ST. LOUIS — Six and a half months ago, the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals opened seasons defined, to that point, by the loss of an ace. Cliff Lee had defected from the Rangers via free agency in December. St. Louis’s Adam Wainwright had blown out his elbow in mid-February. There would be injuries, trades, winning streaks and losing streaks ahead, but both teams knew way back then that success would depend largely upon their ability to withstand the losses of their No. 1 starters.
The long slog to a World Series is one of sports’ great survival tests, forcing its participants to endure back-to-back campaigns that can seem wholly incongruous — a 162-game marathon of a regular season, followed by a sprint through the postseason’s first two rounds.
And in the Rangers and Cardinals, who will meet each other in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, baseball has identified the game’s ultimate survivors.
“We had to go through the Phillies and Brewers just to get to the World Series. It’s a tough road,” said Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman. “You have to be really hot or really good, and it’s nice to be on a team that’s both.”
Both teams rebuilt their bullpens in July and August through trades — moves that would eventually pay off this month — but just to get here, the Cardinals had to rally from 101 / 2 games back in late August to sneak into the playoffs via the National League wild card. Meantime, the Rangers saw their lead in the American League West shrink from seven games to 11 / 2 in a span of three weeks in August and September.
And in the postseason, each team has elevated the act of survival to an art form, routinely winning games in which their starting pitcher is knocked out — or, to be more precise, removed by trigger-happy managers who understand the enhanced value of every game, out and pitch in October — in the fourth or fifth inning.
“It’s very different,” said Rangers set-up man Mike Adams. “How many world championships do you find where the bullpen is going to play the major role in the outcome? It’s going to come down to the bullpens — which one can hold a lead. That may be the deciding factor in the World Series.”
In 10 games apiece this postseason, the Texas and St. Louis bullpens have covered a staggering 421 / 3 innings each — four more than the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen pitched in all three rounds of the 2010 postseason combined — with the Rangers allowing 11 earned runs, and the Cardinals 12.
“I think we can match up in the bullpen with anyone, just as the Cardinals can,” said Rangers Manager Ron Washington. “But if there are mistakes made, I think you’ll see the ball flying out of the ballpark.”
The similarities between the teams, in fact, are striking — even beyond their shared loss of an ace. Both lineups, built around former MVPs in the No. 3 spots (Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols) are deep and full of tough outs: Each team led its league in the fewest strikeouts. The Cardinals had the highest on-base percentage in the NL, while the Rangers had the fourth best in the AL.
“It’s an American League lineup,” Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson said of the Cardinals. “It’s the same way I have to navigate a Yankees game or a Red Sox game.”
It was Wilson who gave up the three-run home run to Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder that led the NL to victory in the All-Star Game some three months ago, earning home-field advantage for the league in the World Series — which is why Wednesday night’s game, in which Wilson will face St. Louis’s Chris Carpenter, is here instead of Arlington, Tex.
Though neither rotation distinguished itself very well in the LCS, the Rangers’ four starters averaged 15 wins apiece this year, while the Cardinals’ quartet posted a combined 3.48 ERA. “If this becomes a starting pitching series, don’t be surprised,” St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa said. “The talent is there.”
After a regular season in which pitching dominated — the 3.94 aggregate ERA for the two leagues was the lowest since 1992 — baseball is in the midst of a postseason that is the highest-scoring (9.8 runs per game) since 2004 (10.4), at the end of the so-called Steroids Era. The teams thought to have the strongest starting pitching at the start of the playoffs — the Phillies, the Rays, the Tigers — are all long gone now.
While Major League Baseball is bracing for television ratings that may be among the worst in recent history, this just might end up being the World Series — with its emphasis on bullpens, managers and grinded-out at-bats — for those true fans.