Series offers elevated drama

Unlike the previous two World Series, numerous storylines are keeping this season’s event interesting.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Pitching to Albert Pujols, chasing Christy Mathewson, and Smudgegate.

Hey, this ain’t so bad!

Turns out, the World Series that nobody wanted has been pretty entertaining so far. In the first two games alone there was enough controversy, questionable strategy and conspiracy talk to keep Oliver Stone and Michael Moore happy.

Plus, it won’t be a sweep, which is a major step up from the past two World Series.

All right, so the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers aren’t exactly the sexiest teams in baseball. They’re short on stars, they never wear pinstripes and they don’t believe in age-old curses.

But there’s all kinds of intriguing stuff going on here.

To start with, Kenny Rogers is closing in on an astonishing slice of history, with or without that brownish smudge on the palm of his pitching hand that TV cameras caught in Game 2.

“I don’t believe it was dirt. Didn’t look like dirt,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said Monday. “I did watch video of the other postseason games, so I had an idea of what it looked like, and I said, ‘Let’s get rid of it and keep playing.’ That’s the attitude I took. If he didn’t get rid of it, I would have challenged it.”

Has Rogers been cheating all along? Did La Russa back off because he and Tigers skipper Jim Leyland are such good friends? And if so, did that upset some Cardinals players?

“I’m not going to chew yesterday’s breakfast,” Leyland said. “I had the Pujols situation the first day when you guys had a field day.”

Come on, this is great theater.

Better than a soap opera.

The 41-year-old Rogers, who on Sunday night became the oldest starting pitcher to win a World Series game, has tossed 23 shutout innings this postseason. He is only the second hurler to have three scoreless starts in one postseason. Mathewson threw three shutouts (27 innings) for the New York Giants against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in the 1905 World Series.

As long as neither team wins three straight in St. Louis, Rogers will start Game 6 back home with a chance to surpass Matty’s mark.

In the dugouts, two of baseball’s most recognizable and intense managers are matching wits, and their moves are making the difference. Leyland acknowledged he made a costly decision when he chose not to walk Pujols with first base open in Game 1.

The big slugger hit a two-run home run off rookie Justin Verlander, and the Cardinals cruised to a 7-2 victory.

Leyland, beloved all over Motown for engineering such a quick turnaround with the long-fading Tigers, was heavily criticized for that call and took the heat himself.

The next night, Leyland lifted Rogers after eight innings of two-hit ball and brought in closer Todd Jones, who nearly blew a three-run lead.

Jones hung on, however, and Detroit’s 3-1 victory tied the Series at a game apiece. Just like the Tigers, the ratings rebounded in Game 2 from a record low for the opener.

Now the Series has shifted to St. Louis for Game 3 tonight, and will go at least five games. It looks as though it could swing back and forth all the way to Game 6 or 7.

That’s refreshing, especially after the long-suffering Boston Red Sox swept St. Louis in 2004, and the long-suffering Chicago White Sox did the same to Houston last season.

But the Tigers are quite a story, too. Don’t forget, they lost an AL-record 119 games only three years ago, and their revival has been meaningful not only for the city of Detroit, but the entire sport of baseball.

“It’s a seven-game series. They jumped out to a quick one, we fired back,” third baseman Brandon Inge said. “We’re going to their place now. It should be interesting.”

Are we headed for a long series?

“We may be,” Inge added.

The Cardinals, who won the NL Central with only 83 victories, look much more competitive than they did in their last trip to the Series. They’ll send ace Chris Carpenter to the mound tonight at new Busch Stadium, where they’ve played well all year.

“Knowing our fans and our history it will mean a lot more if we’re all involved with the first World Series that was won in this park, rather than the first World Series that was played,” La Russa said. “That’s our goal. It’s not just to play, it’s to win. And we’ve got a shot. We’ve got a better shot than most people think.”

Perhaps it’s time to tune in.

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