No one should be surprised that the Texas Rangers enter Game 1 of the 107th World Series on Wednesday night as medium favorites to win the first title by a franchise from the Lone Star State. They're the better team on paper and they actually won their division championship, so what else would you expect the oddsmakers to do when the other guys brought the worst regular-season record into the postseason?
It's a fair question. The Rangers can do it all, and they've been doing it all year. The St. Louis Cardinals have been doing it only lately, and their starting rotation did not exactly rock the world in the National League Championship Series.
So, why am I so sure the Cardinals are going to win?
Well, for starters, they've got the home-field advantage, which is no small thing and — in a perfect baseball world — should never be awarded to a wild-card team unless there are two wild-card teams in the World Series. The Cardinals didn't win the NL Central, and they slipped into the playoffs with their 90th win on that amazing final night of the regular season.
The reason they have home-field advantage, of course, is because a team with 36 non-Cardinals on it beat a team with 31 non-Rangers on it in an exhibition game in July. Don't get me started.
In some other professional leagues, the Cards would have lost most of the performance-based tie-breakers, but this is major league baseball, where competitive integrity took a back seat to the importance of keeping the All-Star Game as the best and most realistic all-star celebration among the major pro sports. (Have to admit, it sounded pretty good at the time.)
That extra home game isn't everything. Plenty of teams have started out on the road and won the World Series, but you can make the case that the importance of the home-field edge is magnified for a wild-card team. All you have to do is look at the brief history of the wild-card format to see that three of the four wild-card teams that have opened the World Series at home have gone on to win it.
The first team to do that was the Florida Marlins in 1997. The most memorable was the Boston Red Sox, who swept the Cardinals in 2004 to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. The Anaheim Angels did it in 2002, but nobody noticed since the San Francisco Giants also were a wild-card entrant that season. The only wild-card team to have home-field advantage and lose the Series was the Detroit Tigers in 2006, and they lost to the Cardinals — who have been on one end of this particular situation or the other three of the five times it has come up.
It's doubtful that particular experience will prove significant, but the Cardinals have a lot more than that going for them as they head into the Fall Classic. They are a well-coached team with a very good mix of youth and experience. Maybe you can say the same thing about the Rangers, who are back after falling short against the Giants in last year's World Series, but sometimes it's better to be the team that's crashing the party.
How else do you explain why at least one wild-card team has advanced to the World Series for the seventh time in the past 10 years?
The more urgent nature of the postseason just might favor the teams that have had to fight right to the final day of the regular season, and the Cardinals had to win 16 of their last 21 games to get out of it alive.
The Rangers dominated their American League West rivals this season and finished the season six wins better than the Cardinals. They took care of the other wild-card team in this postseason in a four-game Division Series against Tampa Bay, but the Rays were a so-so offensive team that might have punched itself out in an emotional season-ending sweep of the New York Yankees.
The thing that makes the Cardinals different is that they have terrific veteran leadership and feature the two hottest hitters still alive in the postseason. Albert Pujols is only the most dominant player in the game, and he has — in spite of a .419 playoff average and 10 RBIs — been upstaged by teammate David Freese, who is hitting .425 with four homers and 14 RBIs.
The Cards concentrate a greater percentage of their offensive output at the heart of their lineup, but they have enough depth to make the designated hitter differential a nonissue.
The Rangers have plenty of big guns, too. Nelson Cruz had six home runs and 13 RBIs in the first two playoffs series and has been hitting seventh in the lineup, so it looks like there will be more than a few big innings over the next week or so. The Rangers also have the better pitching staff from top to bottom, but in a series featuring this much offensive firepower, I'll go with the team that does a better job of keeping the ball in the park.
That would be the Cardinals, who will win in six.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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