One surprise team meets one team nobody should be startled to see as the 2011 World Series begins in St. Louis on Wednesday night with the Cardinals taking on the two-time American League champion Texas Rangers.
Obviously, Texas is no surprise, not after reaching the Series last year, and not with their loaded offense. But St. Louis? St. Louis has surprised even themselves, coming back from a 10.5 game deficit in the Wild Card race, sneaking into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, then upsetting both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers to get to the Big Dance.
St. Louis finished 90-72 in the regular season, six games behind the Brewers, while the Rangers went 96-66, finishing with the second-best record in the AL and knocking off the Tampa Bay Rays and the Detroit Tigers to advance.
The Rangers are looking for their first World Series title ever, while the Cardinals, who last won it all in 2006, are seeking championship number 11, and to increase their lead on the rest of the National League in total titles.
Texas finished first in the Majors in average this year at .283, and not only put the ball in play, but did so with authority. The Rangers hit the second-most homers with 210.
The Rangers are led offensively by Michael Young, who hit .338 in 159 games. Eight different Rangers ended up in double figures in homers, led by Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler, each with 32. Mike Napoli went deep 30 times, while Nelson Cruz hit 29 homers and Josh Hamilton belted 25.
Two Rangers drove in over 100 runs. Young led the way with 106 RBIs, while Beltre was right behind with 105.
Pitching-wise, Texas finished 13th in the Majors with a 3.79 ERA. The codicil to that is that the Rangers play in a hitter-friendly park, and also, of course, American League teams will generally give up more runs than National League staffs, due to the designated hitter.
Five pitchers won in double figures for Texas. Derek Holland went 16-5 and C.J. Wilson finished 16-7 to lead the way, with Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis both coming in with 14 wins and Alexi Ogando finishing with 13.
The Cardinals were led by Yadier Molina in hitting at .305 on the way to a team batting average of .274, good for fifth in the Majors. Albert Pujols led the team with 37 homers and 99 RBIs, but Lance Berkman also contributed 31 jacks and drove in 94. St. Louis ended up 13th in baseball with 162 homers on the season.
The marquee name on St. Louis' pitching staff is Chris Carpenter, who went 11-9 in 2011, but in reality, Kyle Lohse led four pitchers who actually had more wins than Carpenter. Lohse went 14-8, followed by Jaime Garcia, who finished 13-7. Kyle McClellan and old friend Jake Westbrook each contributed 12 victories.
One thing to note about the Series this year is that every game will start at 8:05 p.m., with the first two games in St. Louis on Wednesday and Thursday, games 3-5 in Texas Saturday through Monday, with game five, of course, an "if necessary", and games 6-7, also if necessary, will be in St. Louis next Wednesday and Thursday.
These two teams, even after all these years of interleague play, have -- oddly -- only met three times, and that was back in 2004.
If I had to go out on a limb and make a prediction, I would have to buy into the kool-aid of the Rangers' offense being too much for the Cardinals to overcome, even though there is another flavor of kool-aid that maintains that good pitching always trumps good hitting in the postseason. And the second assertion may be true, but there have not exactly been many pitchers' duels in the 2011 playoffs.
I will take the Rangers in six games, but this is one of those series where it is hard to "hate" either team, which conversely means that it would not be disappointing to see either team win -- unless, of course, you are a fan of the contestants.
Let the battle be joined.