Of course, both teams now look fundamentally different than they did during spring training. As of March, Rich Harden was the Rangers' ace, and Cliff Lee was a Mariner, Bengie Molina a Giant, Jeff Francoeur a Met, Jorge Cantu a Marlin, and Mitch Moreland an Oklahoma City RedHawk. The Giants' in-season makeover was even more significant: Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Mike Fontenot, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Santiago Casilla -- none of them was a Giant as of Opening Day.
That we are now about to embark on this most unexpected of World Series matchups is a credit to the clubs' respective general managers -- Jon Daniels for the Rangers, Brian Sabean for the Giants. But just because it is unexpected does not mean that it won't be compelling. It will feature, among other things, perhaps the premier matchup in this postseason full of outstanding pitching matchups -- Lee versus Tim Lincecum -- as well as clashes, potentially with a game or two on the line, between two of each league's top Rookie of the Year candidates, Posey and Rangers closer Neftali Feliz.
Still, even though both GM's displayed bold ingenuity in creating championship-caliber clubs, this is not an even fight. While the Giants have relied upon solid pitching (particularly from their top two starters, Lincecum and Matt Cain) and timely hitting from unlikely sources (Ross, Juan Uribe) to make it this far, the Rangers boast the series' best pitcher (Lee) and hitter (Josh Hamilton), and a pool of talent that runs deeper. They are the favorite. Of course, we have seen what has happened to favorites during this unusual postseason, but here are five key factors on which to focus as the Rangers try to make good on their newfound status:
Which is, produce runs against the Giants. On the surface, the Rangers' lineup looks rather similar to the Phillies', which was just shut down by San Francisco's pitchers. Both ranked among the majors' top seven clubs in runs per game (4.9 for Texas, 4.8 for Philadelphia). Both suffered more than their share of injuries to key contributors during the regular season (to Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler for Texas; to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, for Philadelphia). Both lineups seem to get a little thin at their lower reaches.
But a number of factors suggest that the Rangers will fare better against Lincecum and his cohorts than did the Rangers, who mustered just 3.3 runs per game in the NLCS. One is that while several key Phillies never seemed to fully recover from their ailments -- particularly Utley and Rollins, who combined to bat .209 in the postseason -- the Rangers' former disabled list denizens certainly have. Hamilton, Cruz and Kinsler through 11 games have a combined playoffs batting average of .319, with 12 homers and 25 RBI's.
Another is simply the presence of Hamilton himself, who is now the single most dominant offensive force in baseball -- certainly moreso than Howard, the Phillies' centerpiece, last seen, even as the Giants swarmed the field in celebration, arguing with home plate umpire Tom Hallion about Hallion's properly-called strike three that ended the NLCS. Hamilton's ribs still hurt, but it doesn't matter, says Lee. "He's the best baseball player I've ever played with," Lee said during the ALCS. "The kind of player that comes along once every 15 years or so, I think. He's definitely different that most everybody else that plays this game. Him at 70 percent, 80 percent is way better than anyone else at 100 percent."
Giants' manager Bruce Bochy might well mimic Girardi's strategy of intentionally walking Hamilton at any sign of trouble, in order to face Vladimir Guerrero, a man who himself has drawn more intentional walks (247) than any other active player, and more than any player ever except for Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey. Or he might pitch to him. Neither strategy will likely work.
The Phillies scored those 3.3 runs per game despite their ineffective bats (they hit just .216 in the NLCS, and their OBP was a positively Francoeurian .314). Their output, such as it was, was aided by the seven bases they swiped off Giants pitchers, in eight attempts. The Rangers, though, are an even faster team than the Phillies (they stole 123 regular season bases, to the Phillies' 108, and nine in the ALCS), and they should feast against San Francisco.
The problem isn't Posey's arm, which is strong. The problem is that the Giants' starters are generally slow to the plate -- especially Lincecum (against whom basestealers found success on 27 of 30 attempts) and Bumgarner (8 of 10). Even if the Rangers' bats should cool -- which seems unlikely, as the club has homered in all 11 of its games so far, one off the postseason record -- their speed, which starts but does not end with leadoff hitter Elvis Andrus, should help them to manufacture runs. In other words, expect plenty of the "antlers" -- the hand sign that the Rangers and their fans flash when someone does something speed-related -- during the three World Series games that will be played in Arlington.
You know how NFL teams like to pick up players who have been just cut by the team that they just happen to be playing that week -- the idea being that the player will be able to provide them with a little perfectly legal espionage? Meet the baseball version: Bengie Molina.
Of course, when Daniels acquired the catcher from the Giants on July 1, he wasn't thinking about how Molina might help his club in some fantasy World Series matchup with his erstwhile employer. Daniels just wanted a catcher who would be better than the sub-par options his roster then featured. From that standpoint, it sort of worked out: Molina hit .240 with two homers and 19 RBI's in 57 games as a Ranger, though he is batting .333 with two homers (one of them, against the Yankees' A.J. Burnett, proved to be a game-winner) in the playoffs.
Now, though, Daniels' acquisition of Molina could really pay dividends, as he has caught 622 of Lincecum's 811 career innings, and 622 2/3 of Cain's 1,095 2/3 innings, and 296 2/3 of Jonathan Sanchez's 606 2/3 innings. He also strategized with each in meetings before every series and every game for years. That means that he knows how they pitch, how they think, better than any advance scout who might have watched them from the stands a few times, and to a level far deeper than can be discerned from even days of video study, and that he can share that unique knowledge with the rest of his new teammates. That Molina will receive a ring no matter which team wins is a factoid that you likely already know. But his role in the series will be far more significant than that.
Indeed, the Giants' bullpen might be the one area in which they have a clear advantage, even though Bochy opted to use Lincecum out of the 'pen in the eighth inning of Game 6 in the NLCS instead of one of his middlemen. San Francisco's bullpen's regular season ERA was 2.99, the second best in the majors, and was fortified by mid-season pickups Ramirez (0.67 ERA as a Giant) and Lopez (1.42). While the Rangers' relievers were also very good for most of the year (their 3.38 combined ERA was sixth-best), they have struggled this month. Of the 30 earned runs allowed by Texas in the playoffs, 12 -- 40 percent -- have been charged to relievers, even though they've pitched just 30 percent of the team's innings.
Rangers manager Ron Washington, in fact, has not one middle reliever to whom he can turn with complete confidence, a problem when facing a team that keeps things close and tends to do well when it does -- the Giants have already tied the postseason record with six wins by a single run. Still, Washington might not have to resort to the Darrens (Oliver and O'Day) on his roster very often, for the simple fact that ...
"I didn't even do anything today," Cliff Lee kept saying as a horde of reporters and cameramen inched toward his locker in the Yankee Stadium visitors' clubhouse after Game 4 of the ALCS. "Why does everyone want to talk to me?" They wanted to talk to him because he has this month confirmed that he is the best postseason pitcher currently working -- and one of the best ever, as his 1.26 ERA in seven career outings trails only those of Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson (among those who have made at least five career postseason starts) -- and because he is just that so consistently. "I do the same thing every game," he said, something that is as true as it is difficult to accomplish. Most people can't even mix their coffee the same way every morning.
In retrospect, though, Lee was probably right to downplay his role in the ALCS: he had to pitch only once, and the Rangers so thoroughly dispatched the Yankees -- they outscored them 38-19 -- that they would have probably won the series even if some other guy had started Game 3. That was due not only to their offense, but to the stellar performances of C.J. Wilson (in Game 1, anyway) and Colby Lewis, who were a year ago, respectively, a moderately successful reliever and a big league washout who wondered if he'd ever again pitch outside of Japan. The extension of the Rangers' ALDS against the Rays to five games meant that Wilson and Lewis had to take the lead against the Yankees, and they did, recording three wins between them in which they allowed a total of six earned runs. If Daniels had never acquired Lee in early July, Wilson and Lewis would front a rotation that still might have been good enough to put away the Giants, even if the series might have been a long one. With Lee in line to pitch Games 1 and (probably) 5, this World Series likely won't last past the first day of November.
THE PICK: Rangers in 5