Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 24, 2010

Rangers And Giants Refuse To Follow The Script

So once again, two teams prove that there is a reason why they actually play the games. In a World Series that Fox Sports must dread, the Texas Rangers will open at the San Francisco Giants next Wednesday. The Rangers, who began life as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961 before decamping to Texas after the 1971 season, had never won a playoff series before this year. The Giants have not won a championship since 1954, when they called the Upper West Side’s Polo Grounds home.

The Yankees were of course the defending Series champions, and I suppose most thought they would prevail over the Rangers in the ALCS. But even as a season ticket holder and lifelong loyalist I knew this year’s Bombers were a flawed squad, as epitomized by their 32-32 record over the last third of the season. While my hopes were unchanged, my head was with the Tampa Bay Rays as the team most likely to emerge from the first two rounds of the playoffs as the American League representative in the Series. But the Rays fell to Texas in a remarkable first round series, the first time in playoff history that the visiting team won every game. Then the Rangers simply bludgeoned the Yankees in the ALCS, winning 4 games to 2. In the process they outhit New York by more than 100 points, batting .304 to the Yankees’ .201, outpitched them with an ERA of 3.06 to 6.58, and led the Yankees for all but Game 5 and the last two innings of Game 1.

Texas entered the playoffs with the weakest regular season record of the eight playoff teams. But they only had Cliff Lee pitching for them for the last two months of the season, and likely MVP Josh Hamilton missed most of September with a rib injury. With Lee dominant in two starts against Tampa and one against the Yankees; and with Hamilton batting .350 in the ALCS, the Rangers’ regular season record meant little. Now after waiting fifty years to win anything in the post-season, Texas will play for a championship.

If the Rangers spot in the World Series is surprising, the presence of the Giants is downright shocking. This is not to say that San Francisco is a bad team. They stormed through September, winning 18 of 26 games during the month behind remarkable pitching. The Giants’ staff posted a 1.78 ERA in the season’s final full month. That was good enough to allow them to finally catch and pass the San Diego Padres, who spent most of the year holding down first place in the NL West. But then the Giants nearly coughed it up on the season’s final weekend at the beginning of October.

Leading San Diego by three games and facing the Padres at home on that final weekend, the Giants proceeded to drop the first two games of the three game set. But on the regular season’s last day, five Giants pitchers combined to hold San Diego scoreless, and the Giants won the West with a 3-0 shutout.

But while San Francisco looked to be good, they next had to play a team that appeared to be great. If New York and Tampa Bay seemed formidable in the AL, the Philadelphia Phillies looked like an absolute sure thing in the senior circuit. The Phillies have kept largely intact a powerful lineup that won it all in 2008 and lost to the Yankees in the World Series last year. During the off-season they swapped pitching aces, shipping Cliff Lee to Seattle while acquiring Roy “Doc” Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays. Then at the July trading deadline they appeared to drop a hammer on the playoff hopes of every other NL franchise when they acquired pitcher Roy Oswalt from Houston. The deal gave them a #2 starter in Oswalt who would be the ace of virtually any other staff. Every bit as important, it took pressure off of the other Phillies’ starters. Twenty-six year old Cole Hamels looks a lot better as a #3 starter than trying to fill the shoes of a #2.

The Oswalt trade paid immediate dividends for Philadelphia, as the former Astro reeled off seven consecutive victories beginning in mid-August. As a number of position players came back from a rash of early-season injuries, the Phillies finally reeled in the Atlanta Braves, winning the NL East for the fourth consecutive year and posting the best record in the majors in the process.

As every fan of the Great Game knows, in a short series good pitching usually beats good hitting. The Phillies monster rotation seemed to put them well ahead of any of the other seven playoff teams. As if to emphasize that point, Halladay fired a no hitter in the opening game of the Division Series against the Reds. Philadelphia swept Cincinnati aside in three games, and awaited the winner of the series between San Francisco and Atlanta.

But after the Giants ousted the Braves in four games, the West Coast nine refused to go along with the prepared script for the NLCS. In the opening game the Giants’ own ace Tim Lincecum outpitched Halladay. Giants’ outfielder Cody Ross, a career .265 hitter who had been waived by the Florida Marlins in August took Halladay deep twice. With a 3-2 opening game victory, San Francisco immediately put a dent in Philadelphia’s air of inevitability. While Oswalt did his part in pitching the Phillies to a win in Game 2, the Giants went home knowing they were capable of beating the Phillies.

Good pitching usually beats good hitting. That proved true in the pivotal Game 3, but it was the Giants’ Matt Cain and not the Phillies’ Hamel who came up big. Cain allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings, and the Giants won 3-0. When San Francisco won again the following night on a walk-off ninth inning sacrifice fly, Philadelphia was in too deep of a hole.

At the very end both of the presumed favorites in the League Championship Series went in identically quiet fashion. Friday night Alex Rodriguez stood with his bat on his shoulder as a curveball from Neftali Feliz broke over the plate for strike three. Twenty-four hours later it was the Phillies’ slugger Ryan Howard who froze on a Brian Wilson full count slider for the final out.

For the Yankees and the Phillies, like twenty-six other teams before them, a long dark winter now begins. It will be a time for all twenty-eight squads whose springtime dreams ultimately turned to dust to consider what might have been; and ponder how to arrive at a different result in 2011.

Now only two remain, and they prepare to play on for the ultimate prize. Both finished last in their respective divisions in 2007. Both had losing records in 2008. None of that matters now. While it is certainly the Unexpected Series, it promises to be an entertaining one. At the end of it, for one of these two squads, a lifetime spent wandering in the desert will at long last lead to the Great Game’s greatest glory.

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