Giants and Tigers ... I knew it!
SAN FRANCISCO -- So you didn't see this World Series coming, huh? Well, let me put it this way: That's not my fault.
By now, I thought I would have heard from the Amazing Kreskin, the Jamison twins and possibly a few descendants of Nostradamus -- because right here, in this very space, a mere three weeks ago, I told you exactly what was coming.
And since then, it has all happened exactly the way I predicted
Except, that is, for the stuff that has actually happened.
Oh, of course I knew all along that the Tigers would sweep the New York Yankees. Just didn't want to spoil the suspense.
And all of us professional clairvoyants could see the Giants would be ripping off three straight wins from their death bed in each of the first two rounds. But if we passed along all the details, there'd be no reason for you to watch. Right? Uh, right.
You can thank me later.
So on Tuesday, on World Series media day, I casually reminded Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski that I actually picked his team to win the World Series coming out of spring training.
"I know you did," he said. "I hope you're right."
Then, because it was clear he was impressed with my psychic powers, I also decided to remind him that, before the postseason, I picked this Giants-Tigers World Series.
"You did," he said. "But who'd you pick to win again? You picked the Giants, didn't you?"
"I did," I admitted.
"Well, then I hope you're wrong," he replied.
So there you have it. He hopes I'm right. And he hopes I'm wrong. And nothing sums up the beauty of the prediction business as succinctly as that.
It's a reminder that the improbable World Series journeys of both these teams are just their way of telling us that you never know. Even when you think you know.
So even those of us who now claim we saw this coming need to confess that NOBODY saw half the stuff that has happened to these two clubs coming. What better time then, than the eve of the 2012 World Series, to look back at three pieces of conventional wisdom ascribed to these clubs before the season began that turned out to be false.
1. They were going to win the American League Central by 20 games.
"Everybody thought they were just going to give us the Central division," the Tigers utilityman said Tuesday.
Well, everybody thought wrong. Obviously. If you looked up 140 games into the season, the Tigers were only six games over .500. They had the 14th-best record in baseball. They were three games behind the first-place White Sox. So who out there thought that six weeks later, they'd be your official World Series favorites? Anyone?
"Everyone expected us to be here, but in the middle of the season, it was kind of a question mark, the way we were playing," reliever Octavio Dotel said. "So as far as I see now where we are, it's kind of surprising a little bit. I'm not going to lie to you. Because of the way we were playing. I feel like our team should have played better baseball."
He's right, of course. One scout who saw the Tigers in June, for the first time since spring training, says he was shocked by what he saw: "They didn't play defense. Their bullpen had questions. Their rotation was unsettled. They were really underperforming."
So what happened? Since Game 140, they've gone 22-9. That's what happened. They got Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn out of the lineup. They got good-looking rookie right fielder Avisail Garcia and just-acquired second baseman Omar Infante into the lineup. They dealt for Anibal Sanchez. They got Doug Fister healthy. That put their rotation pieces together. And now here they are. Voila.
2. They were going to score 900 runs.
Who out there looked at the Tigers' lineup this spring, and thought they'd hit fewer home runs than the Pirates, put up fewer extra-base hits than the A's and not even finish in the top 10 in baseball in runs scored? Anyone? Thought so. But not only did they not score 900 runs, they barely scored 700 runs (726, to be exact).
"A lot of guys struggled in the 5-through-9 spots," Dombrowski said. "And I would not have envisioned we'd struggle that much offensively. Fortunately, some of those guys have picked it up now."
Yes, they have. And it was an excellent time for it. Jhonny Peralta has hit .343/.378/.543 (BA/OBP/SLG) in the postseason. Delmon Young has gone .294/.351/.500 and got an AL Championship Series MVP trophy out of it. Just to name two regular-season offenders. And meanwhile, help was on the way.
"I tip my hat to Dave," one scout said of Dombrowski. "He made some moves that really helped. A lot of guys talk about making moves, and nothing happens. He made moves, and they worked."
Infante might not be Lou Whitaker, but he has been an upgrade at second. Garcia has one extra-base hit in 70 plate appearances (regular season and postseason), but he also hit .319, with a .373 OBP, down the stretch and just went 5-for-11, with only one strikeout, against the Yankees. So he, too, has made this team better.
Dombrowski has always understood that even if you make your team just incrementally better, that might be all it takes.
"Sometimes, it's just one win here and one win there that makes a difference," he said. "You have to remember, we only won the divisional championship on the last day."
3. The closer would remember how to close.
Nobody around the Tigers expected Jose Valverde to go through another full season without blowing a save. But did they envision themselves blitzing through a postseason in which Phil Coke had more saves (two) than Valverde (one)? Not in this lifetime.
Luckily, this is a team rolling out a deep, made-for-October rotation that has eaten up seven innings per postseason start and has minimized the amount of help it needs from the bullpen. But that doesn't mean a massive October closer meltdown was no big deal.
"You knew his stuff was not quite as good as it used to be, but we were still very surprised when that happened," Dombrowski said of Valverde. "And who knows what would have happened if we'd lost that first game in New York [after Valverde gave up four runs in the ninth]? Sometimes, you never know how things would have changed. So I'll certainly say you don't anticipate that. But I'll also say that Jim Leyland was always known as one of the best managers in the game at mixing and matching his bullpen."
And now, while most managers fear this no-closer scenario, we're seeing that when it's placed in the hands of a manager who gets it, it can actually liberate him to use his bullpen to do whatever he has to do to win -- as opposed to being married to using only The Closer in the ninth. What a concept.
"Maybe there are situations late in the game, against a left-handed hitter, where he'd rather have Coke in or [Drew] Smyly in," Dombrowski said. "But if he has 'just a closer,' he wouldn't do that. So now he could do it if he wanted to. Your preference is always to have a dominating closer, but there are other ways to do it."
And that's the moral of this story. There are always other ways to do it -- no matter how many things don't go as planned. And the 2012 Tigers are living proof.
1. They'd have the staff you'd least want to face.
When you think of the Giants, it's hard to get October 2010 out of your brain -- a time when a great pitcher seemed to head for the mound every inning of every game. That was the formula then. It was supposed to be the formula this year.
Except it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Bet you didn't know the 2012 Giants gave up 71 more runs and allowed nearly 50 more homers than last year. But it's true. And that's not all they didn't see coming.
"You lose your All-Star closer [Brian Wilson], the anchor of your bullpen for two or three straight years, and now you have to close by committee?" reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "That was a surprise."
You think the Giants expected Tim Lincecum to have the worst -- yes, worst -- ERA (5.18) of any qualifying starter in the National League? You think they anticipated getting to October and having to yank Madison Bumgarner out of the rotation? Even Matt Cain (averaging only 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings in the postseason) hasn't been the Matt Cain of October 2010.
"The truth is, at the end of the season, Barry Zito was pitching better than any of them," one scout said. "Lincecum was a mess. Cain was just OK. Bumgarner was terrible. Ryan Vogelsong has been great, but even he was going through a major renovation three weeks before the playoffs. So they're the same names they're running out there. But they're different kind of pitchers right now than we're used to."
Maybe the last three games of the NLCS, in which this staff held the Cardinals to one run in 27 innings, were a sign of something. But so far, all it has been a sign of is that the 2012 Giants have a whole different equation for success from the Giants team that won the 2010 World Series.
"It's been a lot different than 2010," bench coach Ron Wotus said. "Back then, our pitching was so dominant that we felt like if we scored at all, we could beat anybody. With this team here, it's felt like more of a total team effort."
2. They just can't score.
It was only a year ago that the Giants scored fewer runs (570) than any other defending World Series champ had ever scored over a full season. Yeah, ever.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Giants run exactly ONE position player out there every night who started the final game of the World Series just two years ago. That, of course, is Buster Posey. And it's easy to forget now, said team president Larry Baer, that "the big question of the offseason was, 'Would Buster Posey even be able to play?'"
Now add in a couple more fascinating elements: (1) This team finished dead last in the majors in home runs and made only 31 home run trots all season at home. And (2) the once-magical season of the man who was the Giants' best hitter for four months (Melky Cabrera) met a very untimely demise in mid-August.
So now YOU explain how this team still wound up outscoring the Reds, Phillies, Braves, Blue Jays and 14 other teams. You explain how this team would score enough to become only the seventh team in history -- and the first in a quarter-century -- to make it to a World Series while hitting the fewest home runs in the whole sport.
"I'll be honest with you," said one scout who followed the Giants this month. "I can't explain it to you. I still feel like if you can control Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, so you don't give Posey and Pablo Sandoval the opportunity to produce runs, you can beat this team. But there's something about them. If they smell blood, it's like you're in a shark tank."
Obviously, GM Brian Sabean's astute deal for Scutaro was the under-the-radar midseason trade of the year. And the deal for Hunter Pence helped the Giants survive the loss of Cabrera, even though that can be hard to remember as you watch Pence's abysmal postseason (9-for-48 with one walk).
It still feels impossible to explain how these guys could have averaged five runs a game AFTER losing Cabrera. Unless it just dawned on all of them that they had no other choice.
"You know what?" Affeldt said. "I think it's just a situation where, as an athlete, you just do it. You either do it or you don't. An athlete has two choices: Either we step up to the situation and we figure it out, or we don't and we go home. And sometimes it takes a situation like that for guys to kick it in mentally and say, 'I've gotta do it.'"
And maybe that's the ultimate story of the 2012 Giants. They keep on doing what they have to do, even if it defies what numbers and logic say they ought to do.
3. They'll never beat the Reds or Cardinals.
I have a confession to make: Three weeks ago, when I picked the Giants to win the World Series, I wasn't aware they'd been taking secret Houdini lessons.
I thought they'd beat the Reds because the screwed-up 2-3 division series format gave them Games 1 and 2 at home. And they promptly lost both of those games.
I thought they'd beat the Cardinals because they have the one staff in the NL capable of shutting down that St. Louis offense. So they promptly went down, three games to one, and gave up 17 runs in the three losses.
If you're looking for a recipe for how to win the World Series, you can file that one under: "Don't Try This At Home." But six astonishing wins in six consecutive elimination games later, they're still breathing. And even they can barely comprehend it.
"I went home [after Game 7]," Affeldt said, "and looked at my wife and said, 'You know, we took three from Cincinnati, which they said was impossible because they hadn't lost three in a row at home all year. And then to take three in a row from St. Louis, with the offense they have -- that's just not normal.' I mean, it's hard to take three in a row from teams like that even during the regular season."
But this just in: It isn't the regular season anymore. And in October, strange things always happen to teams that win. So who proves that better than these Giants?
"I said earlier, if you play with fire, it's eventually going to burn you," Affeldt said. "But you know what? Detroit -- they're a good team over there, and they've got a great manager who has been around a long time. And I think Mr. Leyland will be the first to tell those guys, 'If you get ahead in the series, don't count yourselves as automatic winners, because these guys are not going to stop. They're going to come back.'"
Yeah, I have a feeling that might come up, all right. But they can't do it again. Can they?
So what's my pick? Don't worry. I've got it all figured out -- again.
Giants in seven. Lose the first three games. Then win the last four.
I promise that's exactly the way it's going to happen. And if you can't believe my predictions this time of year, whose CAN you believe?