- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

DETROIT — This was supposed to be the start of a coronation, the beginning of the Detroit Tigers’ march toward a World Series title just about everyone in this town (and really, in this country) had assumed was theirs.

The Tigers still may earn their first championship in 22 years. All signs still point in their favor in this best-of-seven series.

But if anyone thought the St. Louis Cardinals were going to fade quietly into the night and hand their American League counterparts the trophy, they’ve now learned a harsh lesson: This World Series is going to be anything but a formality.

The Cardinals firmly established that last night, riding homers from Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols and a stunning, sparkling outing from rookie pitcher Anthony Reyes to a 7-2 Game 1 victory before a shell-shocked Comerica Park crowd of 42,479.

“You play the game, and that’s the beauty of it,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. “There’s no script, and someday, this might happen.”

It happened in a big way last night. Rolen and Pujols provided the early offense to give the Cardinals the lead, and that paved the way for Reyes to coast through the best outing of his brief career and completely outperform his more-accomplished counterpart, fellow rookie Justin Verlander.

Casual fans previously knew all about Verlander, the Tigers’ 23-year-old right-hander and presumptive AL Rookie of the Year winner. They now know about Reyes, the 25-year-old right-hander and weakest link in the Cardinals rotation who somehow tossed eight-plus innings of four-hit ball on the ultimate stage.

“That was probably the best game of his life,” Pujols said.

Owner of a 5.06 ERA in 17 regular-season starts and the first Game 1 starter with a losing record in 33 years, Reyes found himself in this situation only because La Russa was forced to use his three veteran hurlers (Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver) during a seven-game NLCS that didn’t end ‘til Thursday.

He wound up dominating a Detroit squad that rode a seven-game winning streak into the World Series, earning heavy-favorite status. Reyes retired 17 Tigers in a row at one point, the longest Series streak in 16 years, and came within three outs of the first complete game by a rookie since Baltimore’s Mike Boddicker in 1983.

“I thought if he went five or six [innings] with low runs that he [would have] done a great job,” La Russa said of his best-case scenario for Reyes coming in. “So to get into the ninth inning. … You saw the Anthony Reyes that we’ve seen for the prior two years.”

“They said stay ready for the postseason, because you never know what happens,” Reyes said. “I did, and it worked out pretty nice for me.”

Reyes’ brilliance quashed the wave of emotion the Tigers were riding into their first World Series game since 1984. Championship-starved fans crammed into the ballpark and cheered as current and former players alike were introduced during the pregame ceremony.

The emotions spilled over into the first inning, when Verlander retired the side in order, then watched as his teammates staked him to a 1-0 lead. Little did anyone know that would be the high point of the game for the Tigers.

Their downfall was slow, painful and got progressively worse as the evening wore on. It began with Rolen’s second-inning homer, a solo shot off Verlander and the latest indication that the Cardinals third baseman has broken out of his slump at the plate. It continued an inning later when Chris Duncan laced a two-out double to right, scoring Yadier Molina to make it 2-1.

But the big blow came from the man who figures to be in the middle of every key offensive situation for St. Louis: Pujols. Held to one RBI by the New York Mets in an NLCS that extended to seven games, the proverbial MVP candidate rarely got a chance to swing his bat with runners on base.

In fact, the Mets intentionally walked him four times over the series’ final three games, including once with two outs and nobody on in the eighth inning of a tie game.

When Pujols came to the plate last night following the Duncan double, there were two outs and first base was open. Detroit manager Jim Leyland, though, let Verlander pitch to him, and the 23-year-old right-hander paid for it.

Pujols launched Verlander’s first-pitch fastball into the right-center bleachers, a two-run homer that put the Cardinals up 4-1.

“The manager’s decision is either to pitch to him, or walk him,” Leyland said. “I pitched to him, and obviously, he burned us. I’m not going to get into a lot of explanation about what the thinking was. But I take the bullet there.”

Said Pujols: “If they decide to pitch around me, I know that those guys [behind me] and drive it in. I just go out there and try to see the ball and put a good swing, and that’s what I did.”

The low point for the Tigers came during an unsightly sixth inning that turned this game into a rout. With runners on second and third, third baseman Brandon Inge was charged with two errors when he fired wildly to the plate trying to gun down Jim Edmonds and then interfered with Rolen rounding third.

It was one of the uglier plays in recent World Series history, and it only underscored the evening’s ultimate theme: The Tigers are mortal, after all, and the Cardinals look intent on preventing this coronation from ever happening.

“We lost Game 1 [of the ALDS] to New York and responded fine,” Verlander said. “This team has done it all year.”

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