Friday, October 20, 2006

Tigers/Cardinals: World Series Preview

World Series Preview

Call it the rubber match of a series 72 years in the making.

The Tigers will play the Cardinals in the 2006 World Series. The teams are 1-1 in world championship play -- the Cardinals winning in seven games in 1934, and the Tigers returning the favor 34 years later. So here we are, 72 years after their first World Series meeting, and the Tigers and Cardinals are finally getting around to playing their rubber match.

Here's a position-by-position look at the matchup:

Catcher: The Cards' Yadier Molina now has Magglio Ordonez-like status. His two-run homer in the ninth inning gave the Cardinals the pennant in Game 7. But Pudge Rodriguez is a future Hall of Famer and has rendered opposing teams' running games almost nonexistent. It'll be fun to see if he has some more big game hits in him, after being mostly quiet in the ALCS. Probably against just about every team in MLB, the Edge would go to the Tigers here.

First Base: It's still up in the air who the Tigers will play here. Sean Casey (slight tear in calf muscle) says he can go, but manager Jim Leyland seems less convinced. If Casey doesn't play, Carlos Guillen will fill in again. Although Guillen is the Tigers' best player, in my mind, he'd be playing out of position, which would still give the Edge to the Cardinals, because Albert Pujols is simply the MVP of the National League. The best thing for the Tigers would be if Pujols somehow channeled Frank Thomas and went into the tank. But don't count on it.

Second Base: Ronnie Belliard might be familiar to Tigers fans, because he used to play for the Indians. He's a roly-poly guy who can hurt you with the bat. He's not nearly as handy with the glove as the Tigers' Placido Polanco, the ALCS MVP. But Belliard was a key acquisition for the Cardinals. Still, it's hard to give any other team the Edge here, just like at catcher. The Tigers have the advantage.

Third Base: Former Phillie Scott Rolen had a tiff with manager Tony La Russa early in the NLCS about not being in the lineup for Game 2. Supposedly they have put that behind them. Rolen is a veteran who knows how to play the game. Brandon Inge is the most athletic Tiger, and gives the Tigers power at the bottom of the order, but which could be negated in Busch Stadium due to the pitcher batting behind him (I presume Inge will hit eighth). Inge has also turned himself into one of the best fielding third sackers in the game. Edge: Tigers.

Shortstop: David Eckstein is another former American Leaguer, having played on the Angels. He was their everyday shortstop in their 2002 World Series winning year. A career .283 hitter, Eckstein hit a solid .292 in 500 AB, and only struck out 41 times, which makes him an ideal leadoff hitter. However, he only drew 31 walks, too. Again, this position for the Tigers will be determined by Casey's status. It'll either be Guillen or Leyland's choice of Neifi Perez, Omar Infante, or Ramon Santiago. Clearly, if Guillen doesn't play SS, the Edge goes to the Cardinals. But if Casey plays first and Guillen plays SS, the Edge swings to the Tigers. So, not knowing the status, we'll call this Even.

Outfield: The Cardinals start either So Taguchi or Preston Wilson in left, Jim Edmonds in center, and old friend Juan Encarnacion (former Tiger) in right. It's a talented group, and is the best defensive outfield the Tigers have faced in the postseason. Both Edmonds and Encarnacion have power, and while Edmonds specializes in the circus catch, Encarnacion has a rifle arm. Taguchi has little power, but is very serviceable with the glove. Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson, and Magglio Ordonez have each had their moments offensively and defensively, and have played very well overall. Because of their exploits in the postseason, I'm giving the slight Edge to the Tigers.

Bench: Scott Spiezio has authored some dramatic postseason moments. Pitching coach Dave Duncan's son, Scott Duncan, hit 22 homers in less than 300 AB. John Rodriguez hit .301 in 183 AB, and is typically used as a defensive replacement in the OF. The Tigers bench was little used, except to cover Casey's injury. Ironically, the Tigers' best bench player may never see an inning of postseason action: backup catcher Vance Wilson. Edge: Cardinals.

Designated Hitter: Too many options that are unknown for both teams. Even.

Pitching: Few teams can match the Tigers' rotation, and the Cardinals are not one of them, although they're better than the Mets. They did get a great effort out of Jeff Suppan in Game 7, but Chris Carpenter has been roughed up. Another former Tiger, Jeff Weaver, has been a pleasant surprise. In the bullpen, Jason Isringhausen is the closer, but he's hurt right now. So those duties have fallen to righty Adam Wainwright, who possesses a nasty breaking ball and a good changeup. The Tigers' bullpen has been awesome all season, and with Joel Zumaya healthy for the World Series, it's back to full strength. The starters are all very capable, and no matter who Leyland starts and when, he's almost sure to get quality innings. Hard to go against the staff with the best ERA in baseball. Edge: Tigers

Manager: Wow. Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland. Two heavyweights in their profession. Both have won a World Series. Both have known heartbreak in the playoffs. And, of course, they are best of friends. Not unlike the Pistons/Spurs matchup of 2005, with Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich going at it. Leyland, for his part, wants to ot discuss the relationship. Ha! Nice try, Jim. La Russa's Cards got swept by the Red Sox in 2004, baseball's team of destiny that year. I'm afraid the Tigers are the team of destiny this year, but the Cards' losing won't be La Russa's fault. Still, Edge Tigers.

Overall: Despite the long layoff, I just don't see this magical season ending with a World Series loss. Perhaps that's naive, but the Tigers are truly the better squad. All that talk about rust is nonsense: if you're good enough, you're good enough. And the Tigers are good enough. It will be the first series they play with home field advantage. Tigers in five.


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