A storybook Tigers team had a full week to rest up for its World Series opponent that had survived the ultimate Game 7 test two nights earlier in New York, and it was Cardinals rookie Anthony Reyes pitching into the ninth inning instead of rookie Justin Verlander as St. Louis opened with a 7-2 victory on the road.
"I think the idea is to just get to the postseason first, and that's the main thing," said Jeff Suppan, sitting by himself in a corner of the Cardinals' clubhouse two nights after he had started one of the most memorable Game 7s in recent years. "Once you get there, you've got to play however you'd played in other games you have won. The postseason is a different atmosphere and you just roll with that.
"I understand how everyone else looks at this, but as a player you can only do whatever has been your approach to winning in the regular season. You know what I mean? From an outside perspective, it's different. To a player, it is totally different than how most fans see it. Just get here first, and any team can win."
Suppan should know. In 2003, he came home to pitch for the Red Sox, knowing their history all too well. The next October, he faced them for St. Louis in Game 4 of the World Series.
"I saw Boston win it all," he said. "Anything can happen."
It is the story of Major League Baseball for almost this entire decade, and especially this month, when there not only wasn't a Subway Series that many expected, but instead came surprise after surprise. Before red-hot Kenny Rogers takes the mound again on Sunday night against Jeff Weaver, a 8-14 pitcher entering the playoffs, it is worth revisiting how anything has happened since the final Sunday of the regular season:
Oakland went to Minnesota to play the first two games at one of the toughest ballparks for a visitor. Johan Santana, the probable American League Cy Young Award winner, was the first opponent. Frank Thomas homered twice in that game, Barry Zito won the classic pitchers' duel and the A's took those first two games on their way to a sweep.
The Yankees showed off one of the scariest lineups in big-league history, batting around and scoring five runs in the third inning during Game 1 of the ALDS against the Tigers. Most people wrote this one off. Then there was that strange rainout, and Detroit's pitching staff completely shut down that vaunted lineup the rest of the way. Rogers had lost each game he'd pitched against the Yankees dating back to 1993, but he beat Randy Johnson in Game 3. Detroit won in four, leading to a buzz about Yankees manager Joe Torre's job security until the club announced he would be coming back.
Dodgers right-hander Brad Penny started the All-Star Game for the National League and tied for the league lead with 16 victories. Against the Mets in the NLDS, he pitched one inning of relief. He would have started Game 4 for Los Angeles, and his lower-back issues had been a primary reason for the inactivity, but that just doesn't happen to an All-Star starter in a postseason. The Mets, who lost Orlando Hernandez the day before the series started, made sure there was no Game 4, and everyone was surprised to see Paul Lo Duca tag out two runners at home on the same play.
The Padres were supposed to be better than in the 2005 NLDS, when St. Louis swept them. They had won the NL West in dramatic style, and the Cardinals had won the NL Central because Houston was unable to win on the last Sunday and force a one-game playoff. This time, the Friars had the home-field advantage, but it didn't matter. The Cards needed just four games to win the series.
League Championship Series
The A's and Mets, both coming off Division Series sweeps, each had home-field advantage in their best-of-seven series.
It didn't matter.
The A's never saw what hit them. Zito had bested Santana on the road, but in Game 1 at home, Oakland's ace allowed five runs in 3 2/3 innings. The Tigers' 5-1 victory was followed by Alexis Gomez's huge game for Detroit, so Oakland's advantage went away and the Tigers went to the World Series in four.
The Mets had the best record in baseball during the regular season, and despite the losses of Pedro Martinez and El Duque, the general consensus was that New York would have at least one team in the Fall Classic. It turned out to be a spectacular NLCS, and one that ended in the most improbable of ways. With two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Redbirds ahead by two, Cardinals killer Carlos Beltran faced Adam Wainwright, a rookie replacement making the Major League minimum salary there instead of injured closer Jason Isringhausen. Wainwright struck Beltran out looking.
The Cardinals entered Game 1 with fewer regular-season victories (83) than any team in World Series history except the 1973 Mets (82). The Tigers, like the Cardinals, struggled badly in the second half. Both teams entered the playoffs on a dubious note, with the Tigers being swept by Kansas City in the final regular-season series and thus handing the NL Central to Minnesota while settling for the Wild Card.
It didn't matter.
"Look," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said before Game 1, "83 wins is what it was. We were a real good team a lot and not a very good team a lot. But in the postseason, where you're playing these short series, if you're playing good, things like [upsetting the Padres and Mets] can happen. I don't think anyone's laughing at us."
Especially not now, after the way they eliminated the Mets and after manhandling the Tigers on the road in Game 1 of the World Series. There will not be a third consecutive World Series sweep by an AL club. There was no discussion late Saturday of that supposed dominance by the Junior Circuit.
"That's baseball, you win on the field and not in the paper," Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen said after Game 1. "We play our games on the field. You get to the postseason, eight teams get a shot. So only two teams make it here, and it doesn't matter what anyone says. We had a whole week off, and you have to forget about the time off you have and prepare for the game the same as we have all year.
"That's one game, and we never faced [Reyes] before. He threw a lot of strikes. It's just the start of the series. We have a long way to go, and anything can happen."
It has so far this month. Just think of how different it was in October 1927, when a postseason was only a formality. Ruth's teammate, George Pipgras, put it this way: "When we got to the ballpark, we knew we were going to win. ... We just knew. Like when you go to sleep you know the sun is going to come up in the morning."
Sunday's forecast does not call for sun. Get ready for some rain and snow and just a few more surprises in the 2006 postseason.