Pitching could be key for NL victory

Pitching could be key for NL victory

It's hard to believe, but nearly three years have passed since a National League team beat an American League team in a World Series game.

On Oct. 25, 2003, Florida's Josh Beckett fielded Jorge Posada's slow roller down the first-base line, tagged the New York catcher for the final out and began celebrating the Marlins' improbable World Series win over the powerhouse Yankees in six games.

Since then, the NL is 0-for-8 vs. the AL in the Fall Classic. The Red Sox swept the Cardinals in '04, and the White Sox beat the Astros in four straight last year. Interestingly, though, the Astros weren't dominated by the Sox -- in fact, the total run differential in the four games was just six.

Why? Good pitching. The Astros had Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, as well as a solid three in the back end of the bullpen. So while their anemic hitting underwent no major personality makeovers during the Fall Classic, the Astros didn't exactly embarrass themselves, either, because they were in every game, to the point where they had a good chance to win all of them -- because of their pitching.

And that's still the key for any NL team to have a chance in the World Series. They have to be able to contain these dangerous slugging AL lineups and hope their hitters can scratch out a few against a dominant pitching staff. That's what the '03 Marlins did when they beat the Yankees, who had a far more powerful lineup.

On paper, the Tigers appear to have the advantage over both the Mets and Cardinals. Detroit's pitchers have a full week to rest their presumably tired arms, and they also have a leg up on both NL teams from a sheer talent standpoint -- the Tigers are simply better. Injuries have left gaping holes in the Mets' rotation, and the Cardinals' starting staff, well, it never was that dominant to begin with.

But in baseball, as soon as assumptions are made in one team's favor, that's usually when the exact opposite happens. Houston manager Phil Garner, who skippered the Tigers from 2000-02, isn't sure what to expect when the World Series commences at Comerica Park on Saturday.

"The Tigers are just foaming at the mouth right now, watching the NLCS," Garner said. "But the darndest thing happens in these playoffs and I'll be darned if I can figure it out. Just when you think you have it figured out, you don't have it figured out."

He should know. His '05 Astros started the season 15-30, clearly suffering from irreplaceable voids left by Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent. They were the laughingstock of the division, until, of course, they blew through the second half of the season and topped the Braves and Cardinals in the playoffs to reach the first World Series in franchise history.

Garner also played on a team considered to be the underdog. His 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, after all, presumably had no chance against the pitching-rich Baltimore Orioles in the World Series that year.

"Everybody was talking about Baltimore's pitching -- Baltimore had pitching and Pittsburgh had hitting," Garner said. "Everyone said, 'Pitching shuts down hitting.' Everyone figured it would be a low-scoring series and Baltimore will shut us down in five or six games."

The Pirates fell to a three-games-to-one deficit before roaring back to win it in Game 7, playing a little role reversal with Baltimore. Pittsburgh won with its signature good hitting, but the pitchers did their part, too. The Pirates won three straight by margins of 7-1, 4-0 and 4-1.

But Garner wouldn't expect that in a typical World Series.

"The higher you go up the food chain, the less runs will be scored in games," he said. "You can be more correct than not predicting low-scoring games, small margins. Good margins."

Sure, everyone knows good pitching and defense wins championships. But do the Mets and the Cardinals even have good pitching? Whoever wins Game 7 of the NLCS will not have its ace ready to start the World Series. How great could their chances be against the well-rested and stacked Tigers?

"I thought St. Louis was going to lose in the [Division Series], because I didn't think the pitching was good," said Garner, who paid close attention to the Cardinals as they collapsed at the end of the regular season, allowing the Astros to have a shot at the division title. "I thought the middle relief would get hammered. Then the middle relief did good and it turned into a good series. I don't know how you handicap whose pitching is going to be good."

You can't. But given what they did over the better part of six months and half of October, it's OK to give the Tigers due credit for having one a well-balanced team that can pitch -- and hit.

And the hitting side of Detroit's game is going to be the NL team's biggest hurdle.

The best way to contain the Tigers?

"Keep them in the ballpark," Garner said. "Keep them away from bunching their hits together. That's where they've been good. They get in a hitting frenzy and drive in runs.

"That's where the good pitching has to shut them down. You can't walk guys in that lineup; it's like giving them another hit. If you're going to win ballgames, you can't be behind late. Their late-inning pitching has been superb.

"You've got to have pitching, particularly the way the American League is shaping up. They've got these powerful lineups and you have to shut them down with good pitching."

If not, the Tigers' opponent could continue a habit that the NL would love to break -- coming up empty when it really matters.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.