Saturday, October 28, 2006

Underdogs Cards Rule Baseball World

ST. LOUIS - The Detroit Tigers entered the 102d World Series as American League champions and exited as the Keystone Kops.

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the Fall Classic as the postseason's most unexpected participant and exited as world champions, thanks to a 4-2 win last night in the fifth and final game of the best-of-seven Series.

Numbers that were supposed to haunt St. Louis - an 83-78 record, a 12-17 September-October finish - instead seemed to inspire the team most often branded as this postseason's underdogs.

"Nobody believed in us coming in, only these 25 guys," Albert Pujols said as the crowd cheered during the trophy presentation at Busch Stadium. "I just thank God we proved everybody wrong. We never gave up. We're warriors."

"From the first game in San Diego [in the National League Division Series], the guys were so determined," shouted joyous Cards manager Tony La Russa, now the only man other than Sparky Anderson to manage teams to world titles in each league. "Way to go, fellas!"

Numbers that forever will haunt the Tigers include eight unearned runs, including two last night.

The plays not made, balls not fielded, throws not reaching their targets marked every game in Detroit's profoundly flawed Series performance.

Even before the loss - and Detroit's seventh and eighth errors overall - Tigers manager Jim Leyland had said, "I haven't seen anything like it, but I don't believe that's the reason [Detroit trailed in the Series]."

No, it wasn't just the fumbling and bumbling. To suggest that would overlook St. Louis' smoothly functioning pitchers, such as last night's winner, Jeff Weaver, and hitting heroes such as David Eckstein.

Eckstein, who hit .364 and was the main piston in an offense that never quit, was named the Series' most valuable player. The honor brought with it a new Corvette, a prize Eckstein said was won by more than just himself. The Series triumph, he said, "was a total team effort."

With the victory, St. Louis ended a drought of sorts, having lost three Fall Classics since last winning in 1982.

The Cards and the New York Yankees are the only teams with double-digit Series titles (10 and 26, respectively). St. Louis also brought a world title back to the heretofore-beleaguered National League for only the fourth time in 11 years.

Detroit, in the Series for the first time since 1984, had hoped to get home to put Game 6 in the hands of undefeated post-season hero Kenny Rogers.

To do that, the Tigers needed Justin Verlander, a 17-game winner, to rebound from a shaky postseason (1-1, 7.47 ERA entering last night).

"I just want him to be more relaxed and just get ahead," catcher Ivan Rodriguez had wished aloud before the game. "What we've got to do is set up a game plan and just make him be Justin."

Verlander's 35-pitch first inning, replete with a wild pitch, three walks and all-over-the-lot 100 m.p.h. pitches, suggested a long night ahead.

He wriggled out of that scare, but not the one just one inning later. After Cards catcher Yadier Molina's single and two groundouts, Eckstein's infield single was thrown away by Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge.

The error - and Eckstein steaming around the bases - joined similar lasting impressions of the this Series.

Eckstein's 4-for-5 performance the night before included his using a third double of the night to drive in the winning run in a Game 4 also marked by disastrous Tigers fielding.

The fourth inning was marked by a Cardinals error - the two-base variety on a dropped ball by rightfielder Chris Duncan. That gave the Tigers an opening. And Detroit pushed two runs through it, on a Sean Casey laser shot into the right-field stands on the next pitch thrown by Weaver to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.

But if the Tigers dominated this Series in one category, it was in costlier errors.

Verlander, unable to live large with the lead, committed a pitching no-no by allowing one-out back-to-back hits, by Molina and So Taguchi, just after his teammates had given him the lead.

Weaver then attempted a sacrifice, and seemed to play into Verlander's hands - because when the pitcher fielded the bunt he definitely seemed to have a shot at Molina at third.

But for the fifth time in five Series games, a Tigers pitcher committed an error; for the fourth time it was by badly overthrowing a base, which Verlander did for the second time in two starts, tying an ignominious Series record for pitchers.

As the ball rolled into foul territory past third, Molina scored. Taguchi did, too, moments later on an Eckstein RBI grounder.

What Detroit kept giving away, St. Louis gladly accepted - including, in the end, the World Series.

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