DETROIT — DETROIT -- Four times in the final three games of the National League Championship Series, St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols was walked intentionally.
Simple strategy: Don't let baseball's most feared hitter beat you. Ultimately, Pujols was held in check, but St. Louis still advanced to the World Series.
In Game 1 last night, on baseball's biggest stage, the world and the Detroit Tigers learned why it's best to be extra careful with King Albert.
In a third-inning scenario that screamed for an intentional walk - first base open, two outs - rookie Justin Verlander pitched to Pujols, and the slugger responded with a two-run homer to right that sparked the Cardinals and fearless rookie starter Anthony Reyes to a 7-2 win and a 1-0 lead in the Series.
"The manager's decision is either to pitch to him or walk him. I pitched to him and obviously he burned us," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "I take the bullet there, and if somebody gives criticism you accept it, because it's ultimately my decision. I'll leave it at that and I'll take the heat for that."
Pujols said he didn't expect to be walked.
"Nope," said Pujols, whose two RBIs doubled his total from the NLCS. "If they decide to pitch around me, I know that those guys [behind him] can drive it in."
Coming in, the night was billed as the first time in 102 World Series that two rookies started Game 1. But the more hyped of the pair - Verlander, the likely American League Rookie of the Year - couldn't make it out of the sixth inning while Reyes couldn't be rattled. He left in the ninth after giving up a homer to Craig Monroe, just the Tigers' fourth hit against the 25-year-old rookie. It matched the longest outing of his career and was the longest by a rookie in a World Series since the Florida Marlins' Livan Hernandez in 1997. He nearly became the first rookie to pitch a World Series complete game since the Orioles' Mike Boddicker in 1983.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable," Cardinals second baseman Ronnie Belliard said of Reyes. "I think he was working the count, working with that changeup and fastball and he was spotting everything."
Reyes said he expected the Tigers to be waiting on his changeup. So the majority of his 90 pitches were fastballs. He allowed a run on an RBI single by Carlos Guillen in the first and nothing else until Guillen's seventh-inning single, a streak of 17 straight batters.
Not bad for someone who was 5-8 with a 5.06 ERA in the regular season and was left off the NL Division Series roster. Reyes made a four-inning start in a Game 4 NLCS loss and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa again chose him over veteran Jason Marquis for the World Series.
"You saw the Anthony Reyes that we've seen for the prior two years," La Russa said. "He doesn't scare. He's got great composure and then he gets it rolling."
Trailing 1-0 in the second, St. Louis third baseman Scott Rolen tied the game with a bases-empty homer to left. In the third, Chris Duncan doubled in a run to give the Cardinals the lead. Pujols followed with the 379-foot shot on a 93-mph fastball from Verlander.
The Cardinals, heavy underdogs all postseason after winning just 83 regular-season games, blew it open in the sixth.
Three innings too late, Verlander pitched carefully to Pujols and walked him. He then threw wildly on a pickoff attempt, and Pujols, bothered by an injured hamstring, trudged to third as the ball bounced around the rolled-up tarp in foul territory. Pujols scored on a single by Jim Edmonds and, after Rolen hit a ground-rule double, Verlander (six earned runs in five-plus innings) was pulled.
Then, with Jason Grilli pitching, Juan Encarnacion hit a hard grounder to third that Brandon Inge bobbled. Inge rushed his throw home and it skipped to the backstop.
Edmonds scored easily and Rolen, rounding third on his way home, collided with Inge in the grass just outside the third base line. Inge was charged with interference and Rolen scored.
The Cardinals' victory broke the American League's eight-game winning streak in World Series play and the Tigers' seven-game postseason winning streak. Now St. Louis is hoping to keep the momentum rolling toward its first championship in 24 years.
"We're not going to take anything for granted," La Russa said. "We still know who we are playing and who we have to hit against the next three days."