No Rogers in Game 5? No chance for Tigers

Originally Published: October 26, 2006
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- To the tens of baseball fans who are watching the lowest-rated World Series in history, hang in there. It's almost over.

Only nine innings and one more victory separate the St. Louis Cardinals from their first World Series championship since 1982 ... and the Detroit Tigers from a long, painful offseason of watching Tom Emanski instructional fielding videos. And if the expected downpours take a breather, that championship could come as early as Friday evening.

Cardinals Celebration
Morry Gash/AP PhotoThe Cardinals could be jumping into each other's arms in front of a jubilant Busch Stadium crowd as early as Friday night.
All those not living within the shadow of the Gateway Arch raise your hands if you thought the Cardinals would be leading this Series 3-1 after four games. Raise your hands if you even thought the Cardinals would have a win in this series after four games.

It was the great Nuke LaLoosh who once told a TV reporter, "A good friend of mine used to say, 'This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.' Think about that for a while."

It rained here earlier Thursday, but only briefly, and not hard enough to cause another postponement in this waterlogged World Series. In a cold, steady mist, the Tigers once again turned Nuke's simple game into a messy and crippling 5-4 defeat. Now it isn't a matter of whether the underdog Cardinals will win this thing, but a matter of when.

Outside the Lines
Over the past several seasons, the World Series Champion has been relatively unpredictable. The team that has come out on top has been the one that experts wrote off and fans looked past - the Angels in 2002, the Marlins in 2003, the Red Sox in 2004, and the White Sox in 2005. Now it appears the Cardinals will be the improbable champion of 2006. "Outside the Lines" (3:30 p.m. ET ESPN), takes a look at the rise of the unforeseeable champions.. For more, click here.

The Tigers finally hit the ball, but the catching and throwing part? Not so much. For that they can blame themselves, as well as the Cardinals, who continue to grind down the Tigers into baseball mulch.

But the most debatable development of the day, aside from the Tigers' inability to stay on their feet, make a simple throw to first base or block a pitch when it counted, was Detroit manager Jim Leyland's decision not to start Kenny Rogers and his clumps of "dirt" in Friday night's Game 5.

Not too much is at stake. Only elimination.

Leyland has his choice of right-hander Justin Verlander or left-hander Rogers. Verlander is a rookie. Rogers is an 18-year big league veteran. Verlander lost the Series opener and has given up six, four, three, two, six and six earned runs in his last six starts. Rogers hasn't given up a run in his last 23 playoff innings. Verlander's velocity was alarmingly below normal during his five-inning stay in Game 1. Rogers has been unhittable. And did I mention the Cardinals have struggled against lefties?

But Leyland, who has a World Series ring of his own and 1,164 big league victories, is willing to risk his team's postseason life on a rookie -- the rookie of the year, but a rookie, nonetheless. He's going to start his team's best regular-season pitcher, but not the guy who is pitching the best right now. Check that -- who is pitching as well as anyone in the history of playoff baseball.

Asked whether there was a chance he might reconsider, Leyland didn't hesitate.

"Absolutely none," he said. "I'm not going to pitch him in this atmosphere."

"This atmosphere" is Busch Stadium, where Cardinals fans actually caused this mammoth structure to sway during their comeback win Thursday night. In fact, if you administered baseball IQ tests, Cardinals fans would be Mensa members. They don't miss a thing, including opposing starters who throw shutout inning after shutout inning with a suspicious brownish-yellow substance on their pitching hand.

That's the atmosphere Leyland is worried about, and understandably so. Rogers would hear things from the crowd he hasn't heard since he shoved a TV cameraman in 2005. Some of it would be witty, some of it crude. But does Leyland want to survive to play a Game 6, or protect Rogers' eardrums?

When Leyland first put together his World Series rotation, it made perfect sense to start Rogers at home in Games 2 and 6. Each of Rogers' three playoff wins this season has come at Comerica Park. He's money there.

But nothing, especially this Series, makes sense anymore. Nothing against the immensely talented Verlander, but I'd rather take my chances with Rogers.

"If we had to win one game, if it was the seventh game, I'd pitch him," Leyland said. "We have to win three games."

But not all at once. To get to Game 6, you first have to win Game 5. Don't you want your best pitcher for that? Right now, that pitcher is the controversial Rogers.

Of course, none of that matters if the Tigers don't remember how to catch and field. They were on their way to tying this series when reliever Fernando Rodney grabbed So Taguchi's sacrifice bunt with his bare hand and threw the ball over a leaping Placido Polanco, who was covering first on the play. Yao Ming couldn't have caught the thing.

This was the same seventh inning when center fielder Curtis Granderson slipped and fell on the damp grass as David Eckstein's fly ball dropped for a "double." It was the inning when a 3-2 Tigers lead turned into a 4-3 Cardinals advantage.

And in the decisive eighth, with the score tied, Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez saw a Joel Zumaya wild pitch slip past him, allowing Aaron Miles to move from first to second. Eckstein then stroked a two-out, line drive double that just scraped the top of left fielder Craig Monroe's outstretched glove. Miles scored. Cardinals won.

"Well, obviously it was a little bit of a freak inning," Leyland said.

Well, obviously it has been a little bit of a freak World Series. The Cardinals, now hitting .220, are THISclose to a champagne shower.

Think about that for a while.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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