And so it comes down to this: a storied franchise seeking its 11th World Series championship (and second in six years) against a a long-suffering organization that's never won a title in its mostly dreadful 51-year history. The 107th World Series should be a dramatic and entertaining final act to a thrilling October. There are two juggernaut offenses and two great bullpens. There's the greatest player of his generation, Albert Pujols, and the player having an October for the ages, Nelson Cruz. There's the great mad professor, Tony La Russa, and the great dugout dancer, Ron Washington. There's Jason Motte's beard and Derek Holland's moustache.
It's the Team of Destiny and the new American League superpower in what should be a long, hard-fought series. Here are five keys:
1. C.J. Wilson's moment
There are a lot of people who don't believe that C.J. Wilson is a $100 million pitcher, and the free-agent-to-be has done nothing this postseason to prove those people wrong. No player is under more pressure in this series than the 30-year-old lefthander, who's facing Chris Carpenter in Game 1 and pitching for a big free-agent payday in the offseason. In three brutal starts this October, Wilson has posted an 8.04 ERA in 15 2/3 innings and given up 21 hits --- six of those home runs. Carpenter, meanwhile, pitched this postseason's masterpiece, a complete game shutout of the Phillies in the NLDS, and he'll be on full rest for Game 1.
How big is Wilson's start in Game 1? Six of the last seven Game 1 winners in the Fall Classic went on to win the series. The key for Wilson is to "just keep the ball down in the zone," Washington said on Tuesday. "Through the playoffs, he just elevated the ball too much. You keep the ball down, use his pitches the way he's used them all year, he can be effective against any lineup."
2. Big Puma
The Rangers offense is a juggernaut, so deep that the hottest hitter on the planet, Cruz, hit seventh in the order during the first two rounds. But the Cardinals can hit, too: St. Louis led the National League in runs scored during the regular season. Pujols is Pujols, Matt Holliday is raking again, and David Freese has been The Man. The big key in the series for St. Louis, though, is Lance Berkman, who will be challenged facing a Rangers rotation that includes three lefthanders. The switch-hitter hit just four of his 31 home runs off left-handers during the regular season and posted an OPS 195 points lower hitting righthanded. La Russa announced on Tuesday that he's starting Berkman in Game 1 over lefty killer Allen Craig, who will likely play rightfield (with Berkman DH'ing) when the series goes to Arlington. To keep up with the high-powered Texas offense, the Cardinals need a big series from the Big Puma, who has just one extra base hit this postseason after homering in Game 1 against the Phillies.
3. Running on Yadi
Remember that whole antler thing from last season? The Rangers love making opposing pitchers sweat with their aggressive baserunning. (They were fifth in the majors in stolen bases, with a good, not great, 76 percent success rate, third-best in the American League.) Texas will try to put pressure on the Cardinals, but catcher Yadier Molina behind the plate is excellent at gunning down runners. With Yadi behind the plate, the Rangers need to be particularly smart on the bases.
4. The Texas X-Factor
It's easy imagining this series coming down to a few huge late-inning at bats between Pujols and the Alexi Ogando, Texas' wild card. The Rangers thought that Mike Adams, or maybe Koji Uehara, would be their primary setup weapon; instead, it's been Ogando, the former starter who's shown in the playoffs that he has the stuff to be the team's closer in 2012 if Neftali Feliz moves to the rotation. Ogando pitched in all four of his team's wins against the Tigers in the ALCS, in high-leverage situations and for no fewer than five outs every time.
5. The great chess match
Get ready for a fascinating chess match between two well-respected managers with contrasting styles. All eyes will be on La Russa and Washington and how quickly they turn to their bullpens. La Russa has pushed all the right buttons this postseason; he'll have to decide when he wants to turn to Marc Rzepczynski or Arthur Rhodes against Josh Hamilton, and when it's time to bring in Octavio Dotel to face Nelson Cruz. How will the high-energy Washington counter the stoic mad professor's moves? "I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa," the Rangers skipper said on the eve of Game 1. "But what I will try to do is put my players in the right position, and if my players perform, I don't have to worry about matching wits; they'll take care of things."
THE PICK: Cardinals in seven