SEATTLE — Judging by history both recent and ancient, “momentum” will be a fickle entity in this World Series, which begins Wednesday after just one day for the Giants to dry their rain- and champagne-sotted bones.
The Tigers, meanwhile, have been biding their time for what must seem like eons since dispatching the Yankees in four games. The sweep-induced layoff was the better for the Tigers to set up their rotation, and the worse for them to potentially see their fighting edge totally dissipate.
In the time-honored confrontation of “rust vs. rest” in the postseason, rust is working on a dynasty. In three previous World Series in which one team was coming off a sweep, and the other off a seven-game series, the latter has prevailed each time. Rest, schmest.
A few of these 2012 Tigers know full well the weight of that equation — most specifically, the old codger in the dugout, Jim Leyland, and the fireballing ace on the mound, Justin Verlander. They were part of the 2006 Detroit team that blew away the A’s in four games in the American League Championship Series, only to go stale while the Cardinals were going down to the wire to take out the Mets in seven in the NLCS.
The upshot: The Tigers, after six days off, played sloppily in the World Series and lost in five to the Cardinals, a fate Leyland has tried to avoid this time around by having his team play scrimmages against Detroit minor-leaguers. Unless the Tigers have prospects who can replicate the likes of Marco Scutaro (AKA, “World’s Hottest Hitter”), Pablo Sandoval (AKA, “World’s Pudgiest Hitter” — non-Prince Fielder division) and Matt Cain, it’s just not the same. And if they do, they should be activated immediately.
I hope the Tigers at least thought to have a shameless attention hog with a ridiculous beard lurking in the opponents’ dugout trying desperately to capture TV time with his “Look at me! Look at me!” antics during the scrimmages.
Here’s the crazy twist to this scenario, however. The Giants are a team for whom momentum doesn’t even rear its scraggly head until they are knock, knock, knocking on elimination’s door. Down 2-0 to the Reds in a five-game series, down 3-1 to the Cardinals, they have faced six lose-and-go-home games this postseason, and won them all.
That grit is the Giants’ greatest asset against a Tigers team that appears, on paper, to be the superior bunch (bullpens excepted, as we’ll get to in a moment). Does that mean the Giants can only respond if they have reached crisis time — and will that happen if the Tigers are as vulnerable early as they were in 2006? Oh, what a Zen riddle.
In the meantime, it’s hard to pick against a team that will be able to pitch the peerless Verlander twice — or three times if Leyland gets a wild hair and decides to go all 1968 Mickey Lolich. If there’s anyone who can conjure up the magic of old-time horses like Lolich and Bob Gibson, it’s Verlander, who has given up two runs in 24-1/3 innings in the playoffs and could become the first pitcher to win five games in one postseason (he has three).
More likely, Leyland will stick with the four-man rotation of Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, which has racked up a tidy 1.02 earned-run average in 62 innings this postseason. Ah, but what to do with a one-run lead in the ninth? That’s the issue that will send Leyland down into the tunnel to sneak a smoke, after watching Jose Valverde self-destruct in the first two rounds.
While Leyland is improvising with his closer — will it be Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit or, gulp, one more try for Valverde, pass the menthols? — Giants manager Bruce Bochy has the luxury of mining his deep and talented ‘pen for the opportune late-game matchup. Don’t look for Fielder, for instance, to face anything but funky lefties from the seventh inning on. Or earlier, if feasible.
Scutaro, who hit .362 in 61 games for the Giants after coming over in a low-key July trade from Colorado, then went nuts in the NLCS (14 for 28), has been an unexpected offensive force for the Giants while Buster Posey scuffles. Perhaps Posey can get Hunter Pence to teach him his patented “break your bat and hit the ball three times so that it squibs past the shortstop” trick.
But the Giants have no one to match with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera or the fearsome, fulsome Fielder. Particularly, if Delmon Young, the most valuable player of the ALCS, stays hot enough to make the Giants think twice about pitching around the big guys.
Under normal circumstances, I’d pick the Tigers in four. But the Tigers’ bullpen woes add one game, the rust factor adds another, and I’ll give the Giants a third win just on their unsinkable will. But I simply can’t see the Tigers losing four times with Verlander in full Hershiser mode. Detroit in seven.