Posted: Wednesday October 19, 2011 10:49AM ; Updated: Wednesday October 19, 2011 1:47PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Rangers-Cardinals World Series has the look of seventh heaven

Story Highlights

Both Texas and St. Louis won pennants led by their offenses and bullpens

Managers Ron Washington and Tony La Russa will use relivers early and often

Texas slugger Josh Hamilton has been OK but is due for a power explosion

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Marc Rzepczynski
At midseason Marc Rzepczynski was toiling for a mediocre Toronto team. Now he'll be asked to neutralize one of baseball's best hitters in the World Series.
US Presswire

Is this the World Series we've been waiting for? Is the longest wait for the best day in sports about to end?

The ingredients are in place for a World Series that is nine years in the making: one so evenly matched and tightly contested that it takes every possible game to decide it. Baseball has not seen a World Series Game 7 since 2002, when the Angels defeated the Giants. It was so long ago that steroids were in full swing, the last year without testing. Since the best-of-seven format permanently replaced the best-of-nine format in 1922, this is the longest drought without a Game 7 in World Series history.

Why not now? The tone was set by the Night of 162, in which the last two playoff sports were decided on the last day of the regular season with three games that ended in the last at-bat. Such drama was then followed by a record-tying three Sudden Death games in the Division Series -- all of which were one-run games that went down to the last at-bat.

A Game 7 is in play now because neither pennant winner, the American League's Texas Rangers or the National League's St. Louis Cardinals, is a clear-cut favorite. That's partly because each team clawed its way through two postseason rounds with the kind of baseball that doesn't typically win this time of year: lousy starting pitching covered up by deep bullpens and offensive firepower. In a year in which run-scoring was dialed back to 1992 levels, we get a spring-loaded World Series with the best slugging team in the National League against the second-best slugging team in the American League.

What we have are two teams that don't have enough starting pitching to end the series quickly. For too long the World Series has ended in a hurry, with the team that gets out in front staying in front. Since 1987, the team that wins Game 1 is 19-4 in pursuit of the title -- essentially an 80 percent conversion rate over almost a quarter of a century. Forget Game 7; there's been only one Game 6 in the previous seven World Series.

So go ahead if you like and figure the matchup tonight between Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals and C.J. Wilson of the Rangers will likely decide the series. (Big edge: St. Louis, playing at home and sending the hotter pitcher to the mound. And don't be surprised if this one -- on a cold, wet night after a few off days -- is the lowest-scoring game of the series.) But you wouldn't think that way if you've been watching this postseason, one that even ultra-serious Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called "wacky."

With runs too easy to come by and starters typically checking out before the fifth inning ends, we have a World Series that defies what we think we know about postseason baseball. We have a World Series in which the managers will come to the fore, especially with how they run a game with their pitching decisions. La Russa and Texas manager Ron Washington made 53 combined pitching changes in the LCS -- and 87 changes in 19 combined games this postseason.

That's about five miles of managerial walks to the mound already. Basically, Washington and La Russa almost have walked a 10K race to get to the World Series. Where's a sponsor when you need one?

There's no reason to think anything will change in the World Series, especially with up to four games scheduled to be played under NL rules in which the pitcher's spot often instigates pitching changes and double switches. Both managers just about race to get the game in the hands of their bullpens, running games with an almost manic urgency. It's the baseball version of speed chess.

La Russa learned his lesson when he left starting pitcher Jaime Garcia on the mound too long in NLCS Game 1, and before he blinked twice the lead and the game were gone. He never let it happen again. In the NLCS Game 6 clincher, he yanked his starting pitcher, Edwin Jackson, for a pinch hitter in the third inning with a lead! And he brought in a guy who spent much of the year as his closer!

Not to be outdone in his own clincher, Washington pinch hit for his leftfielder, Endy Chavez, in the third inning of ALCS Game 6 with a lead and yanked his pitcher, Derek Holland, with a three-run lead when he was one out away from qualifying for the win.

Both managers won in blowouts.

(Contrast those decisions to that of Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who chose to use his second-tier relievers with the decisive game on the line early and let the game get out of hand, never using his top-tier relievers.)

If there is a lesson to be learned from the Cardinals and the Rangers it is that the best way to build a bullpen is to do it during the season. Relief pitchers are fungible for the most part. The hard part is knowing who among them will break down or suffer a decline, as they often do from overuse. But if you wait until July to acquire bullpen pieces, you're buying guys you know are good to go.

"Guys that are hot and throwing well are great assets to have," said Cardinals GM John Mozeliak.

St. Louis flipped nearly its entire bullpen. Only Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs remain from its Opening Day bullpen. The Rangers traded for Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez and put erstwhile starters Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando in the 'pen. The Giants won the World Series last year with a bullpen fortified by July acquisitions Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez.

With two or three off days leading to the World Series and two more off days before Game 6, La Russa and Washington can go to their bullpens early and often without worrying about overuse. It's a formula that doesn't work in the regular season because teams play up to 20 games in a row without an off day, but is well-suited for October.

"When you've got a versatile 'pen," said Rangers GM Jon Daniels, "especially a multiple-inning weapon who can bounce back, it plays well in the postseason. Wash shouldn't have to play it paint-by-numbers like you would with regular season bullpen usage. He's able to go with the feel of the game and use whoever he needs to hold the game in check. Without exception, Wash is going to go get the guy before the game [gets out of hand and] is over."

Ogando is Washington's key piece, the king in his game of speed chess. The righthander has been close to unhittable for five weeks. Since Sept. 15, Ogando has a 0.47 ERA (one run in 19 1/3 innings) while holding hitters to a ridiculous .108 batting average. Oh, and don't think Washington doesn't know this: The Rangers are 10-0 in that time when Ogando pitches, including 7-0 in the postseason.

Ogando is a nightmare for hitters right now, throwing 97 mph bullets from his ear with occasional wicked sliders. And the nightmare is a little darker for the Cardinals because none of their hitters ever have batted against him and his funky arm action. Good luck.

Washington has a second mid-game piece in Scott Feldman, who, like Ogando, has trained as a starter so he can go multiple innings and can be effective against both righthanders and lefthanders. In 8 2/3 innings this postseason, Feldman has allowed just three hits, no walks and no runs.

For La Russa, his key pieces will be Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. Washington's lineup is set up to make it easy for La Russa to navigate through the middle, with righthanded bats Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz stacked together four through seven. Those four hitters are hitting .231 combined against Dotel in their careers.

Rzepczynski is important because La Russa wants Josh Hamilton to be seeing him in his sleep, the way the Phillies' Ryan Howard did Yankees lefty reliever Damaso Marte in the 2009 World Series. Getting Rzepczynski from Toronto in the Colby Rasums deal was an important piece of La Russa's bullpen puzzle. La Russa loves to play matchup baseball from the sixth inning on -- having done it longer than anybody in the business -- and Mozeliak got him a lefthander who chews up lefties (career slash line of .205/.289/.284. That slugging percentage is absurdly low. Rzepczynski has allowed only three homers to lefthanded hitteres in his career).

"I've been with Tony a long time," Mozeliak said, "and I think I understand what tools he needs in the toolbox. We try to make sure that, from a front-office standpoint, that's what we're trying to give him."

Still, Hamilton becomes a key hitter for Texas because three of La Russa's four starting pitchers are righthanded. And last year's AL MVP is due. Though Hamilton swung the bat well in the ALCS, he did not produce big power. Indeed, it's been 26 days and 58 at-bats since he hit his last home run. While the world is watching to see if Cruz can stay red hot -- few hitters who rake in the LCS keep it going in the World Series -- look for Hamilton to be the one to step up in the Texas lineup.

It's self-evident that teams that reach the World Series are playing well and loaded with confidence, but in the two teams this year we're talking about playing at a high level for two months, not just two weeks. The Cardinals, as far out as 10 games in August, had to play virtual must-games every night down the stretch. They have played almost .700 baseball for a month and a half (30-13 in their last 43 games.)

The Rangers kept pushing hard in September to win homefield advantage in the first round and, as it turned out, the second. It was a race with Detroit that went down to the last day of the regular season. Since Aug. 25, Texas has played .725 baseball (29-11) while never losing back-to-back games in that 40-game stretch. They are 12-0 after losses in that time.

Two hot teams. Two slugging teams. Two teams with shaky starting pitching but deep bullpens. Where have we heard this before?

Go back to the 2002 World Series, when the Angels and Giants combined for 85 runs and 21 homers. The relievers threw just about as many innings (60) as the starters (61). No Angels starter completed six innings -- and yet the Angels won the darn series.

And how did it end? With the greatest day in sports: a World Series Game 7. And though that series, an all-California series, didn't interest much of the country, Game 7 was a very big deal. The game did a 17.9 rating -- only three of the 39 World Series games since then have pulled a bigger number: the Red Sox curse-busting clincher in 2004 and two games from the Yankees-Phillies clash of the titans in 2009.

This World Series is a Flyover Series, a humble heartland affair between a wild card team and a franchise that never has won the World Series in its 51 years of existence, the third longest current drought in baseball, but without any silly curses or ghosts that drum up a narrative for the casual fan. Ratings are bound to start low.

But if the Cardinals and Rangers keep playing this weird, wacky version of postseason baseball -- chock full of lead changes and pitching changes -- it might be 2002 all over again: seventh heaven for a baseball fan.

 
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