The Tigers reached the World Series via a steamrolling sweep of the Yankees, while the Giants fought back from a 3-1 hole to knock out the Cardinals in Game 7. Heading into Wednesday night's World Series opener, Sports on Earth’s Emma Span and Gwen Knapp discussed the two team’s strengths and weakness, Barry Zito vs. Justin Verlander, the existence or nonexistence of “clutch” and more.
Emma Span: Even though they've been mathematically eliminated, I STILL sort of expect the Cardinals to come back. Were you surprised at all that the Giants pulled that series out? Or rather, that the Cardinals didn't manage another crazy come-from-behind win?
Gwen Knapp: Once Zito dominated in Game 5, I knew the Cards were in danger. I would have been shocked if Ryan Vogelsong had been less than excellent. With all due respect to Marco Scutaro and his NLCS award, Vogelsong is their MVP of the overall postseason so far. He has given them three excellent starts, which is beyond the capacity of most pitchers in October, even acknowledged aces.
When the Cardinals couldn't take advantage of Matt Cain's early mistakes in Game 7, I knew they were done. They had stopped being predatory. The most surprising part of the series was that none of the games were very competitive. The Giants got their four wins by a margin of 27-2.
Span: Are we really and truly getting a Barry Zito-Justin Verlander matchup in game 1? Zito was incredible in the NLCS ... but that's still a huge mismatch, right? What are the odds that Zito can pull off another ace-like performance?
Knapp: You've got a pair of Cy Young Award winners going. What's your point? Sure, Zito's fastball is a nippy little poodle compared to Verlander's, but he chewed the ankles off the Cardinals while doing 85 in a 93 zone. And sure, he's had some off years, but ... Oh, who am I kidding? After Game 5, a bunch of reporters from the Bay Area kept saying in amazement: "If they get to the World Series, Zito is going to start Game 1." Would it be more exciting to see Verlander go against a vintage Lincecum? Yes. But not more intriguing. The Tigers should be tougher outs than the Cardinals, if only because they now know not to chase his high fastball. Or they should know. It doesn't take advanced scouting to see that he fooled batters by setting it up with his off-speed stuff. But hitters can know something without taking it in on an instinctive level. And most baseball players need to recalibrate their brains to believe that stuff like Zito's can be dangerous. Also, Zito tends to need the benefit of generous umpire corners, and if Verlander gets the same advantage, we could be looking at a no-hitter. That man is already going to love, I mean absolutely adore, throwing to left-handed hitters in AT&T Park on an October evening. If those guys get on early, you'll know Verlander is not his peak self.
I'd ask you who will be the ancillary player -- a Scutaro or David Freese type -- to come through for Tigers.
Span: It can't be Delmon Young again, right? My brain just won't accept that, so I'm going with Andy Dirks. He's kind of a super-platoon player; I can see him making an impact in any given World Series game, but especially against a lefty, which is where he does most of his damage. Aside from Zito, the Giants have three in their pen (Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Jose Mijares), so I can definitely imagine Dirks getting a key late-inning hit, or a few of them.
Knapp: What was the most important takeaway from the ALCS?
Span: People spent so much time talking about the Yankees collapsing that the Tigers didn't really get enough credit, but I think that -- actually not unlike the Giants in the NLCS -- the big thing was how good their non- ace pitching was. I don't think Anibal Sanchez is going to throw a shutout every time out or anything, but he and Doug Fister and Max Scherzer were all very impressive. The storyline was that the Yankees couldn't have hit the side of a barn if launched at it from a cannon, which is certainly how it looked, but that didn't happen in a vacuum; they got shut down. None of those guys have the aura of invincibility that Verlander has right now, but the ALCS was a good reminder that it's not just the Tigers ace and a bunch of scrubs.
Knapp: What is Detroit's Achilles' heel? Is it Jose Valverde now?
Span: It would be Valverde, but Jim Leyland shows no signs of letting it be that. He seems to have taken the lessons of the ALDS against Oakland and Game 1 of the ALCS to heart. After that, he didn’t let Valverde anywhere near a save situation, and I don’t think he’s going to start now. That said, the bullpen is probably still going to be their Achilles’ heel. Phil Coke did a great job closing against the Yankees, but he’s still Phil Coke, and not exactly invincible; none of their relievers are.
Here’s a related, admittedly minor Giants question: Why on earth is Guillermo Mota on this playoff roster? I know he did fine in 2010, but I still have nightmares about his stint with the Mets.
Knapp: He throws smoke, and very few other Giants pitchers can do that.
Span: Buster Posey -- it seemed like he was showing some signs of life toward the end of the Cardinals series. Do you think he's close to breaking out of it? It's kind of amazing they got to the Series without much from their best bat.
Knapp: The Cardinals demonstrably pitched around him. I think he was exhausted and frustrated by it at times but got over that when the team started winning. Verlander will challenge him -- his mental makeup requires him to be aggressive. Pitching around Posey would be too much of a concession.
Do you think Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera will bust out against the Giants? They have a combined two postseason homers, the same as the Giants’ leadoff hitter, Angel Pagan (who, to be fair, had three more games to crank up the power). Will SF pitching and the unfriendly hitters' park in San Francisco deter them?
Span: If Cabrera or Fielder really get ahold of one, I don’t think the ballpark is going to be big enough to hold them. The Yankees’ pitchers did a pretty good job of not stopping but containing them, by sometimes pitching around one or the other and sometimes just executing well and staying away from their respective sweet spots. Still, Cabrera got on base at a .412 clip during the ALCS; Fielder wasn’t as successful (.316), but he also didn’t look lost at the plate the way much of New York’s lineup did. So yes, I think they crush any mistakes thrown their way in the World Series. With all due respect to Barry Zito, what Cabrera could do to one of his fastballs would not be suitable for children to watch.
One of the more surprising things to me about the Giants right now is, of course, Marco Scutaro. Is he actually DOING anything at age 36 to suddenly play way above his usual career level? Or is this just small-sample-size good luck?
Knapp: Tom Verducci wrote a good column on Scutaro and his batting skills, the way he moves his hands through a swing. But his hitting for the Giants has been uncharacteristic. Presumably he's been keeping the plane of his swing level for longer than the last three months. Why the results now?
Scutaro might have addressed the sustainability best on Monday night when he talked about staying hot in the World Series: "It's a feeling. Sometimes it will go away and it takes a while before it comes back.”
Scutaro has a calm sweetness about him. It makes him kind of mesmerizing to watch. He was that way in Oakland six years ago, though less calm. I vaguely remember him during a bad streak, asking writers in the dugout to touch his bat to change his luck. I suspect he has come up with better methods now.
Span: Here's a question I'm curious to get your take on: You quoted Lance Berkman the other day as saying that he didn't believe in "clutch," as such. I tend to agree with him there, though I think most of us can agree that performing well under immense pressure is a skill -- being able to perform like it's any other game, as Berkman put it. I would curl up on the mound in a fetal position if I were expected to do anything at all on the field in the World Series, so anyone who actually functions in a playoff game is already pretty impressive in my book.
Still, I think the whole idea that some players are just clutch and some aren't is probably overblown -- or at least impossible to prove. Derek Jeter, to take the often-cited example, has played in a whole season's worth of postseason games, and for all his memorable, game-winning or game-saving moments, he's played about as well as he has during an average career season for him (which is to say: really well. But not a whole other level). Do you believe in "clutch," that some players have it and some don't? Do you think that performing well in big moments, or in the playoffs, is distinct skill from just being a good baseball player?
Knapp: I do believe in clutch performances, but I don't believe strongly in clutch players. I think some players handle pressure better than others and therefore perform at their peaks in the most important situations. Very few can do it consistently. Some can do it only until it's expected of them. Some can do it because they get almost high on the idea of being part of a contest that is about more than themselves. The idea that "my teammates need me'' allows them to manage their emotions and generate energy optimally.
What Berkman meant is that so-called clutch players don't become better than they are. They gain ideal focus that allows them to maximize their talent in those moments. It's about the huge divide between focus and self-consciousness. (One more thing I learned from Berkman: He will be a natural broadcaster, better than almost anyone in the gig now.)
When athletes outperform their usual skills in a championship event, it's probably due in part to the attitude and lack of focus by the other team. “Bucky Dent? No problem.” Conversely, Buster Posey couldn't hit the Cardinals because they were not pitching to him. When he got an RBI on a groundout, he was absolutely maximizing his opportunity.
I also believe in looseness, which is an artful obliviousness, and I absolutely believe in choking. I've done it -- choked, both in sports and as a writer. Over-thinking is deadly.
Finally, I believe in contagious hitting, even though it makes no sense whatsoever. Every time teams keep hitting through an array of pitching changes in a single inning, I wonder how they do it. But even as a profoundly mediocre athlete, I watched teammates perform well and believed that I could follow the example. And I did. I can't explain it, except to say that I know what it felt like, it was powerful and I wish I could re-create it every time I want to succeed at something.
Span: That reminded me of Crash Davis’ “I believe” speech in “Bull Durham.” That’s a very reasonable approach to the clutch issue. I know what you mean about contagious hitting -- like in the third inning of Game 7, it felt obvious that the Giants would keep hitting no matter whom the Cardinals brought in. I don’t think there’s any way to prove or disprove that phenomenon, so I don’t know if it’s a real thing or just our perception, but it at least seems plausible to me that it’s sort of psychosomatic -- real enough because people, both fans and players, believe it’s real, 90 percent of the game is half mental, and all that.
Finally, do you have a World Series prediction? Here’s mine: I'm going with Tigers in six, mostly because Verlander's been so otherworldly, and because I just watched them steamroll the Yankees flat like a cartoon character. But since I initially, at the start of the playoffs, had the Washington Nationals beating the Texas Rangers in the World Series, take that with many large grains of salt.
Knapp: I don't have an instinct either way, and I decided a long time ago not to make predictions just to make them. It feels dishonest. I can say that the Tigers are the first team that the Giants have faced in the postseason that I believed to be more talented than they are. But I thought the 2006 Tigers had an even bigger talent advantage over the Cardinals, and they unraveled in that Series.
If Detroit’s pitchers have the fielding yips again, Leyland will probably smoke an entire carton in one breath. Now, there's a prediction.