Six key players to watch in World Series

We finally know the World Series participants and maybe it's good news the second wild-card team didn't reach the World Series. Instead, we do end up with two first-place teams and two of the game's historic franchises. Here are three key players from each team I'm paying attention to.

Justin Verlander

There’s always pressure on a team’s ace to deliver the goods in a World Series, of course, but even more so for Verlander, and not just because he’s the best pitcher in baseball. The alignment of the pitching rotations -- Barry Zito will start for the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 -- means the Detroit Tigers will be huge favorites in Verlander’s two starts.

After mediocre performances in his first two postseason trips in 2006 and 2011, Verlander has a chance to finish off one of those legendary playoff runs -- think Orel Hershiser in 1988 or Jack Morris in 1991 or Curt Schilling in 2001. In fact, with two wins, Verlander would become the first starting pitcher to win five games in a single postseason.

Delmon Young

Tigers fans have suggested I have it out for Young. Well, they’re kind of correct. Young had a lousy season. Those are just the facts. He hit .267 with 18 home runs, but that masks his ineffectiveness: He grounded into as many double plays as he drew walks (20) and posted a lowly .296 on-base percentage. He scored just 54 runs. Despite hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, he drove in just 74 runs. Tigers’ designated hitters -- mostly Young -- ranked 12th among 14 teams in the AL in OPS. What Young did do, however, was produce a great American League Championship Series, hitting .353 with two homers and six RBIs to win MVP honors. He also hit five home runs in last year’s postseason, leading to some false beliefs that Young has some sort of magical postseason bat. Trust me. He doesn’t.

This leads to a dilemma for Jim Leyland when the series begins in San Francisco: Does he play Young in left field, hoping to get a hot bat in the lineup, but doing so by playing a terrible defensive player? Remember, one reason the Tigers pitched so much better in the second half is that Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia provided better defense than Young and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers’ Opening Day corner outfielders.

My guess: Young starts in Game 1 against the left-handed Zito, since he hit .308/.333/.500 against lefties. But if Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong start Game 2, you can’t justify Young in the lineup considering he hit .247/.279/.370 against righties. I’d rather go with Berry and Dirks and the better defense.

Aside from all that, Young will be an important part of the Detroit offense. He delivered some clutch hits against the Yankees and will have to do so again.

Phil Coke

Does Leyland go with the hot hand and keep Coke as his closer after his 5.2 scoreless innings against the New York Yankees? Coke is certainly a better matchup against the Giants than he would have been against the St. Louis Cardinals, who would have run out a long string of right-handed batters against him.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the right-handers hit .396 and slugged .604 off Coke this season. I can see Coke matching up against the bottom of the Giants’ lineup or against switch-hitters Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval. But Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit or Al Alburquerque would be better options against the 4-5 combo of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Posey hit .433 against lefties this season; considering Detroit’s all-righty rotation, if Leyland plays his cards right, Posey won’t see a left-hander in the series.

Hunter Pence

Similar to Young, Pence occupies that fifth slot in the lineup. Just like the Giants will pitch around Fielder whenever possible, the Tigers are going to be more willing to pitch to Pence than Posey. Pence has not hit well since coming over to the Giants in a midseason trade, hitting .219 with seven home runs in 59 games in the regular season and then .188 in the postseason. His approach has been terrible, with a lot of uncontrolled swings, leading to one walk and 11 K’s in 12 playoff games. He has also fared poorly in AT&T Park, where he hit just .220 with three homers in 31 games in the regular season.

Even after pounding out 14 hits in the Game 7 wipeout of the Cardinals, the Giants are hitting just .234 in the postseason. They need more offense from the middle of the order.

Brandon Belt

Pence will be facing Detroit’s tough foursome of right-handed starters, which means that pressure for more offense may fall on Belt’s shoulders. Maybe the home run he launched in Game 7 will get him going. He has hit .222/.300/.389 in the postseason, but after hitting .349 in August and .310 in September, he was a key reason the Giants’ offense ranked second in the NL in runs per game after the All-Star break. If you’re looking for a surprise candidate to deliver some big hits for the Giants, Belt may be your guy.

Tim Lincecum

The Giants haven’t announced their Game 2 starter yet, leaving three rotation options for Bochy, assuming Madison Bumgarner -- who looked fatigued against the Cardinals -- isn’t a consideration.

Option No. 1: Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong

Option No. 2: Zito, Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Cain

Option No. 3: Zito, Vogelsong (3 days’ rest), Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Vogelsong, Cain

I’d go with option No. 3, which gives the Giants the potential of using Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain for four starts instead of three. Vogelsong has never started on three days’ rest, but I’d take the risk, knowing that winning a series in which Zito and Lincecum start a possible four games is going to be difficult.

Either way, Lincecum then becomes a key to the Giants’ hopes. In options 1 and 2, he’d start twice, matched up against Doug Fister. In option 3, he likely becomes a bullpen option, either in long relief of Zito or maybe for an inning or two in relief of Vogelsong if he doesn’t go deep into the game. He has pitched great in relief in the postseason, allowing just three hits and one run in 8.1 innings. Somewhere, somehow, Lincecum will have to step up big for the Giants.