- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

One team coasted through the postseason, spending the last week lounging on sofas and waiting to learn the identity of its World Series opponent. The other is exhausted physically and mentally after a long and arduous road to baseball’s showcase event.

So the Detroit Tigers clearly have a huge advantage over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then again …

One team hasn’t played a ballgame in a full week and could be rusty when it takes the field tonight for Game 1 at Comerica Park. The other arrived in Detroit on an emotional high after pulling off a thrilling, seven-game League Championship Series victory only Thursday night.

So maybe the St. Louis Cardinals actually have an edge on the Detroit Tigers.

“You know what, I don’t know the answer to that,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said yesterday. “I try not to really talk too much about it because I think you can set yourself up either way. I think you can make yourself believe that maybe we’re going to be a little stale. And I think if you want to make yourself believe that our injuries have healed up a little bit, our pitchers are rested, we’re really going to be fresh.”

Based on what has happened the last three weeks during a wild and woolly postseason, nothing can be taken for granted. When this eight-team elimination tournament began Oct.2, consensus opinion was that the Yankees and Mets were clear favorites to win their respective pennants and face off in a Subway Series.

The Tigers and Cardinals? They wouldn’t even make it out of the first round after limping into the postseason.

Or so everyone thought. Turns out late-September swoons can actually translate into October success. These may not have been baseball’s two best teams during the season, but they are the two best right now.

And, by all accounts, the Tigers (who swept the Oakland Athletics in the ALCS) are significantly better than the Cardinals (who went the distance to beat the Mets in the NLCS).

Detroit is a heavy favorite to earn its first World Series title in 22 years and deny St. Louis its first championship in 24 years.

Just don’t tell that to Leyland’s squad, which was just as impressed with St. Louis’ run through the National League as the rest of the baseball-watching world.

“I think we are the sentimental favorite because a lot of people can’t believe what has happened to this team in the last three years,” Tigers closer Todd Jones said. “But they have a pretty darn good team, too, and they won a pretty big game [Thursday] night. We are going to take these guys like we have everybody else — we’re not scared of anybody but we respect everybody.”

Still, Detroit has a lot going for it, both on practical and emotional levels.

Up until their late-season slide, which cost them the AL Central title, the Tigers unquestionably were the best team in the game, and they’ve regained that form during a dominating postseason that has seen them win seven straight games.

They have a well-balanced lineup, a couple of big-time performers in Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, a young and lethal bullpen and — most importantly — a sterling rotation that goes four deep. Leyland’s quartet of arms is so good, he could have tabbed any one of them as his Game 1 starter.

Ultimately, he settled upon 23-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander, who went 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA in a fine rookie season but figured to take a back seat to 40-year-old left-hander Kenny Rogers, who hasn’t given up a run this month.

Leyland’s logic? He wants Rogers to be able to pitch twice at spacious Comerica, so the veteran will start Games 2 and 6 (if necessary).

So it’ll be Verlander taking the ball before a raucous home crowd tonight in the biggest start of his life, hoping nine days of rest was good for his overworked arm.

“I think it was,” he said. “Pitching late into October my first year, the innings are a lot and there’s some fatigue going on. Being able to rest my arm a little bit and kind of recuperate before this next series, definitely helps.”

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are hoping the Tigers’ long layoff leaves them rusty and ripe for an upset.

“I said it last night. I’ll repeat it, because it’s exactly what we thought going in,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. “The postseason is three out of five, four out of seven, four out of seven. If you look at our ballclub, when we’re playing the game that we’re capable [of], we’re a tough club to play against.”

But do the Cardinals have anything left in the tank after their stunning 3-1 win over the Mets on Thursday night in New York? Four key cogs in their lineup — leadoff man David Eckstein, slugger Albert Pujols, third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds — have nagging injuries that have limited their production.

Worse, La Russa had to use his top three starters (Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver) in the final three games of the NLCS, leaving unproven rookie Anthony Reyes to start Game 1 against the Tigers. Weaver will go tomorrow, with Carpenter and Suppan not even available until the series shifts to Busch Stadium.

Momentum’s great, but there’s something to be said for a week’s worth of rest.

“Whatever happens happens, but we’re going to go out there and play the way we know how to play,” Reyes said. “We stuck together as a team, and right now it’s showing.”

Staff writer Thom Loverro contributed to this article from Detroit.

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