Best teams are playing their best ball at the best time
SAN FRANCISCO -- It is not the better team that wins. It is the team that plays better.
This fundamental competitive truth is borne out by the presence of the Giants and Tigers in the 2012 World Series. Nobody played better than these two teams when the stakes were highest. Now one team will start to turn from better to best when the Series opens on Wednesday at AT&T Park at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
Were there better teams in the regular season? Let us answer that in two ways.
1. Yes. The Giants had the third-best record among the National League division winners. The Tigers had the worst record of any American League team that qualified for the postseason.
2. So what?
These two teams have passed the October tests in the manner of champions. They have pennants to support their case and to illustrate their worth. Now it on to the biggest prize baseball has to offer.
It has been a spectacular postseason so far, especially for these two teams, but also for the sport in general. The added Wild Card team in each league, far from diluting the postseason quality, just added a layer of drama.
The four Division Series each going the full five games was a tribute to the competitive balance of contemporary baseball and the depth of postseason quality. All of the teams on board this October proved their worth, but two among them ruled the field after the two full rounds of playoffs.
They did this in dramatically different ways, but they were equally convincing. The Giants won six straight elimination games -- winning three straight in Cincinnati to prevail in the Division Series, then coming back from a 3-1 deficit against St. Louis to take the NL Championship Series. The Giants are not only winning, they are redefining the word resilient.
"This team has had its tests in the regular season," San Francisco's Game 1 starter, Barry Zito, said on Tuesday. "And so the tests that we encountered in the postseason didn't really make us panic as much as [they] would have if we didn't already have those muscles kind of built up from losing [closer Brian] Wilson early, going through the [Melky] Cabrera situation, just really everything that we had come back from. It kind of makes sense that we had some serious adversity, because that seemed to ignite us."
"I'd be lying if I didn't say these guys have surprised me how many times they've survived," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Going into Cincinnati and having to win three games against a great club like that, and then, of course, St. Louis. I mean, these are two really, really nice clubs. When you're looking at six games and really, anything can happen, the one game in Cincinnati we had one hit in nine innings, and we found a way to win that ballgame.
"I think you have to say you're a little surprised to do it that many times. But again, it says a lot about the character of the club and how determined they were not to go home. They just kept fighting, and good things happen when you do that and you don't give up. ... That's how they hit the field every day, like there's no tomorrow."
The Tigers withstood a very difficult challenge from the A's in their Division Series, then did the kind of thing that just isn't done. They stopped the mighty Yankees cold. Arctic cold. Dead, solid, cold. Icy. Frozen. In a glacier. The former Bronx Bombers hit .157 against the Tigers and scored only six runs in the four-game sweep. But it was worse than that, because four of those runs came in one inning of Game 1, off Tigers closer Jose Valverde. That one inning cost Valverde, Major League Baseball's Delivery Man of the Year in 2011, his job -- at least for the moment.
These were the Yankees, the second-highest scoring team in the Majors in 2012, four runs from being the best offense in baseball. And they weren't just stopped by the singular greatness of Justin Verlander. They were stopped by the other three Detroit starters -- Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer. The Yankees, who led the Majors in home runs this season, scored a total of two runs against the four Detroit starters.
It was enough to steal center stage from Miguel Cabrera, the first man to win the Triple Crown in 45 years. But that's the traditional postseason, with the three keys -- pitching, pitching, pitching.
"I don't think myself, nor the Tigers, take anything for granted no matter who's on the mound," said Verlander, the Game 1 starter for Detroit. "I think we're more than confident, and deservedly so, in all four of our guys' starting games, and I think that not just myself but the other three guys have proven over the last couple of series that they can do it."
And so we have the best possible matchup of the two teams playing the best baseball at the best time -- October. And if the Series goes seven, a small slice of November, too.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.