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.

Pujols Now Channels Howard, Not Bonds

DETROIT - The first day of the 102d World Series presented itself early as the kind of drizzly, chilly fall day perfect for many things, if not exactly baseball.

It was, however, a perfect time for quiet reflection before the storm for the American League champion Detroit Tigers and National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, their obligations to explain their feelings and thoughts on hold until after Game 1.

Such is the cloistered atmosphere in which Cardinals manager Tony La Russa insists the real Albert Pujols comes to life.

Take his word for it, La Russa implored at every postseason stop leading to the Fall Classic. And most of the world had little choice, as the man who is arguably the game's most prolific and versatile hitter constructed a wall this postseason between himself and the public.

Which is why Friday - the workout day before the start of the 102d World Series - proved so enlightening.

Pujols, who smacked a two-run homer in last night's 7-2 victory over the Tigers,end stepped into this World Series in a big way by stepping away from a growing opinion that he not only is mimicking Barry Bonds, the great player - but also Barry Bonds, the sometimes grating, churlish personality.

Friday, however, Pujols was channeling another larger-than-life slugger - outgoing Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, his main competition for 2006 National League most-valuable-player honors.

"I'm in the World Series," Pujols declared. "Of course I am happy."

The 26-year-old not only wanted the world to know his mind-set, but his teammates as well.

"I've been in the postseason five of the last six years. I've been blessed. So I told the young guys, 'Enjoy. You don't know when you're going to be here again.' "

Then there was his message to the media, an entity those he believes are responsible for the "underdog" labels his team has carried throughout October.

"I'm just glad those people who told us we were going to be out in the first round and in the second round - that the Mets would get us in five [games] - hey, here we are," he said.

Alas, the Cards are viewed as underdogs again.

"People say we're going to be gone in four games," he said with a thin smile. "We'll see."

Pujols desperately doesn't want that prediction to play out - as it did in 2004 when he and the Cardinals were swept from the Series by the Boston Red Sox.

So his modest first wish for this Series was understandable: "To win one game."

Obviously, Pujols wants more than just that.

"You need to be greedy," he said. "I don't care how much money you would make or how many awards you win. It's not about that. If you don't win a World Series for you and your fans and your family, it's not enough."

Winning it all, said Pujols, "That's every little boy's dream."

The yearning explained somewhat the intensity and, yes, surliness that Pujols displayed through a tense seven-game National League Championship Series.

First, Pujols was banged up throughout. On top of that, Mets pitchers, borrowing from the How Not to Pitch to Bonds playbook, didn't exactly go after him.

In the end, Pujols had but one RBI in 22 at-bats despite seven hits off Mets pitching. Pujols' overall frustration spilled over and was most visible in curt comments he made about Mets veteran pitcher and future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.

Friday, whatever was eating Pujols seemed in the past. Ahead, he saw nothing but things to be grateful for.

Things such as competing for the crown against his fellow Dominican Republic native and best friend, Placido Polanco.

Let Tigers manager Jim Leyland and La Russa play down their close friendship for the duration of the Series. Pujols will do no such thing. Not when it comes to the former Phillie-turned-Tigers second baseman he planned to dine with Friday night.

"You can't mess with a relationship you have with your best friend just because of a ball game," said Pujols, godfather to Polanco's son. "If we lose, I am going to be happy for him. Whoever wins, we're both going to be happy."

Albert Pujols, happy. The world is about find out whether that added dimension makes a dynamic player even better.

Unproven Reyes Is Weary Cards' Best Hope

DETROIT - One week to the day after his Tigers last played, Detroit manager Jim Leyland will learn tonight whether having a set, well-rested rotation is as big an advantage as it appears at the start of the 102d World Series.

"You never know what any pitcher, theirs or ours, is going to take out there on any given night," Leyland said Friday.

Spoken like a manager whose rotation is not only fresh, but deep, talented and, so far in October, absolutely dependable. More important, Leyland spoke like a man who has luxuries his counterpart, Tony La Russa, could only dream about as the series between the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals and the American League pennant-winning Tigers loomed.

La Russa arrived in Detroit knowing that while the Tigers had seven days to prepare for yesterday's workout and walk-up to that organization's first World Series since 1984, his Cardinals had about seven hours.

That's the remarkable difference in lag time between a team that swept its league championship series as opposed toand the one forced to play a seven-game war of attrition.

Because the Cards couldn't finish off the New York Mets until Game 7 of the NL Championship Series on Thursday night, La Russa couldn't align his rotation to counter Detroit's Game 1 starter, Justin Verlander.

Chris Carpenter? Jeff Suppan? Jeff Weaver? Simply not available.
Instead, La Russa announced yesterday after much deliberation, "we're going to start with Anthony Reyes."

Reyes, as in the rookie who lasted only four innings in a three-hit, two-run, four-walk no-decision in Game 4 against the Mets. As in the pitcher who was 1-2 with a 6.10 ERA in Septemberin the regular season after August.

No starter has ever brought fewer regular-season victories to the mound for Game 1 of a World Series. Reyes is also the first to get the opening assignment after posting a losing record in the regular season. He went 5-8.

So he won't be confused with fellow rookie Verlander, a Cy Young Award candidate after a 17-9cq regular season. For that reason, this was not the ideal way for the Cardinals to return to the World Series for the first time since being swept in four games by the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Not with a pitcher who didn't make the Cards' postseason roster until after St. Louis defeated San Diego in the NL division series.

Still, La Russa knows, it beat the alternative of not playing at all. Now he can only hope that Reyes, 5-8 with a 5.06 ERA in 17 regular-season startsall cq, is the better bet than, say, Jason Marquis, the 14-16 pitcher who lost eight of his final 10 decisions and may not make the Series' active roster.

"It's not an easy call," La Russa said one day before the rosters have to be set. "We wrestled with this - not really anything clearly against Jason Marquis; he really helped get us here. But the way he ended the season, it was a tough assignment to give."

Leyland, of course, likely spent more time trying to decide where to make dinner reservations than he did figuring out how to deploy his comparative embarrassment of riches against Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds & Co.

Verlander will be followed to the mound by Game 2 starter Kenny Rogers, simply the most impressive veteran pitching this October (two starts, 15 scoreless innings, two victories).

Lefthander Nate Robertson (13-13cq) gets Game 3. Game 4 will belong to Jeremy Bonderman - the hard-throwing righthander who stifled the New York Yankees in the AL division series clincher, allowing two runs in 8 1/3 innings.

"Basically, we wanted Kenny to pitch two games at home - 2 and 6 - if it goes that far," Leyland said.

Tonight, Verlander will make his third postseason start after pitching to a no-decision against the Yankees in the AL division series (51/3 innings, 3 earned runscq) and a victory over the Athletics in Detroit's four-game sweep of Oakland (51/3 innings, 4 earned runs).

"We think he's an excellent choice because he obviously has real good stuff," Leyland said.

As he said, that good stuff can come from any arm on any given day.
That is what La Russa and the Cardinals are counting on from Reyes.
Getting to Weaver, Carpenter and Suppan is now his responsibility, a heavy one Reyes admitted had not hit him "quite yet."

"I'm just trying not to think about it right now, just trying to relax and just get rested up and ready for tomorrow," he said.