Alright all you gridiron gurus, the trade deadline has passed and there's no meaningful football for the next few days, so it's time to prove you are all true sports fans by tuning into the Fall Classic.
Yes, tonight it's finally back—MLB's World Series. What used to be the pinnacle of the sports calender returns with a matchup that very few could have predicted.
The St. Louis Cardinals aren't supposed to be here. The Red Birds fought from 10.5 games back to take the Wild Card on the last day of the regular season. Then they proceeded to shock the hopelessly hyped Phillies dream staff in the NLDS and Braun, Fielder and the not-so-beastly Brew Crew in the NLCS.
The Rangers are back in the Fall Classic for the second consecutive year. Despite losing Cliff Lee to the Phils and Josh Hamilton to injury for a large chunk of the regular season, Texas outlasted the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to win the AL West. In the ALDS, they made fairly quick work of everyone's favorite underdog, the Tampa Bay Rays, before Nelson Cruz bashed his way through Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.
So now it's Midwest vs. Southwest. The state with the Arch vs. the state with the Alamo. The franchise that gave us Bob Gibson vs. the franchise run by Nolan Ryan. Pujols/Berkman/Holliday/Freese/Molina vs. Hamilton/Cruz/Kinsler/Beltre/Young/Napoli.
The rally squirrel may have a hard time getting past this vigilant Texas border patrol.
Can the Cardinals continue their improbable dance with destiny or will the Rangers finish what they couldn't vs. the Giants a year ago?
So like Lewis and Clark, we start our expedition from the Gateway to the West.
Let's jump right into it and throw out 20 bold predictions for the latest version of the Fall Classic.
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry
Chris Carpenter had a pretty mediocre regular season for the Cardinals. He started the first three months of the season 2-7 with an ERA north of 4.00. For a guy who had won 33 games over the last two years while posting WHIPs of 1.01 and 1.18, this came as a shock to Cards fans.
But in typical Carp fashion, he turned it on when the team needed him most. Four of his six starts in September were quality outings, including a two-hit, 11-strikeout shutout of the Astros on the final game of the season.
In October he's had his ups and downs as well. On three days' rest in Game 2 of the NLDS, he was pretty awful, allowing four runs on five hits and three walks over three innings.
However, in Game 5 against the reigning Cy Young Roy Halladay, Carpenter was in the most dominant form Cards fans have seen in years. He allowed only three baserunners in a complete-game shutout masterpiece to will the Cards to the NLCS.
Over the last two days, media speculation has hinted at elbow troubles for the 36-year-old former Cy Young winner who has had a prolonged history of arm trouble. But Carp insists that it's normal and TLR says he's good to go. I'd say I'd trust their word more than a guy like Ken Rosenthal.
Carp has persevered through a career-high 237 regular-season innings and another 17 in October. I see him being the dominant force that the Cards desperately need with Adam Wainwright still on the shelf.
Look for him to win a pair in the series.
Nelson Cruz absolutely blew up in the ALCS. Nelson had a fairly ho-hum regular season (.263/.312/.509, 29, 87) and a straight-terrible ALDS (1-for-15 with five K's). But he sure feasted on Tiger blood in the next round.
Cruz hit an ALCS-record six home runs and drove in 13 en route to earning MVP honors.
Unfortunately for Rangers fans, I just don't see him coming anywhere close to replicating those kinds of numbers.
Last year in the World Series vs. the Giants, Cruz went 4-for-20 with a homer and three RBI. Granted the Cardinals don't have a one-two punch like Lincecum and Cain. However, their group was able to shut down a lethal lefty-righty duo in Braun and Fielder. I don't think TLR will allow Cruz to kill them in this series.
Although he didn't do much in the ALDS, he stepped up his production in the ALCS with seven RBI, including a three-hit, five-RBI night in the clinching Game 6.
Young has been with the Rangers for his entire 12-year career and he had a pretty poor showing last year in the WS (5-for-20). This year I'm sure he feels the pressure and will come through in the clutch.
The Rangers' top slugger has yet to hit a home run in postseason play and hasn't launched a round-tripper since Sept. 23.
Despite his limitations, Hamilton is still a very dangerous hitter and will surely be a run-producing force in this series. I just don't see him flashing the serious power.
It won't be any easier vs. this Rangers lineup which hit 210 homers in the regular season, featured eight guys with 11 or more home runs and doesn't really have any weak spots.
But I see Carpenter getting back to form as I said earlier and I think Jaime Garcia will have at least one solid outing where he goes seven.
The Cardinals made a much-maligned trade at the deadline this year, sending the moody-but-talented Colby Rasmus to Toronto and receiving Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepczynski from Toronto and Edwin Jackson from the White Sox in return.
The move proved to be a major factor in the Cards' massive comeback.
TLR rode the bullpen in the NLCS as Rzepczynski, Dotel, Mitchell Boggs, Lance Lynn, Arthur Rhodes, Fernando Salas, Kyle McClellan and closer (just admit it TLR) Jason Motte closed the door on Brewer rallies time and time again.
But it's hard for Cards fans to forget this is a bullpen that blew 26 saves in the regular season.
After working more innings than the starters in the LCS, this unit is sure to cough up a lead or two in the WS against this potent Rangers lineup.
C.J. Wilson will be a prime jewel on the free-agent market this winter. The Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and several other prime contenders are all sure to vie for his services. But Wilson is knocking plenty of cash off his asking price by his subpar performance on the October stage.
In his three postseason starts, Wilson has allowed 14 runs over 15.2 innings and has seen six balls leave the yard while going 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. Not exactly ace-quality numbers.
The Rangers are hoping he regains the form that led him to 16 wins, 206 K's and five straight quality starts in September.
But if you've seen his postseason starts, he's not locating his fastball and that could spell big trouble vs. a prolific Cards offense.
The media is selling this series as an all-out slugfest where every game could be 12-10.
It's easy to support that theory seeing as how the Cardinals averaged over seven runs and the Rangers averaged 6.5 runs per game in their respective LCS.
I see Game 3 (Lohse vs. Harrison) and Game 4 (Jackson vs. Holland) as liftoff games where both teams will slug it out. However, I feel both these staffs will prove to be better than they're getting credit for going in.
As everyone knows, Prince Albert will be a free agent at season's end and could be taking his unbelievable skill set out of the Lou for the first time in his career.
He endured taunts from peons like T Plush (Nyjer Morgan) and many media critics after he had a slow start and failed to post a .300-30-100 season for the first time in his career.
But Pujols has always said, the only thing that matters to him are the rings. And he'll be doing everything within his beastly powers to grab another in a Red-Bird-on-the-bats uni.
He only has one and this will be his third opportunity with the Cardinals.
If it comes down to Pujols vs. the stingy and flame-throwing Rangers closer in the ninth, Feliz had better walk him.
Tony LaRussa is one of the most simultaneously hated and revered managers in the history of baseball. He's loathed by rival teams and sometimes by his own fanbase and even certain Cardinals stars (see Ozzie Smith, Ron Gant, Scott Rolen, Colby Rasmus). But hey, 2,365 wins, six pennants and two world titles speak for themselves.
He's always ruled his teams meticulously with an iron fist, trying to control every minute detail of the game—from a revolving bullpen door to defensive replacements and double-switches.
TLR probably did the best managing job of his career this season as he finally lightened up a bit in the clubhouse (as evidenced by the Cards' "Happy Flight" mantra), and the team responded with one of the most dramatic comebacks in regular-season history.
He also micromanaged his team through some unbelievably tough jams in the LDS and LCS.
But in Game 3 of the NLDS, he nearly managed his team out of the playoffs. With the Cards locked in a 0-0 battle against Cole Hamels, TLR had Jaime Garcia walk Carlos Ruiz (who had done nothing the entire series) to put two men on ahead of pinch-hitter, Ben Francisco. Of course, Francisco turned on one of the first pitches he saw for a three-run bomb to give the Phillies all they would need for a 3-2 win and a 2-1 series advantage.
Sometimes Don Tony's tinkering leads to maddeningly disastrous results and I see that happening at least once in the late innings of the World Series.
He's been relegated to the bullpen for the postseason, but he's been invaluable in that role.
Although he blew a save in Game 4 of the ALCS, he also won a pair vs. the Tigers and has logged a .114 BA against, 0.58 WHIP and 12 strikeouts over 10.1 innings in seven appearances.
I look for the Rangers to go to him in big spots for two-inning stretches to hand the game over to Feliz in the ninth. Cards fans shouldn't expect to see much success against the righty.
The Cards will host the first two games of the WS thanks to the NL's second straight All-Star Game win (stupid rule but we'll take it). That leaves the Rangers in a disadvantage without their precious DH (speaking of stupid rules) and with a basic automatic out in the No. 9 spot.
St. Louis pitchers are used to handling the bat and TLR is a master of small ball.
Look for the Cardinals pitchers to make a difference with a squeeze bunt in a key situation or a surprise slap-hit-and-run which could turn the tide in Game 1 or 2.
Mike Napoli has been one of the biggest acquisitions for any team this season. Napoli was actually dealt twice in the offseason. The Angels foolishly swapped him for Vernon Wells' anchor of a contract and the Blue Jays turned around and passed him off to the Rangers for Frank Francisco.
All Napoli did in return was launch 30 homers, drive in 75 and post a .320/.414/.631 line. Not bad for a throwaway catcher.
Napoli has shown toughness behind and at the plate this postseason. He took a shot from the Rays' Sean Rodriguez in the ALDS in a collision at home plate and swallowed his chew in the process. But rather than pulling a Sandlot and hurling all over, Napoli didn't flinch and stayed in the game. More importantly, he's hit safely in all but two of the Rangers' postseason games and has the power to make some serious noise at the bottom of the Rangers lineup.
Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and David Freese have been forces to be reckoned with in the heart of the Cardinals order.
Ever since Pujols woke up in Game 2 of the NLCS for four hits and five RBI, this offense has been humming, outside of that Game 5 hiccup of course.
Matt Holliday has shrugged off his hand injury and is showing power and the ability to spray to all fields.
Lance Berkman continues to be the Cards' best offseason pickup, launching balls from either side of the plate like the Big Puma of old from Houston.
And the young St. Louis native Freese has had himself a time in the postseason.
Freese has been slowed by a litany of injuries in his brief career, but finally got a chance to shine in this year's postseason.
Freese has 17 hits this postseason, including four homers and 14 RBI. He's showing immense power to the opposite field and I expect him to continue to spray the ball in this series, particularly in the phone booth that is the Ballpark in Arlington.
Look for him to flex his power in Game 1 with a homer and few RBI vs. Wilson.
Had to do it—it's just too easy.
Don't look for goofy celebrations after every little accomplishment in this series. There will be no demonstrative Beast Mode exhibitions after every strikeout and RBI single. There will also be no D-Back snake-arm celebrations.
These are two veteran teams that have been here before and will act like it.
Let that be a lesson to all the wanna-be tough-guy teams out there.
I also don't expect any real animosity between these two teams. They've never met in the postseason and have only played one interleague series in their history. There's not enough history there for hate.
After a magical run like this, there's no way he's leaving this franchise. The man has already surpassed Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith in terms of popularity in one of the greatest baseball towns that bleeds Cardinal red and has always been protective of its past superstars.
He's always said he loves the Lou and the franchise and is only about one thing—winning rings. And St. Louis is his best option to do just that.
The Cardinals will be reloaded again next year with Carp, Holliday, Berkman, Freese, a hopefully healthy Wainwright, a retooled bullpen and all the necessary pieces for yet another run.
His options are also pretty limited out there on the market. The Angels, the Cubs and the Rangers will be the only real suitors out there for him. And looking at it, I don't think the Rangers have the finances to pull off a deal, considering they couldn't get it done with Cliff Lee.
I think he gets paid an insane amount of money, but still leaves some on the table to stay at home in the land of the Arch.
But TLR showed a different side with this team. He lightened up and let the team have their Happy Flight tradition of having some fun and letting off some steam on getaway days. And he's shown a genuine affinity and affection for this group and has acknowledged that they're a special unit.
I don't think he can give all this up after one of the most breathtaking finishes to a season in MLB history.
Plus, he could have another few years with his favorite player of all time in Albert Pujols.
He's already hinted that the team has what it takes to compete beyond 2011.
I say he stays.
This team has too much momentum and has been through too much to stop now.
I don't believe the Rangers staff can stop this lineup and Carp and the Cards staff will trip up the Rangers lineup just enough times to get by. Plus, I think the Cards bats are on a mission and won't stop until they have a World Series ring.
I think the Cards will split at home, take two of three in Arlington and then finish the Rangers off in Game 6 in the Lou.