Because baseball is a sport predicated on finely tuned mechanics – timing is of the essence – there’s a point when rest turns to rust.
The Detroit Tigers haven’t played since Thursday, when they completed their American League Championship Series sweep of the New York Yankees. A day off or two can help rest limbs and clear heads, but a more extended break between games invites problems.
This is why I’m bucking conventional wisdom and picking the Giants to pull off an upset in a World Series that begins tonight in San Francisco. I know the Tigers are lined up to start peerless ace Justin Verlander in Game 1. And I know the rest of Detroit’s right-handed rotation (Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer) figures to dominate a Giants’ lineup filled with right-handed hitters.
During their historic silencing of the Yankees lambs, eliminated without enjoying a lead in any game, Verlander and Co. combined for an 0.66 ERA. They had the hot hand.
But how hot is that hand now?
It’s a question Detroit fans might recall posing six years ago. After sweeping Oakland, the Tigers were forced to wait almost a week while the eventual National League champion Cardinals were taking their playoff series against the Mets to seven games.
Favored to beat a standard-issue St. Louis team that won only 83 games during the regular season, Detroit showed up for Game 1 at Comerica Park without the competitive edge required of champions. Verlander started the 2006 Series opener, only to be outpitched by rookie Anthony Reyes.
Anthony Who? Reyes brought five career victories into the assignment – and he has produced only seven since – but on that night, he retired 17 consecutive batters. The Tigers left Detroit with a split, but they had lost their edge, and by the time they returned from St. Louis, their season was done.
“I do think the lull between our playoffs and the World Series did work against us in 2006,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said the other day. “Now, that’s not to take anything away from the St. Louis Cardinals. But all of a sudden, our emotion went from so high to just a blah, looking at each other with six days of … really no action.”
The Tigers didn’t provide much action in the Series, either. They scored 11 runs and committed eight errors, five by their pitchers. During the fifth and final game, a Cardinals fan at Busch Stadium mocked the visitors’ fundamental flaws with a placard that read: “HIT IT TO THE PITCHER.”
Leyland’s roster has been overturned – only three players remain – and you could argue what happened against the Cardinals in 2006 has no relevance to what will happen against the Giants in 2012. But other teams have struggled with the playoff-interrupted-by-a-layoff syndrome.
The 2007 Rockies waited eight days after clinching the pennant in a four-game series against Arizona. They wound up facing the Red Sox, forced to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven playoff against Eric Wedge’s Cleveland Indians.
The 1988 A’s breezed through their league-championship series against the Red Sox, only to go stale as the Dodgers were fighting to survive the Mets. On paper, the Series looked like a mismatch favoring Oakland, but the Dodgers were riding some momentum. And once pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson limped up to the plate in the ninth inning of the opener and hit a winning, two-run homer off Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, the Little Engine That Could became a runaway train.
As for the Giants, they’re familiar with the playoff-interrupted-by-a-layoff syndrome. Two years ago, with a World Series berth at stake, they stunned the Phillies, fresh off – or maybe not so fresh, considering it was a five-day break – a sweep of the Reds in the division series.
There are many similarities between the 2010 world champion Giants and the team I expect to win in 2012. Catcher Buster Posey is the catalyst. They don’t pack power. Clutch contributors have been acquired on the fly – Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence are reprising the roles of Cody Ross and Aubrey Huff – and there’s the sense manager Bruce Bochy just might be a master of the chess-board game within the game.
Bochy’s team has faced the challenge of either winning or going home six times this postseason. The Giants are 6-for-6, and I won’t be surprised if the Tigers push them to the limit once or twice or even three more times.
Between Verlander, the AL’s Most Valuable Player of 2011, and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, leading candidate for the award in 2012, the Tigers boast the best pitcher and the best hitter in baseball. As combination punches go, that’s intimidating.
But the Giants have the better bullpen, the better defense and the home-field advantage, made possible – irony alert – by Verlander’s first-inning flop in the NL’s 8-0 All-Star Game victory.
Most of all, the Giants will take the field tonight on the right side of destiny.
It’s late October, urgency lurks in the crisp fall air, and they’re not returning from a vacation that’s ill-suited to their vocation.