Sunday, October 22, 2006

Underdogs? Cards Ravish Tigers

DETROIT - Call it the World Series without ego.

The National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals and their hosts last night, the American League champion Detroit Tigers, couldn't have shown less interest in being considered the favorites to win the 102d Fall Classic. So much so, each team seemed to vie for the right to be called the underdog.

Even the fact that Detroit played St. Louis this season in interleague play - and dominated - was downplayed in the hours leading into Game 1, a 7-2 win by the Cardinals.

"That was the middle of the season," cautioned Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson. "And we didn't face everybody, especially in the bullpen. So we might have been swinging the bat really good then, and they might not have been throwing that well then. . . . A lot of stuff could change this time around."

The guy in the home whites proved more right than he could have hoped. Albert Pujols' two-run home run, Scott Rolen's solo shot, and the pitching of the underdog of underdogs, Anthony Reyes, propelled St. Louis past a surprisingly sloppy Tigers team.

Just like that, the Cardinals ended Detroit's seven-game postseason winning streak and stole home-field thunder from a quieted Comerica Park as add attendance if we get itTigers fans watched their team commit three errors and fail on the mound for just the second time in this postseason.

The Cardinals? The team that was supposed to be catatonic after a draining seven-game National League Championship Series against the New York Mets turned out to look like the team that had a relaxing week off.

Reyes especially turned prognostications inside out. The man who brought the least number of regular-season victories (five) to the mound for Game 1 of a World Series, the first to get the prestigious assignment after having a losing season, dominated. He allowed just two runs on four hits, retiring 17 straight at one point, and pitched into the ninth inning.

"I don't know if I could top this," said a triumphant Reyes, who had not even started the postseason on the playoff roster. "This definitely is the best thing to happen in my career."

"I thought if he went five or six innings, he'd done a great job," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "To get us into the ninth, he gets us rolling."

Tonight, the Cards will try to keep rolling, against veteran Kenny Rogers, who has yet to allow a postseason run after two starts. The Tigers will try to rebound against righthander Jeff Weaver.

By looking cool - with offense, defense and pitching clicking - St. Louis not only opened eyes here. Perhaps the Cards also finally laid to rest the belief that they were once again in a playoff series they had no chance to win.

"When you look around the locker room, that kind of motivates us more," Pujols had promised going into Game 1.

Pujols' home run came in a three-run third against Tigers righthander and rookie-of-the-year candidate Justin Verlander. It followed Chris Duncan's RBI double off the 17-game winner, a hit that snapped a 1-1 tie and lowered appreciably the decibel level in what had been an ebullient sold-out Comerica Park.

With first base open, Verlander pitched to Pujols. Why?

"It was ultimately my decision. Obviously, he burned us," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

St. Louis added three more runs in the sixth on Jim Edmonds' RBI single, a double by Rolen, two errors and an obstruction call.

"I thought he was very tentative; I didn't think he attacked them early," Leyland said of Verlander. "And that was kind of disappointing."

The team that saw a late-season slump limit it to a mere 83 victories was well on its way to another surprise of the sort thrown at the favored San Diego Padres in the NL division series and the mighty Mets in the NL Championship Series.

When that Cardinals magic continued against a Tigers team that counted among its 95 regular-season wins that three-game sweep (10-6, 7-6 in 10 innings, and 4-1, from June 23 to 25), it had to make it all the sweeter for St. Louis.

The good feeling started in the second inning when Rolen ended a personal 0 for 15 in World Series play with a tracer into the left-field stands.

Rolen, a member of the 2004 St. Louis team that was swept in the Series by Boston, used his homer to erase a 1-0 Detroit lead.

"I thought he was very tentative, I didn't think he attacked them early," Leyland said. "And that was kind of disappointing."

The Tigers stung Reyes in the first inning when the righthander looked like he felt the enormity of his start.

He had given up a one-out double to Craig Monroe and an RBI single to Carlos Guillen. In between, he pounded pitches into the ground well short of catcher Yadier Molina, who had to scramble to save Reyes more than one wild pitch.

But he settled in, walking just one batter in eight-plus innings. "I just tried to stay in Yadi's glove all the time," said Reyes, who left only after Monroe led off the ninth with a home run.

But he survived the excruciating test. Then, buoyed by Rolen's blast, Reyes settled in, as his seven-pitch, 1-2-3 second inning showed.

Shortly after Reyes learned Friday that he would take the hill for the Series opener Friday, Molina spoke of what the Cardinals needed to see - and what he, himself, expected.

"We have to try to keep him down, try to keep him focused, try to work down with the fastball and the changeup and try to hit location," Molina had said. "That is the main thing for him."

Another underdog with a bite had become legend in St. Louis, something Cardinals foes should be getting used to.

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