The 2011 World Series matchup is set, and for the second year in a row, it's one that nobody expected.
Interestingly, both the American League champion Rangers and the National League champion Cardinals followed a very similar formula to the Fall Classic, particularly in the League Championship Series. That looked something like this: Big Bats + Quick Hooks + Dominant Relief Pitching = Pennant.
That flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the most important asset a team can have in October is strong starting pitching, something last year's surprising world champion Giants seemed to reinforce in their five-game victory over the Rangers. In fact, in the 154 best-of-seven (and four best-of-nine) postseason series since the first World Series in 1903, only three teams managed to win the series without getting a single quality start from one of their pitchers. The 2002 Angels were the first to do it in that year's World Series. This year's Rangers and Cardinals, in the just-completed League Championship Series, were the other two.
Winning without quality starts requires both a strong bullpen, which benefits from the many off-days in the postseason schedule and can thus be used almost without availability concerns, and a prolific offense, and all three of those teams had both. The 2002 Angels averaged 5.9 runs per game in the World Series and got stellar relief work from rookie Francisco Rodriguez (8 2/3 IP, 13 K) and reclamation project Brendan Donnelly (7 2/3 scoreless innings) among others. This year's Rangers averaged 6.5 runs per game in the ALCS and, leaving out Koji Uehara, saw seven relievers combine to allow just two runs in 26 1/3 innings while striking out 24, good for a 0.69 ERA to go with a 0.65 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 and 4.80 K/BB as well as all four wins. The Cardinals averaged 7.2 runs per game in the NLCS while their relievers threw more innings than their starters. Leaving out Mitchell Boggs and Kyle McClellan, six Cardinal relievers combined to allow just three runs in 25 1/3 innings while striking out 21, good for a 1.06 ERA, 0.59 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, and 3.50 K/BB and three of the team's four wins.
Interestingly, both the Cardinals and Rangers actually had stronger rotations than bullpens during the regular season, but both worked hard to reinforce their 'pens at the trading deadline and beyond. Those moves, along with all those runs their offense scored, allowed them to survive disappointing performances from their starters in the LCS. The Cardinals swung an eight-player trade with the Blue Jays just before the trading deadline that brought in veteran righty reliever Octavio Dotel and lefty Marc Rzepczynski as well as starter Edwin Jackson, who allowed McClellan to move back into the 'pen. Two weeks later, they signed veteran lefty Arthur Rhodes who had been released by none other than the Rangers. Dotel, Rzepczynski and Rhodes combined to allow just two runs in 9 1/3 innings while striking out 10 in the NLCS. The Rangers, meanwhile, replaced Rhodes with Mike Gonzalez via a trade on August 31, the final day of postseason eligibility. A month earlier, they made a pair of deadline deals that brought in righty set-up men Mike Adams and Uehara.
However, both teams also made internal moves that helped fortify their bullpens, which brings us to the following list of LCS breakout performers from the two pennant winners:
Ogando didn't hang his star in the ALCS. In fact, he made the AL All-Star team in July for his fine work in his first season as a starting pitcher. During the Rangers' pennant-winning run last year, the then-rookie Ogando was largely buried in their bullpen, and I'm one among many who think the 2010 World Series would have ended differently if Rangers manager Ron Washington had used him in higher-leverage situations.
This year, with Ogando back in the bullpen due to concern about his overall workload as a starter (his 41 2/3 innings in 2010 all in relief, were his previous career high before he threw 169 innings during the regular season in 2011), Washington is doing just that. With a fastball that averages around 97 miles per hour and a wicked slider, Ogando has dominated in this postseason, striking out 12 men in 10 1/3 innings against just two walks while allowing just one run on a solo home run (by Brandon Inge, of all people) and posting a 0.87 ERA, Ogando has pitched in all seven of the Rangers' wins and none of their losses and has been the most dominant pitcher in a bullpen that also includes Neftali Feliz and his 100-mile-per-hour heat.
A middling starter for the Rangers from 2008 to 2010, the 6-foot-6 Feldman missed the first four months of the 2011 season following microfracture surgery on his right knee, and had mixed results as a swing man after his late July return. In the postseason, though, he's been nails. Feldman's first two appearances this October saw him toss 7 1/3 scoreless innings of bullpen-saving relief while striking out eight against no walks and allowing just three hits. Since then his next two outings have been shorter but he has been just as effective, retiring all four hitters he has faced. Altogether, Feldman has thrown 8 2/3 scoreless innings while allowing just four baserunners, walking no one, and striking out nine. Feldman isn't likely to emerge as a star going forward -- he's still a 28-year-old sinkerballer with unexceptional stuff -- but right now his cutter is missing bats and two playoff-quality lineups haven't been able to touch him.
OK, so it's not a news flash that Nelson Cruz has monstrous power, but he has struggled with injury and inconsistency so much in his career that he's still capable of sneaking up on teams. After all, he's still hitting seventh in the Rangers batting order and hit just .263 this year with a .312 on-base percentage while twice hitting the disabled list with a muscle strain in his legs. In fact, Cruz, 31, has never been healthy enough to play more than 128 games in a season.
Over the final two months of the regular season (in part due to a two-week DL stay in early September), Cruz hit just six home runs, and he followed it up by going 1-for-15 in the Division Series against the Rays. So the fact that he set records for a best-of-seven series with six home runs and 13 RBIs in the six-game ALCS does qualify as a breakout performance, even if he also hit six home runs in the postseason last year (in 16 games). Believe it or not, Cruz wasn't the hardest out in the Rangers lineup in the ALCS (the next man on this list was), but he was the most dangerous. It's easy to say that the Rangers wouldn't have won that series without him.
Cruz's pyrotechnics in the seventh spot hid the fact that the Rangers' leading hitter in the ALCS by batting average and on-base percentage was actually Murphy, the lefthanded platoon leftfielder who thrived against the Tigers' right-handed pitching staff while hitting behind Cruz in the eighth spot. Murphy went 7-for-17 with two doubles, a triple, three walks and a stolen base in the ALCS, and has hit .409/.500/.591 in the seven games he has started in this postseason. The Cardinals have just one left-handed starter, Jaime Garcia, so the 29-year-old Murphy, who hit .296/.348/.461 against righthanded pitching during the regular season, should be a regular part of the Rangers' lineup in the World Series as well.
David Freese is a 28-year-old third baseman who has hit just 15 regular season home runs in three major league seasons. That doesn't sound like much, but Freese is also a career .307/.384/.531 hitter in the minor leagues and boasts a .298 career batting average in the majors.
Drafted out of the University of South Alabama in 2006, Freese was 23 during his first professional season and has seen his progress slowed by injuries, including foot surgery that cost him two and a half months in 2009, ankle surgery that cost him three months in 2010 and hand surgery that cost him nearly all of May and June of this season. He was hitting .356/.394/.471 when he fractured his left hand on May 1 and had an awful August, but in his last eight games this postseason, he has gone 15-for-28 with four doubles and four home runs, which works out to .536/.581/1.107. He's not as good as his April or October numbers, and his three NLCS home runs appeared to clear the outfield wall by a combined 10 feet, but he's a legitimate threat behind the Cardinals' three heart-of-the-order sluggers, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.
Motte was converted from catching while in the minors in 2006 and opened the 2009 season as the Cardinals' closer, but it took just one ugly blown save on Opening Day for him to lose the job to veteran journeyman Ryan Franklin. The 38-year-old Franklin coughed that job back up in April, but it wasn't Motte who took over. Rather the Cardinals ran through numerous alternatives including rookie Eduardo Sanchez, Boggs and Salas before coming back around to the now 29-year-old Motte at the end of August.
Motte had a small hiccup in late September, but still converted nine of 10 save opportunities over the season's final month while striking out 16 men in 16 innings and has since gone 4-for-4 in save opportunities in the postseason while allowing just one baserunner (that back in the Division Series) in eight innings while striking out seven and averaging more than 97 miles per hour with his fastball according to TexasLeaguers.com. Motte thus gives the Cardinals what they lacked for most of the regular season: a dominating, intimidating and near untouchable closer.
A good but not great rotation prospect, the 24-year-old Lynn made his major league debut with a pair of starts in early June. After a quick return to the minors, he came back to St. Louis as a reliever in late June and showed an excellent strikeout rate (11.8 K/9) in 16 relief appearances through early August. Then he strained his left oblique. Lynn missed the rest of the regular season and the Division Series, but was activated for the NLCS and delivered 5 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, the second largest relief load on the team behind Fernando Salas' six frames. Mixing high, mid-90s heat and a sharp curveball, the burly righthander appeared in five of the six games of the series and should be a key arm for St. Louis in the World Series.
La Russa, the Cardinals manager, gets a lot of grief for his excessive pitching changes. He's the man who created the one-inning closer with Dennis Eckersley in Oakland more than 20 years ago, and he's considered the father of the current era in which the late innings of every ballgame are dominated by pitching changes designed to gain the platoon advantage and single-inning, even single-batter specialists.
In this series, however, his quick hook and the outstanding pitching of his relievers made him look brilliant. La Russa may not have gotten a quality start out of any of his pitchers in the NLCS, but only twice in six games did one of his starters give up more than three runs. With the exception of Jaime Garcia in Game 1 and Edwin Jackson in Game 6, La Russa got his starters out of the game before they had a chance to give up a big inning. The only reason Garcia had a chance to get lit up was because, after three solid innings of work, he gave up two doubles and a home run over the course of three pitches, and Jackson got a little more leash because his offense gave him an early 5-1 lead.