SAN FRANCISCO (CBS / AP) — Way back in spring training, Hunter Pence hit a wicked grounder that smacked Miguel Cabrera in the face. A few months later, Pablo Sandoval launched a bases-loaded triple off Justin Verlander in the All-Star game.
Here they all are again, with everything at stake.
Tigers-Giants in the World Series.
A driven team from Detroit, loaded with power bats and arms, guided by wily Jim Leyland and coming off an impressive sweep. A surging squad from San Francisco, boosted by its rotation and talented catcher Buster Posey, fresh from a Game 7 win over defending champion St. Louis.
A Triple Crown winner in Cabrera vs. a perfect game pitcher in Matt Cain. The Motor City vs. the City by the Bay, starting with Game 1 on Wednesday in the California twilight.
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“I’ll have to learn a lot about them real soon, to be honest,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.
“I know what a great club they are. And we know all about the guy we’re going to be facing opening day and their whole staff,” he said. “They swept the Yankees, that tells you how good they are.”
Verlander will throw the first pitch for the Tigers. Bochy said he hasn’t looked that far in advance.
It’s certainly a unique pairing. Both franchises have been around for well over a century and are stacked with Hall of Famers – Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Carl Hubbell, Al Kaline and many more – yet they’ve never faced each other in the postseason.
Not too much recent history, either. The clubs have played only 12 games since interleague action began in 1995, most recently last year at Comerica Park. That series was notable because the Tigers fired pitching coach Rick Knapp following the final game, a day after Barry Zito and the Giants trounced Max Scherzer in a 15-3 romp.
“From Day One of spring training, we’re getting ready for this,” Giants center fielder Angel Pagan said. “We’re going to be ready. We’re going to just keep playing baseball like we do.”
Much has changed since then.
Prince Fielder arrived in Detroit this year after a season-ending injury to Victor Martinez, and teamed with Cabrera as a most formidable tandem in the middle of the lineup.
Melky Cabrera joined the Giants and won MVP honors at the All-Star game. But he was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball a month later for a positive testosterone test, and isn’t on the postseason roster.
The Giants bolstered their infield by trading for scrappy Marco Scutaro in late July, and he became the MVP of the NL championship series. They fortified their outfield a few days later by getting Pence from Philadelphia.
Earlier this year, Pence’s bad-hop grounder broke a bone below Cabrera’s eye and caused a bloody gash that needed eight stitches to close. Cabrera recovered fine, and will be the first Triple Crown winner to play in the World Series since Carl Yastrzemski and Boston lost in 1967.
There’s been a lot of shuffling in the bullpens this year.
Closer Brian Wilson helped San Francisco win the 2010 World Series, but is out this season because of an elbow injury. The bearded reliever became a loud cheerleader in the dugout as the Giants overcame a 2-0 deficit against Cincinnati in the best-of-five division series, then rallied from a 3-1 hole to beat the Cardinals in the NLCS.
San Francisco closed out the Cards 9-0 on Monday night, getting the final out in a driving rainstorm at AT&T Park.
The Tigers, back in the World Series for the first time since 2006 and trying to win their first crown since Sparky Anderson’s gang in 1984, relied on excitable closer Jose Valverde until the playoffs. But when he struggled against the Athletics and Yankees, Leyland looked for other options.
Leyland has certainly had time to prepare for this matchup – not that it’s a good thing. The Tigers will have had five days off since dismantling the Yankees, and the 67-year-old manager has done more than figure out how to use ALCS MVP Delmon Young when there’s no designated hitter at in San Francisco.
The Tigers also had nearly a week off before starting the 2006 World Series, and the team from the Rust Belt looked rusty. Detroit pitchers made five errors in a five-game wipeout by the Cardinals.
A troubling trend, perhaps: Three previous times one LCS ended in a sweep while the other went seven games, and each time the team that played Game 7 easily won the World Series.
Then again, the Tigers have Verlander totally rested for the opener.
The reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner is dominating this postseason, going 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA, striking out 25 in 24 1-3 innings. Hardly the form he flashed in the All-Star game, when he couldn’t control his 100 mph heat and Sandoval’s triple highlighted a five-run first inning.
Cain wound up with the win, the NL romped and earned home-field advantage in the World Series.
Zito is likely to pitch Game 1 for Bochy’s bunch. Left off the postseason roster in 2010 – his poor pitching didn’t fit with the Giants’ self-described group of “misfits” – he has resurrected his career this year and made a key start in the NLCS.
Not so sure is what will become of Tim Lincecum. A star on the title team two years ago, the shaggy-haired two-time Cy Young winner struggled this season. Bumped from the playoff rotation, he excelled in the bullpen and earned a start, but was shaky in Game 4 against St. Louis.
(© 2012 CBS San Francisco & The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)