The 109th edition of the World Series kicks of later tonight at Fenway Park when the Boston Red Sox host the St. Louis Cardinals. The Series pits two of baseball's most historic franchises from baseball cities and matches up the teams tied for the best record during the regular season, 97-65. It is first time since 1999 that the two teams with the best records have met in the Series, and this marks just the third time in history ('49 and '58) that the World Series teams have had the same record.
You might recall this is a rematch of the 2004 World Series, famous for being the first win for the Sox in 86 years. But that wasn't the only time these teams have met in October, as St. Louis won in seven games in both 1946 and 1967 (the Sox's "Impossible Dream" season). Another win by the Sox would even their all-time head-to-head World Series record.
The Boston Beards
The 2013 Red Sox season certainly doesn't lack for storylines. This is the same team that finished in the AL East cellar with a 69–93 record last year. And that team started the year trying to erase the memory of one of the biggest collapses in baseball history; a team trying to redeem itself from the "chicken 'n beer" fiasco and the smearing of Terry Francona after he was fired. Last year's attempt to bounce back did not go great, as incoming manager Bobby Valentine seemed to loose the clubhouse from the get-go, and the team never got much going during an injury-plagued year.
The fans soured so thoroughly on the team that their 820-game sellout streak came to and end early in the 2013 season, as fans settled in for the long rumored "bridge season."
But the Red Sox performed on the field from day one and with some true characters had Boston and New England back on board before long. The bombing of the Boston Marathon further galvanized the team. Even with the bombing, what is likely more memorable about this team is that fantastic facial hair. Led by the unassailable beards of Mike Napoli and David Ross, just about the whole team hoped on board with the hirsute look and threw their razors in the trash.
The Red Sox came out of the gates on fire and never looked back. The team never lost more than three games in a row, and the season featured 11 walk-off wins, each time with a different player emerging as the hero.
The team is defined by "grinders" that work pitchers into the ground. A callback to the "dirt dog" days of Trot Nixon and Jason Varitek. This season the Sox led the majors with 25,667 pitches seen this season, with an average of 4.02 per plate appearance. They also led the league in runs scored, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
The winning formula of the regular season carried over into the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, as the Red Sox handled the Rays easily enough in four games. The only blemish was a walk of home run by Tampa Bay off the Red Sox otherwise otherworldly closer Koji Uehara by backup catcher José Lobatón.
Despite winning their ALCS matchup against the Detroit Tigers in six games, that victory did not come as easy. The Red Sox offense in particular struggled mightily against Detroit, especially in the first few games, as the Sox didn't start swinging the bats until games five and six. After being all but no-hit in the first game, it took David Ortiz's incredible grand slam over a flailing Torri Hunter in the eight to send the Red Sox to Detroit even. Red Sox pitching, which was seen as the weaker link when compared to the offense, was superb (outside of Jake Peavy's meltdown in game four) the bullpen in particular, and kept the team in the game while the bats heated up.
Detroit's stellar starting pitching did a shutdown job on the Sox offense. But once the vulnerable bullpen came on, the Sox were able to capitalize. They will have a harder time trying that tactic against St. Louis, as their bullpen is much stronger.
The Red Sox pitching has not been as dominant as the Tigers or Cardinals' top dogs, but 1-4 they might be a tad deeper. Game four will be interesting, as Jake Peavy, who has been waiting 12 years for his shot at the title, can't wait to redeem himself from a terrible game against the Tigers, when he gave up seven runs in three innings. Nobody is more upset about that then Peavy, and how he performs in game four could have a big impact on the series.
The bullpen has been the foundation of the Sox in the post season, as they were every bit as good as Detroit's was bad. While it's not the deepest of 'pens, Farrell has three dependable late-inning guys and the league's best closer in Koji Uehara, who was awarded the ALCS MVP. They've gotten some huge outs against some of the league's best hitters, and chances are they'll be called on to do it again.
While pitching has been good, the strength of the Sox during the regular season has been their relentless hitting. The Sox's 5.27 runs per game led the majors during the regular season, with the Cards' 4.83 third. Jacoby Ellsbury, a free-agent at the end of the season, has the speed and batting average that makes him one of MLB's best lead-off hitters. Shane Victorino showed that even in the midst of a slump, he's just one swing of the bat away from a series-altering grand slam. And while he might not mean to, there's a good chance Victorino will build on his record for most hit-by-pitches in the post-season. Dustin Pedroia is the heart of the Red Sox, while Ortiz is the soul. Other than the grand slam, Ortiz hasn't been hitting much during the playoffs, he only had two games in the six ALCS games, but expect that to change. Mike Napoli has had some huge at bats, and still wants some payback after loosing the Series to the Cardinals as a Texas Ranger in 2011. The Sox have been great against right-handed pitching, and all four Cardinal starters are righties. Boston has also been good against the fastball, and St Louis' has no shortage of flamethrowers.
In the Cardinals the Red Sox go up against the same opponent they dispatched in four games in 2004 to claim their first World Series title in 86 years. There are just a few remaining links on the field as David Ortiz is the only remaining member for Boston and on the St. Louis roster Yadier Molina was the backup catcher. But Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was the starting catcher for the '04 Cardinals team.
This time around it's a different kind of Cards team, relying on youth whereas '04 team had some gristled veterans like Albert Pujols, Jim Edmons, Edger Renteria and Scott Rolen.
The current Cardinal front office is known for the "Cardinal Way," marked by an emphasis on the team over the individual. The Cardinal way can be summed up by "We get the credit, We get the blame." There is no "I" in Cardinals.
This approach has served St. Louis well in recent years, as this will be the fourth World Series in 10 years, and could have been five if not for a collapse in the NLDS last season. Cards missed out on the Series last season in dramatic fashion despite having a 3-1 games lead when the Cardinals were outscored by the Giants 20-1 over the final three games.
In Detroit, Red Sox pitching was able to contain some of the American League's best hitters, and they'll have to continue their mastery against a potent St. Louis offense. Hitters like Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and David Freese have the ability to do some real damage against Boston. Beltran in particular has been deadly in the playoffs his whole career. Additionally, the Cards will activate Allen Craig for the series, who hasn't played since September 4 with a foot sprain.
One of the glaring weaknesses for the Tigers was their defense, especially at the corner positions. The Red Sox will not have that to fall back on, as the Cardinals are much better defensively than Detroit.
Perhaps the biggest starting pitching storyline is Cardinals' rookie Michael Wacha, who after an impressive first season has kicked it up a notch in the post season. He's won all three games he started with a 0.49 ERA and over 21 innings has given up just eight hits and one run while striking out 22 en route to being named the NLCS MVP. He is the first rookie ever to keep opponents from scoring in two games in the same post-season series. Then again he has thrown more than 35 innings more than he did last season, so those numbers could pop just a little depending on how hard the Red Sox work him.
Adam Wainwright has been among the leagues best pitchers for the past several seasons and is the veteran presence on what is otherwise a young staff. One thing to keep in mind is the left-handed hitters on the Red Sox, who batted over .300 as a group against right handers. Detroit sent four consecutive right-handed starters to the mound, and in the end it didn't work out. Both bullpens are very good, so don't be surprised if the games are somewhat wanting for offence.
So Who Will Win the 2013 World Series?
What would a World Series story be without a pick?
This should be a very even series. Neither team has any glaring weaknesses, and both have come up big when it matters most. The margin for error on both sides is slim to none, and as so often happens in the post-season the difference will likely be be something nobody saw coming.
No doubt the games in St. Louis will be tough for Boston, as the starting lineup is without either David Ortiz or Mike Napoli, both of whom play a pivotal role in the Boston offense. It will give the team a big bat off the bench however.
You could make the argument that history is on the Red Sox side, as they have swept the National League in the World Series twice in nine years, both times after coming out on top of grueling ALCSs. The '04 Red Sox of course came back from 3 games to none to the Yankees, while the '07 Red Sox came back from being down 3-1 to the Indians. While the Sox were never behind in the series, they played from behind in most of the ALCS games.
And as long as we're looking at it historically, both teams overcame a tough season last year. The Red Sox with a miserable season all around, and the Cardinals with a crushing loss in the NLCS to the Giants after having a 3-1 advantage.
This series will come down to those trendy "intangibles" that are so difficult to describe.
To take nothing away from the focus of the Cardinals, their player development and the "Cardinal Way," the team showed last year they are beatable. While their one-two punch looks very good, the Red Sox already survived Detroit's loaded starting lineup.
The Red Sox have been defined by their tough play, as well as their resiliency. They never give up, and they are ready exorcise the demons of 2011 and 2012 and finish the job. With the Cardinals just winning it all in 2011, it means more for Boston.
It's been a long process for the Red Sox to get to where they are, and they are not about to stop now. "We have a chance to do something special now," Sox manager John Farrell said. "That’s not going to get lost by anybody. They felt along that they had this chance. We’re in the process of it now. By no means are we satisfied with where we are."
Come Monday, they will be satisfied.
Sox in five.