By Rick Morris
POWER: Texas, slight edge
SPEED: Texas, edge
STARTING PITCHING: San Francisco, slight edge
RELIEF PITCHING: Even
^ Imagine this: in the same year that the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, either the San Francisco Giants or Texas Rangers will rule the baseball world. Maybe those “world-is-ending 2012 types” are on to something …
^ The rarest angle of the series concerns Bengie Molina vs. the San Fran pitchers. The Giants possess arguably the best starting pitching in baseball and with the exception of fifth pitcher Barry Zito, it is all very young. Molina helped mold these arms into what they are today before inevitably giving ground to super-rook Buster Posey and being traded to Texas. Arguably, not since we saw Jon Gruden going up against the Raiders in the Super Bowl the year after he left them have we seen a major sports championship so potentially influenced by this kind of inside perspective.
^ As unlikely as that development is, consider this: the Giants won the NL pennant without Tim Lincecum pitching for most of the year at the level that won him the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young Awards – and with 2009’s super-rook Pablo Sandoval having a nightmarish sophomore jinx season. If anyone would have told you that a roster as thin as the San Francisco one in the spring of 2010 would yield a World Series run, you would have assumed absolute career years from this twosome. Texas has a similar story in second baseman Ian Kinsler, whose ascension to the top tier of players at his position was interrupted with a disappointing campaign – although he has really had his moments in October.
^ Both teams play with a very scrappy style, but there is a tendency to confuse the scrapheap qualities of the two squads. Granted, each has some reclamation projects (Texas: Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Vladimir Guerrero, Colby Lewis and San Francisco: Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross, Pat Burrell), but the difference is that Hamilton and Cruz were established prior to 2010 with Texas and Guerrero had a first-ballot Hall of Fame career under his belt before getting back to that status. The San Francisco crew is populated by and large with players who had either achieved their potential only occasionally (Huff) or those who had been written off altogether at this point (Burrell). The scrappy play of the Giants does not particularly extend to defense or speed, however, an occasional side effect of assembling a “wish and a hope” crew of bats to provide enough run support to a great pitching staff. Texas, as was noted in our LCS preview, is a team with speed to burn and they overwhelmed the Yankees in a hungry style similar to Florida in the 2003 World Series.
^ Don’t let the media beat the “humble upstarts” meme into your head when these teams are being discussed. Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum are certainly among the five best starting pitchers in the game and each could lay a claim to #1. Matt Cain and C.J. Wilson may be just a level or so below that tier. Josh Hamilton may well be the most explosive slugger in baseball right now and he is part of an elite heart-of-the-order with Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero (who has revived a legendary career this year). Elvis Andrus defends at shortstop on a level with Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel and the greats of recent decades. Buster Posey, if he stays healthy, could go down as one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. Madison Bumgarner lived up to his high billing in his rookie year. More than most years, it’s really incorrect to confuse the fame level of the players involved with their skill level.
^ While the Giants have far more gaudy numbers from their starting pitchers, the Rangers are relatively close on their heels. As ESPN’s Rob Neyer has pointed out, Jonathan Sanchez’s numbers are inflated this year by a superhuman BABIP (a stat that accurately measures the luck factor, for those of you not as much into stats). Their true advantage begins in earnest with the battle of #4s, as super-rook Bumgarner (who was two months old during the Giants’ 1989 World Series run, coincidentally) has a big edge over the Rangers’ Tommy Hunter.
^ Both bullpens are stocked with arms that have really delivered over the course of the season. And while both closers have pitched at a high level, they came into this season from different trajectories. The Rangers’ Neftali Feliz was an insanely-touted prospect who the team decided to try at closer instead of the starting rotation. Brian Wilson of the Giants, meanwhile, had racked up the saves in recent years, but had not put together a truly outstanding campaign until this one.
^ Successful baseball managers tend to come from one of two molds: a tactician in the mold of Tony LaRussa or a motivator like Charlie Manuel. Bruce Bochy is commonly regarded as similar to the LaRussa side, while Washington bears strong resemblance to Manuel as a leader who can get his team to run through a brick wall for him. The drug revelations about Washington in spring training seemed to bring his team even closer to him and the need for him to stay on the straight and narrow bonded him even closer with his franchise player, Josh Hamilton, whose demons are notorious.
^ BOTTOM LINE: The American League is better and deeper, as it has generally been over the last decade-plus, so Texas had the generally tougher path to get to this point. San Fran, however, got past the only starting pitching staff in the game that might be tougher than their own en route to the World Series. Ultimately, though, their offensive production is more sporadic than that of the Rangers and their defense and capacity for scratching out runs is inferior. In a sense, though, they are more battle-tested, willing themselves through numerous close games this postseason while Texas has mostly cruised in their victories. However, the Rangers have bounced back from numerous setbacks – blowing their 2-0 lead in the LDS, coming back from the reprehensible Game 1 choke in the LCS and surviving The Son of Jeffrey Maier in Game 4 – only to emerge very strongly. The only reason that we haven’t seen Texas manage to eke out wins is that they have managed to blow through their opponents before the late innings. Two teams are seeking the hand of Lady Destiny and in the end, she will be speaking with a Texas twang. Rangers in 6.