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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Hitting homers is exciting, but not necessary to win

Hitting homers is exciting, but not necessary to win

Hitting homers is exciting, but not necessary to win

The home run is the bomb. Who doesn't love to watch those missiles rise and land deep in the seats or travel out of the stadium and across the street, cracking car windows?

Babe Ruth made it the weapon of choice almost a century ago, and it remains the single most compelling act in the game in the hearts and minds of a high percentage of fans.

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For all the time spent talking about home runs and admiring them on the nightly highlight shows, however, evidence suggests they might just be a bit overrated in the grand scheme of things.

This should be encouraging news for fans of the Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates, Reds, Yankees, Nationals, D-backs and Royals. Not one of these postseason contenders cracks the MLB top 10 in home runs.

The Orioles, riding the thunder of Chris Davis, lead the Majors with 185 homers. The Blue Jays are next with 164, followed by Miguel Cabrera's Tigers (161), the Braves (160), Mariners and Rangers (159 each), A's (152), Cubs (150), Red Sox (148) and Indians, Rockies and Rays (145 each). That group includes four sub-.500 clubs: Toronto, Seattle, Chicago and Colorado.

The Red Sox, who lead the Majors in runs scored, cracked the top 10 in home runs after Wednesday's eight-homer outburst. The Cards, who rank third in runs scored, are 27th in homers, one slot behind the Dodgers. Only the Royals, Marlins and Giants have hit fewer homers than the Redbirds.

St. Louis is scoring heavily in the clutch-hitting department, producing an astounding .326 batting average with runners in scoring position. Next best, at .284, is Detroit.

"You can't try to hit home runs -- it doesn't work like that," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said. "There's no way to explain why home runs are happening at a high rate or not. There's no philosophical change. The strength of our team is that we have good, tough outs. The way to score runs is to get people on base and hit with runners in scoring position. Part of our strength is that we don't have a lot of guys trying to hit home runs and then striking out a lot."

Go ahead and savor those breathtaking blasts. Just don't count on them taking your favorite team to a championship. Home runs are great fun, unforgettable in some cases. But they don't always mean as much as you might think.

The most defining performance of the 2012 postseason had to be Pablo Sandoval's three-home run show in Game 1 of the World Series, right? The first two of those bombs at AT&T Park came off Detroit's Justin Verlander, widely acclaimed as among the elite pitchers in baseball.

From the perspective of the Giants' fan, the second-most dramatic postseason moment was Buster Posey's grand slam off the Reds' Mat Latos in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. Home run thunder is central to the franchise's identity, from Mel Ott to Bobby Thomson to Willie Mays and Willie McCovey to Barry Bonds. Sandoval and Posey authored dramatic new chapters.

But when you scratch past the shiny surface and dig deeper into the numbers, the long ball emerges as the least relevant of all the elements that led San Francisco to a second World Series championship in three years.

The Giants were last in the Major Leagues with just 103 homers a year ago, an average of .64 per game. They were outhomered by the opposition by 39.

But in October, when every pitch counts and every run is big, the timely rally and clutch hit frequently mean the difference between winning and losing.

Pitching, the dominant World Series theme since its 1903 debut, rules -- even as the images of Bill Mazeroski, Carlton Fisk, Reggie Jackson, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter going deep remain alive in the imagination.

"I think clubs are really trying to build up their bullpens, in particular, to improve their pitching staff," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, "but also their defense. There's more attention paid to that. The last thing you want to do is give up more than three outs in an inning, and so I think that's true. In our division [the NL West] with the bigger ballparks, it just seems like teams have gone more toward pitching and defense. I know that's what we wanted to do, and it's worked well for us.

"Instead of trying to slug it with the other team ... hopefully you've got a pitching staff that's going to keep you in the game, give you a chance to win. The more often you do that, chances are the more games you're going to win. I think Atlanta showed that in the '90s, all the success they had when you look at the pitching. They caught the ball and they won a lot of ballgames."

The Tigers, for all the attention surrounding 2012 American League Triple Crown winner Cabrera and partner Prince Fielder, were 16th in the Majors in home runs last year with 163. They outhomered opponents by 12. The Cardinals -- one win away from a return to the World Series -- were 17th in homers and among 14 teams averaging fewer than one per game.

Over the past 10 years, the World Series team with the fewer home runs has won five times. On one occasion, in a remarkable coincidence in 2010, the Giants and Rangers each homered 162 times in 162 games. San Francisco outhomered opponents by 28, while Texas was dead even, giving up 162 bombs.

Only once in the past decade has a team that led the Majors in home runs -- the 2009 Yankees -- taken the World Series championship. Those true Bronx Bombers unloaded 244 times, 20 more than their World Series victims, the Phillies. The Yanks went deep 63 more times than opponents during the regular season -- a figure matched by the 2004 Red Sox, who swept the Cards.

One of the most formidable of World Series teams of the past 10 years, the 2003 Yankees, produced 230 homers in the regular season, 85 more than the opposition. Yet they fell to the Marlins, who were 19th in the Majors in homers with 157.

The Cardinals won it all in 2011 and in '06, subduing World Series opponents equipped with more power. The '11 Rangers were second in the Majors with 210 homers, 48 more than St. Louis. The '06 Tigers, with 203 blasts, had 19 more than the Cards, who were outhomered by nine in the regular season.

The 2002 Angels, like those '06 Redbirds and '12 Giants, were outhomered in the regular season, by 17. The '02 Angels were tied for 21st with 152 homers, 46 fewer than the Bonds-driven Giants. But San Francisco fell to the run-and-stun Angels in seven memorable Fall Classic games.

A decade later, the Angels steered a course toward power, acquiring Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in free agency. The team is 13th in the Majors in homers and 10th in runs scored, but the Halos sit a distant third in the AL West, primarily due to pitching deficiencies.

"We've got to get back to our foundation of pitching and defense," manager Mike Scioscia said. "On-field chemistry is critical. What I mean by that is a pitcher-catcher relationship, making sure they understand what the game plan is. On the defensive side, understanding the situations, understanding who you're working with, where the feeds need to be -- your whole lineup chemistry and how it flows.

"Some of that has been in place. But we've paid a price, because we haven't done it at the level we need to."

The big bang by the bashers is sure to bring fans out of their seats. But when it really matters, it's pitching and all those smart, little things done consistently right that add up to October celebrations.

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

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