the Bonds treatment but will get the Howard treatment
SAN FRANCISCO -- Don't judge this World Series by the television ratings. The last time a World Series Game 1 pulled a double-digit rating without the Yankees or Red Sox was way back in 1997, a virtual stone age compared to the media world of the new century. The Giants and Rangers will not start with a big audience, but if they play the kind of baseball they did in the first two rounds for six or seven games, they will grow one.
The Giants look like the right team at the right time: a club built on homegrown pitching in the Year of the Pitcher, the lowest run-scoring environment in 18 years. But the Rangers have the greatest singular asset of the postseason, ace Cliff Lee, who is historically great, and an athletic offense that, unlike the deposed Phillies, finds multiple ways to score.
By the end of it, one of the two longest world championship droughts this side of the Cubs and Indians will have ended -- and so, too, if baseball has any luck, another major drought for the rest of us.
World Series Game 7, the best day in sports, hasn't come around since 2002. It is the longest drought without the baseball season ending with a winner-take-all game since 1923, the end of an 11-year run without the ultimate game.
San Francisco and Texas are matched closely enough to make a seventh game possible. So how do we get there? Consider these the 10 most important questions about a series that America just might learn to love:
1. Is Cliff Lee beatable?
No, at least not in the postseason, until somebody proves otherwise. He has started eight postseason games, and his team has won them all -- easily. The aggregate score of his postseason starts is 53-14.
Lee has thrown four postseason games with no walks and 10 strikeouts -- as many as every other pitcher combined in the other 2,568 games in postseason history.
Lee enters his Game 1 start with eight days of rest. What might be a problem for many command-and-control guys is no issue for Lee; in 12 career starts with extreme rest (six days or more), Lee is 8-1 with a 1.57 ERA, including his World Series Game 1 win last year. If Lee wins Game 1 on Wednesday night, he will become the first starter ever to win Game 1 in two consecutive years with two different teams, and only the second pitcher to win Game 1 on the road twice (Red Ruffing, 1938 and 1942).
"The ones who struggle with too much rest or too little rest do so because of their mindset," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "He doesn't buy into that. It's a non-factor for him."
No pitcher has loomed over a World Series like this since Orel Hershiser in 1988, Bob Gibson in 1968, Sandy Koufax in 1963 and Christy Mathewson in 1905. Of that group, only Gibson's Cardinals failed to win the World Series.
2. So do the Giants have a chance in games started by Lee?
Yes. If they can make them bullpen games, they gain the edge, thanks to a bullpen that relies on power strike-throwers as opposed to the Rangers' finesse-and-deception guys.
But San Francisco will try to create trouble for Lee by attacking him early in the count. The Giants are an aggressive hitting team, and they do well against pitchers who pound the strike zone.
"The way we won this year was by managing to score enough runs for a great pitching staff," said Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. "And it wasn't by walking. All year we picked which pitchers we wanted to be aggressive against and which ones we wanted to be patient with. The guys with a high percentage of strike ones are the ones we have been aggressive against. We'll try the same thing.
"[Lee] throws 70 percent first-pitch strikes and 75 percent fastballs. You have to be aggressive against the fastball. It's the same thing we did to get [Roy] Oswalt."
The Giants had success against Roy Halladay and Oswalt -- cut from the same strike-throwing cloth as Lee -- when they attacked them early and not so much when they didn't. In the games they lost to Halladay and Oswalt, they swung at the first pitch only 16 percent of the time (9 of 56). In the two games they beat them they swung at the first pitch 44 percent of the time (24 of 55).
3. What about the almighty pitch count? Isn't that what baseball is all about these days?
Forget it. This is not the AL East. That well-publicized religion about taking pitches, getting deep into counts, trying to drive a starting pitcher out of the game simply by making him throw more pitches ... well, it's not practiced here, folks.
Note to the Yankees and Red Sox, two teams that keep running pitch counts on their telecasts: two of the five least-patient teams in baseball made it to the World Series. The Giants ranked 25th in pitches per plate appearance and the Rangers ranked 29th. With superhackers such as Vlad Guerrero, Michael Young and Jeff Francoeur for Texas and Juan Uribe, Pablo Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez for the Giants, both teams look to ambush fastballs early in the count.
"We're going to be ready to hit the fastball," Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. "Our guys are pretty good fastball hitters. And like a lot of guys, they can have some struggles with spin."
The Phillies also were a ferocious fastball-hitting team, but Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum neutralized them with heavy doses of off-speed pitches, rarely doubling up on heaters. The more Lincecum got into trouble, the softer he threw -- a technique mastered by Greg Maddux. Lincecum is not a fastball-dominant pitcher, anyway. But look for him to feed the Rangers even less than his usual rate of 55 percent fastballs.
4. What is the most important game of the series?
There is no doubt that it is Game 4. Firstly, know this: the winner of Game 4 has won the World Series seven straight times, including such series-swinging moments as the Johnny Damon double stolen base in 2009, the tie-breaking eighth-inning double by David Eckstein off Joel Zumaya in 2006, the 14th-inning Geoff Blum home run in 2005 and the walk-off Alex Gonzalez home run in 2003.
But Game 4 is especially important in this series because Lee is pitching Game 5. The 1980s Mets used to say the most important game was the game before Dwight Gooden pitched because they felt so confident about their ace the next day that it felt like an automatic winning streak.
Now think if Lee pitches well in Game 1, and the Giants know he is sitting there in Game 5. It puts tremendous pressure on San Francisco to find a way to win Game 4 before getting Lee again.
The good news for the Giants is that they have the better pitcher going in Game 4, Madison Bumgarner. Tommy Hunter, the Texas starter, nibbled far too much in his last postseason start. Why wouldn't Texas throw Derek Holland? They need him in the bullpen as someone to put out early- and middle-innings fires.
Bumgarner, by the way, will be 21 years, 92 days old when he starts Game 4. Only three starting pitchers were younger when they won a World Series game: Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 (20 years, 356 days), Jim Palmer in 1966 (also 20, 356), and Bullet Joe Bush in 1913 (20, 316).