It's finally here. Pinch yourself. Your Texas Rangers are back in the World Series, and this time feels much different than last year's playoff run. There's a confidence flowing through my body that just wasn't there before, and I suspect the players feel the same way.
Don't get me wrong. I expected the Rangers to beat the San Francisco Giants last season, but the prospect of facing the best pitching in baseball was daunting, and success seemed to be in the hands of one man for Texas: Cliff Lee. This year, however, the Rangers look and play much more like a complete team.
In my American League Championship Series preview, I boldly proclaimed that I didn't fear Detroit Tigers ace and soon-to-be-named AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, and the Rangers shouldn't have been scared of him either.
Sure enough, Verlander surrendered seven runs in his 11 1/3 innings on the mound. My point then was this: No one player can win a postseason series.
Of course, that's still the case. But if there's one player in baseball that comes the closest, it's the great Albert Pujols. The man. The myth. The Machine.
Despite three National League MVP awards and a 2006 World Series championship, Pujols' place in history hasn't been fully appreciated. Although he's played just 11 seasons, Pujols is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the game's all-time greats.
Just how great? I think he's already somewhere in the top 15 all time, which obviously puts him into some pretty incredible company. But he has really been that great and has plenty of productive seasons ahead of him at just 31 years old.
My older brother Jess recently scoffed at such a suggestion. I asked him to name some of the players he thought were in lower end of the top 15 or so, and Joe DiMaggio's name came up.
Without hesitation, I said, "Pujols is already better than him."
Seems like a crazy proclamation, and there's no definitive answer, but the numbers don't lie.
Like Pujols, DiMaggio began his career as a 21-year-old and won three MVP awards. He played a total of 13 seasons, missing three years during his prime (ages 28 to 30) while enlisted in the air force in World War II. In those 13 years, DiMaggio had a .325 batting average and .977 on-base plus slugging percentage with 2,214 hits, 361 home runs, 389 doubles, 1,537 runs batted in and 1,390 runs scored in 6,821 at-bats.
DiMaggio was also a spectacular defensive center fielder (105 career errors) and won the World Series a jaw-dropping nine times in 10 attempts. However, his performance in those games (51 total) wasn't nearly as jaw-dropping, as he hit .271 with eight homers and 30 RBI. Of course, he also holds the all-time record for recording at least one hit in consecutive games with 56 set in 1941.
In 500 fewer career at-bats (roughly a full season's worth), Pujols has a .328 BA and 1.037 OPS (sixth best all time) with 2,073 H, 445 HR, 455 2B, 1,329 RBI and 1,291 R. He's also a stellar defensive first baseman (110 career errors and two Gold Gloves) and is hitting .339 with 15 homers and 46 RBI in his 67 postseason games.
Even if you don't buy the argument that he's better than Joltin' Joe, you have to admit Pujols belongs in the conversation, which puts him either right at or just outside the top 15.
And there's a lot more baseball ahead for him.
He's clubbed at least 30 homers every season. He's scored at least 100 runs in 10 of his 11 seasons, with 99 in 2007. And, this year, he just missed out (.299 BA and 99 RBI) on continuing his decade-long run of posting an average above .300 and at least 100 RBI.
Pujols already has more career home runs than Cal Ripken and Duke Snider, more runs scored than Ozzie Smith and Harmon Killebrew, more RBI than Roberto Clemente, a slugging percentage only bettered by Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig and a higher batting average than Honus Wagner, Jimmie Foxx and Wade Boggs.
He's the best player in the game right now. Period. And as soon as the Rangers forget that, they're gonna be in trouble.
I'm not suggesting Texas should issue Pujols a free pass every time he's at the dish, but they must pitch him tough and keep him off balance to win this series. And I believe Texas is poised to do just that after learning some tough lessons while facing probably the second-best player in the game right now, Miguel Cabrera, in the ALCS.
It's not like Pujols is the only Cards' hitter to be concerned about. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, David Freese and Yadier Molina are big-time threats as well, and St. Louis led the NL in batting average, runs scored and OPS. And Chris Carpenter is capable of dominance on the mound, as he showed once again while tossing a shutout in Game 5 of the NLDS against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies.
But the Rangers are simply a better all-around club, top to bottom. The Giants were last year. Texas is this year.
Expect to start celebrating at the end of Game 6.
Four more wins. Just four more wins.
A look at the position-by-position match-ups:
Catcher: Mike Napoli v. Yadier Molina Advantage: Rangers
Molina's arguably the game's best defensive backstop and had a career year with the stick (.305 BA-14 HR-65 RBI), but Napoli has been a much better hitter across the board. And while his defense isn't quite at Molina's level yet, he's not that far away and is improving every game.
As I argued during the ALCS, Nappy's the best overall catcher in the game right now, and, after a power outage against Detroit (no extra base hits), I expect big things from him against St. Louis. In fact, if I had to put dough on someone to be the series MVP, I'd put it on Napoli.
First Base: Michael Young v. Albert Pujols Advantage: Cardinals
Young is likely to play some games at DH when the series moves to Arlington, but no matter who Texas puts at first, Pujols, who hit .478 in the NLCS, is unquestionably the best player in this series. And, as I argued above, he's one of the best in baseball history.
If St. Louis somehow finds a way to beat Texas, Pujols will be leading the charge.
Second Base: Ian Kinsler v. Skip Schumaker/Nick Punto Advantage: Rangers
The only teams with a better second baseman than Kins right now are the New York Yankees with Robinson Cano and Boston Red Sox with Dustin Pedroia.
Schumaker, who missed the NLCS with an oblique injury, is a strong defender and scrappy player capable of picking up a base hit here and there, but he's not anyone Texas should be worried about. Punto's also a decent role player, but he's nowhere near Kinsler's league.
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus v. Rafael Furcal Advantage: Rangers
If this was the 2006 version of Furcal, the Cards would have the clear advantage, but injuries and declining production from the soon-to-be 34-year-old make him merely a decent player at short instead of the All-Star caliber he was in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Elvis tops Furcal in every aspect of the game, but his blinding speed is likely to be kept in check by Molina behind the plate.
Third Base: Adrian Beltre v. David Freese Advantage: Rangers
First, it was left foot surgery in 2009. Then two surgeries on his right ankle in 2010 cost him 87 games. This year, a broken left hand resulted in another 51 games lost. Yup, David Freese has been pretty much the Cards' version of Brandon McCarthy over the past few years, but he finally put it all together in the NLCS (.545 BA-3 HR-9 RBI) and took home the MVP hardware. After a pedestrian 2011 campaign (.297 BA-10 HR-55 RBI), Freese looks to be one of the game's best up-and-coming hitters.
But Freese is an average defender at best and doesn't have a long enough track record at the plate to come close to the skills of Beltre, who's the best at the hot corner right now.
Left Field: David Murphy v. Matt Holliday Advantage: Cardinals
Holliday was banged up during the regular season with various ailments (appendectomy, quad, middle finger), but he appears to be healthy right now after hitting .435 in the NLCS. And while he's nothing to brag about as a defender, he's one of the better hitting outfielders in the NL.
With that said, this match-up is closer than anyone (especially outside of North Texas) would guess. Murphy hit .412 in the ALCS and has a knack for coming up with a big hit at the plate when Texas needs one.
Center Field: Josh Hamilton v. John Jay Advantage: Rangers
Jay is becoming a really good center fielder and making folks in St. Louis forget about once-prized youngster Colby Rasmus, but he's no match for Hamilton, even with a sore groin.
Right Field: Nelson Cruz v. Lance Berkman Advantage: Rangers
Berkman has been an underrated player for the majority of his career, receiving far less recognition and praise than players like Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, but his career OPS is actually slightly better than both at .955 -- good for 19th all time. (Surprising, huh?) He had another remarkable season this year that earned him the NL Comeback Player of the Year award, but he didn't muster an extra-base hit in the NLCS.
Cruz, on the other hand, doesn't exactly have a Berkman-like track record, but he's obviously in the zone right now after blasting a record six homers in the ALCS and is a much better defender.
Designated Hitter: Mitch Moreland/Yorvit Torrealba v. Allen Craig Advantage: Cardinals
If Moreland finds his way into the lineup, he'll be at first with Young moving to DH, but I've already made the Young-Pujols comparison, so this boils down to who enters the lineup for both teams when the series moves to Arlington. And this one's a clear win for the Cards, as Craig appears to be a late bloomer at 27 years old, hitting .311 with 11 homers and 40 RBI in just 200 regular season at-bats and .375 with a homer and three RBI in only eight NLCS at-bats.
Bench: Matt Treanor, Craig Gentry, Endy Chavez and Esteban German and v. Ryan Theriot, Nick Punto, Daniel Descalaso and Gerald Laird Advantage: Cardinals
First of all, I'm still scratching my head about the addition of Treanor to the roster. Three catchers for a seven-game series makes no sense at all. Aside from Treanor, the match-up is fairly even, but Theriot and Punto are experienced veterans and Craig will be a dangerous pinch hitter in games played in St. Louis.
Starting Pitchers: C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Matt Harrison and Derek Holland v. Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Edwin Jackson Advantage: Push
In what had been dubbed "The Year of the Pitcher," both clubs defied the odds by getting this far with, well, awful starting pitching, as Texas posted a 5.62 postseason ERA including a 6.59 ERA in the ALCS and St. Louis at 5.43 and 7.03, respectively.
Carpenter seemingly gives the Cards a slight edge, but he had a mediocre regular season (11-9, 3.45 ERA, 1.26 WHIP) and is battling elbow soreness. And even though he had that great game against Philly, he gave up three runs in five innings in his start against the Brewers, so I gotta call this one a toss-up.
Bullpen: Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams, Scott Feldman, Mark Lowe, Mike Gonzalez (LHP) and Darren Oliver (LHP) v. Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski (LHP), Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, Jake Westbrook and Arthur Rhodes (LHP) Advantage: Rangers
Both team's bullpens stepped up big time to overcome the starters' inability to pitch deep into games this postseason, with Texas' relievers posting a 1.31 ERA in 27 1/3 innings and St. Louis' bullpen at 1.88 in 28 2/3 innings. But this match-up isn't nearly as close as everyone says.
If I was Wash, Ogando would be my Game 3 starter with Holland moving into the bullpen, but that obviously ain't happening. (Although, thankfully, Holland is likely to be demoted to the Game 4 starter.) I'd do so because Ogando is throwing better than he ever has (7 2/3 IP, 1 R, 3 H, 2 BB, 10 K and 2 wins in the ALCS) and spent most of the season in the rotation, and removing him from the bullpen still gives Texas an advantage, especially with Lowe replacing Uehara on the roster.
Motte (9 saves, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP in the regular season) and Salas (24 saves, 2.28 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) have been a great duo, and the acquisitions of Dotel and Rzepczynski (Zep-chin-ski) gave them depth, but gimme the foursome of Feliz, Ogando, Adams and Feldman in a heartbeat.
Manager: Ron Washington v. Tony La Russa Advantage: Cardinals
-- Well, Wash finally moved Nelson Cruz up in the lineup, but it wasn't much of a bump, as he and Nappy trade spots.
-- I don't really spend much time talking about the weather, mostly because I think it's pointless and boring. But I will say how much it sucks that both teams have to battle each other tonight in temps that could reach the 30s with swirling wind and possibly more rain.
-- If you don't know about the "rally squirrel," then consider yourself lucky. But you might be a bit confused if it's referenced. Basically, it boils down to a squirrel running across the field in two-consecutive NLDS games at Busch Stadium. Even though the Cards were 1-1 in those games, fans attributed the shocking series win against Philly to a rodent. It's even more ridiculous than the rally monkey, so be prepared.
-- You'll hear lots about the Cards' incredible run to make it this far, but what you're unlikely to hear about is that the Rangers have played even better. While St. Louis battled back from 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta and San Francisco in late August to post a 18-8 record in September, Texas went 19-6 when they didn't need the wins nearly as much. And since a September 10 loss to the A's, the Rangers are 21-5.
-- On ESPN a few minutes ago, Curt Schilling said, "The winner of tonight's game wins this series." He was certainly a terrific pitcher, but, good God, get him off the air.
-- The Yankees in 1963 and 1964 are the last AL team to lose back-to-back World Series.
-- The Cardinals are now tied with the Dodgers and Giants for the second-most World Series appearances in major-league history. It's their third appearance since the start of the 2004 season, the most of any team in that span.
-- Since 1985, the team hosting Game 1 in the World Series has won 20 of the 25 titles. That's a frightening stat, but I really don't put much into it because the teams prior to 2003 earned home-field advantage because they had the best record that season, so it's not exactly surprising that they won it all. (Actually, as a Friend of Unfair Park reminds me, home-field advantage prior to 2003 was determined by alternating leagues each year.)
-- I mentioned this briefly in my story about Tony La Russa, but if you haven't read ESPN's Jayson Stark's story about Cardinals GM John Mozeliak's lack of faith in his club, check it out.
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-- So glad to see Koji Uehara's name off the roster. I thought he'd get it together in the ALCS, but I was dead wrong. He became the only pitcher in history to allow a home run in three consecutive relief appearances in the postseason.
-- Pujols, Molina and Carpenter are the only three players left from the 2006 championship team. One of the most dominant players that year was Adam Wainwright, who served as their closer at the time. Of course, he's out for the entire year after undergoing Tommy John surgery at the beginning of the season. That's great news for Texas, as Wainwright went 39-19 with a 2.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 425 K from 2009 to 2010 as one of the NL's best starters.
See y'all in the comments!
*Follow me on Twitter @SamMerten