The St. Louis Cardinals take aim at their second World Series title in three years, as they kick off the 109th edition of the Fall Classic against the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday at Fenway Park.
These teams haven’t met in interleague play since 2008, but are certainly no stranger to one another in the World Series, as this will be the fourth time these teams have faced off and the first since 2004 when the Red Sox, of course, ended their 86-year drought with a four-game sweep.
St. Louis beat Boston in the World Series in 1946 and ‘67.
You can’t ask for a more balanced matchup, as both teams topped their respective leagues with a 97-65 mark. Actually, there home/road splits were almost identical, as well, with the Red Sox going 53-28 at home and 44-37 on the road, while the Cardinals were 54-27 and 43-38, respectively.
It’s the first time since 1999 (Yankees and Braves) that the best teams in each league will be facing off in this round.
St. Louis is back in the Fall Classic for the third time since 2004 after beating Pittsburgh in five games of the NLDS, then taking out the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games of the NLCS.
The Cardinals may have found another ace in the process, too, as 22-year-old right-hander Michael Wacha outdueled Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS and has won all three of his postseason starts, while pitching to a 0.43 ERA.
Since closing the regular season with 8 2/3 no-hit innings, Wacha, the NLCS MVP, has pitched 21 postseason innings, limiting the Pirates and Dodgers to one run on eight hits.
“I think we just don’t talk about it much, because we don’t want it to change,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Wacha’s brilliance. “We want to see it a few more times — a couple, at least. We just want him to think that this is normal and this is expected.”
St. Louis, though, will turn to right-handed ace Adam Wainwright in Game 1. Wainwright, the NL wins leader in the regular season with 19, has been equally effective, going 2-1 with a 1.57 ERA in three starts. His only loss came in NLCS Game 3 against the Dodgers, as he allowed two runs and six hits in seven innings.
Wainwright has three straight postseason starts of at least seven innings, with one or no runs allowed. Only three pitchers in history had more such consecutive starts in the postseason: Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and Christy Mathewson.
Although Matheny hasn’t named his other starters, righties Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly both figure to get nods.
Offensively the Cards are paced by perhaps the best postseason hitter of this generation in Carlos Beltran, who has 37 RBI in 45 playoff games with an incredible 1.173 OPS. This, though, will mark his first-ever trip to the World Series.
Beltran is only hitting .256 this October, but has driven in 12 runs in the Cards’ 11 games. As a team, the Cards are hitting a mere .210 in the postseason, but always seem to come up with a hit when they need one.
“During the regular season, we went through ups and downs and we stood together,” Beltran said. “We did it as a team, actually. It was fun just being able to watch the veteran guys try to help the younger guys — being able to see the younger guys coming along and just coming here and do their job. It feels great.”
In addition to being the best defensive catcher in the game, Yadier Molina has also become a more than capable bat in the lineup. This year, he hit .319 and drove in 80 runs. Second baseman Matt Carpenter was a real surprise, though, as the rookie earned an All-Star berth, hitting .318, while scoring a major league-best 126 runs.
Molina, though, was just 5-for-25 in the NLCS, while Carpenter is batting a mere .167 this postseason. St. Louis’ struggling offense may get a boost, as first baseman Allen Craig is expected to be added to the roster. Craig hasn’t played since Sept. 4 due to a a Lisfranc fracture to his left foot.
Craig, who has yet to do any defensive work, could be an ideal designated hitter candidate in the first two games at Boston. He finished the year leading the Cardinals with 97 RBI and a .454 batting average with runners in scoring position. Overall, he hit .315.
St. Louis’ bullpen situation seemed a bit shaky heading into the postseason following the late-September demotion of closer Edward Mujica.
Matheny, though, has entrusted hard-throwing rookie Trevor Rosenthal with the ninth inning. He is also relying on two other youngsters in lefty Kevin Siegrist and righty Carlos Martinez. In 30 innings this postseason, the Cardinals’ pen has a 1.80 ERA and a .177 batting average against.
What a difference a year makes for the Red Sox, who last year finished with 93 losses.
So, out with the old and in the new, as the team hired John Farrell away from Toronto to be their new skipper.
All Farrell did was put himself atop most people’s AL Manager of the Year ballots, as he guided the Red Sox to a 28-game turnaround and led the club to its first AL East title since their World Series championship season of 2007.
The 97 wins were also the second most for the team since 1978.
Boston’s regular season prowess has carried over to the postseason, as it needed only four games to upend the wild card-winning Tampa Bay Rays before eliminating the Detroit Tigers in six games in an exciting ALCS.
Offensively the Red Sox are still led by 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who put forth his seventh 30-homer/100-RBI season and hit .309 to boot. Ortiz is only hitting .200 this postseason, but may have changed the course of the ALCS with his game-tying grand slam in Game 2 against the Tigers.
Ortiz, though, was just 1-for-15 after that pivotal blast.
As has been the case in the Red Sox previous two World Series trips in 2004 and ‘07, Ortiz may have to find his way onto the field when the series shifts to the NL park. But, in doing that, Boston would likely have to sit first baseman Mike Napoli.
Boston was criticized for giving outfielder Shane Victorino a 3-year, $39 million deal this offseason, but the Flying Hawaiian was one of the team’s top performers this season, hitting .294 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI, 82 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Not to mention Victorino has had a penchant for coming up big in the postseason, as he has driven in 38 runs in 56 playoff games. Victorino propelled the Red Sox past the Tigers in the clinching game with a grand slam of his own in the eighth inning that put them ahead.
One player to watch this series will be third baseman Xander Bogaerts, who seems to have supplanted Will Middlebrooks and responded by hitting three doubles in six at-bats and has totaled a .727 on-base-percentage in his six games.
Farrell, of course, was the Red Sox pitching coach under Terry Francona, and his impact was immediately evident, especially among the starting staff which saw their ERA decrease by nearly two runs from the prior season.
Nobody benefited from having Farrell back more than likely Game 1 starter Jon Lester, who was a miserable 9-14 in 2012, but bounced back to go 15-8 this past season, while pitching to a 3.75 ERA.
Lester is 2-1 this postseason with a 2.33 ERA.
If anyone doubted whether or not John Lackey was fully recovered from Tommy John surgery needs to look no further than his Game 3 performance against the Tigers that saw him outduel Justin Verlander and give control of the series to the Red Sox.
Lackey has been much better at home this season than on the road, making him a prime Game 2 candidate, but regardless he may be the Sox’s best option right now anyway.
Buchholz was spectacular during the season, going 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, but has been miserable in the postseason, pitching to a 5.40 ERA in his three starts.
Righty Jake Peavy has also underwhelmed and is 0-1 with an 8.31 ERA in his two starts this postseason.
While there may be some concern surrounding the starting staff, there is none when it comes to the bullpen, specifically ALCS MVP Koji Uehara, who has been the best closer in the league since assuming the role after injuries to both Joel Hanrahan and Mark Melancon.
Uehara, whose ERA was the best in the majors of any pitcher with 50 or more innings, also posted a mind-blowing 0.57 walks plus hits per nine innings - the lowest WHIP in baseball history by a pitcher who logged at least 50 innings, surpassing by a considerable margin the 0.61 standard set by Dennis Eckersley in 1989.
He also hasn’t walk a batter in his last 30 appearances and has pitched to a 0.61 ERA in his save chances.
It’s been more of the same for Uehara here in the postseason, as he has saved five games to go along with a 1.00 ERA. The only run he allowed was a walk-off home run in his ALDS Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Uehara has had some help too. Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Franklin Morales, Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront have combined for a 0.84 ERA, 28 strikeouts and a .209 batting average against in 32 innings of relief this postseason.
St. Louis has won 11 World Series with its last coming in 2011 against Texas. Boston, meanwhile, has won seven titles, but hasn’t won since sweeping the Colorado Rockies in 2007.