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Busch Stadium hosts Game 1 of the Fall Classic tonight.
After all, the Rangers were the defending American League champs. And though they lost Cliff Lee over the winter, we knew they had a really talented roster and the potential to repeat. And though the Cardinals lost co-ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery back in spring training, we knew this team still had the game's greatest player in Albert Pujols, another big-time slugger in Matt Holliday, another ace in Chris Carpenter and one of the best managers this sport has ever known in Tony La Russa.
The point here isn't that we should have picked someone other than the Phillies or Yankees, but rather that the two teams that did reach the Fall Classic actually deserve to be here. Whichever club emerges triumphant over the next week, it won't be a fluke.
Which club will that be? Let's break down the series and make a prediction. Also, make sure to submit your pick in the poll to the right of the screen. Based on the submissions so far, looks like this is going to be a close one...
2011 WORLD SERIES
TEXAS RANGERS VS. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
TEXAS RANGERS VS. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Game 1 -- Tonight, 8:05 p.m., Texas (Wilson) at St. Louis (Carpenter)
Game 2 -- Tomorrow, 8:05 p.m., Texas (Lewis) at St. Louis (Garcia)
Game 3 -- Saturday, 8:05 p.m., St. Louis (Lohse) at Texas (Holland)
Game 4 -- Sunday, 8:05 p.m., St. Louis (Jackson) at Texas (Harrison)
Game 5* -- Monday, 8:05 p.m., St. Louis at Texas
Game 6* -- Oct. 26, 8:05 p.m., Texas at St. Louis
Game 7* -- Oct. 27, 8:05 p.m., Texas at St. Louis
* - if necessary
KEYS TO THE SERIES
1. CAN ANYONE PRODUCE A QUALITY START?
They couldn't in either League Championship Series, but somehow overcame the lack of good starting pitching with superb relief work. While the bullpen is a strength for both the Cardinals and Rangers, those guys have got to be feeling overtaxed at this point. And if they aren't already, they will be once they've played five World Series games in six days. So it's imperative that one of these starters put forth a good outing, maybe even a great one. Chris Carpenter seems the most likely candidate to do that, but don't give up on C.J. Wilson just yet. The Rangers' No. 1 starter may have a gem in him tonight.
2. WHICH STAR SLUGGER WILL RISE TO THE OCCASION?
Will it be Albert Pujols, the soon-to-be free agent who could raise his stock even higher (if that's possible at this point)? Or will the Rangers not let the big guy beat them, pitch around him and instead take their chances with Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman? Will Josh Hamilton shake off his postseason rust and slug his first home run of the month? The darling of last year's October run, Hamilton has been mostly quiet so far during these playoffs. He's been battling a sore groin, which hasn't helped, but he's still a dangerous threat who could break out at any point.
3.WHICH ROLE PLAYER WILL STEP TO THE FOREFRONT?
We saw David Freese do it for the Cardinals in the NLCS, and we saw Nelson Cruz explode for the Rangers in the ALCS (not that Cruz really constitutes a "role" player). Who will be the surprise hero of this series? Perhaps Yadier Molina, who often seems to get overlooked in the St. Louis lineup. Or maybe Adrian Beltre, who lifted Texas in the ALDS with his three-homer game but was silenced by the Tigers in the ALCS.
4. CAN LA RUSSA MAINTAIN HIS MAGIC TOUCH?
Here's a remarkable stat: Tony La Russa is about to manage a World Series in four different decades. Seriously. He led the Athletics to three straight series from 1988-90 and now the Cardinals in 2004, 2006 and 2011. Pretty incredible. La Russa's managerial mastery is no secret, and he's been brilliant in his postseason. But the guy always seems to be on the brink of over-thinking the situation by one move too many. La Russa needs to trust the instincts he's honed over four decades, but he can't let himself over-manage. Ron Washington, meanwhile, doesn't get enough credit for his managerial style. Yes, he had a bad World Series last year against the Giants. But he's come back strong this month, especially when it's come to utilizing his very deep bullpen.
THE BOTTOM LINE
These really do appear to be two evenly matched teams. Each have reached this point playing a similar brand of baseball, eschewing a century of common sense that has always said pitching wins championships. Can one of these two actually win a World Series via offense and bullpen domination? Perhaps, but it sure seems unlikely that can happen. Somebody needs to come up with a big-time start. The obvious choice is Chris Carpenter, but quietly there's concern in St. Louis about the state of his elbow. C.J. Wilson, meanwhile, wants to prove his suspect postseason so far has been a fluke and that he can come up big in a big moment (this wouldn't be a bad time for the pending free agent to do just that). If the Rangers can get a quality start out of Wilson and one of the other members of their rotation, they've got the lineup depth and bullpen depth to outlast the Cardinals in this series. As great a story as St. Louis has authored over the last two months, this looks like a tired bunch that might not be able to hold on much longer.
PREDICTION: Rangers in 6