It was not a good thing for Major League Baseball, Inc., when the St. Louis Cardinals knocked the LA Dodgers out of the National League playoffs. A sport whose television ratings are losing out not only to football but also to basketball was counting on some West Coast pizzazz. If baseball can ever be cool, LA with its glitzarati has to be involved.
The Dodgers have genuine showbiz characters, like Adrian Gonzalez and 22-year-old rookie pheenom Yasiel Puig. And also marquee value in the most esteemed pitcher in the National League, Clayton Kershaw, who looks like a tall Viking with his blond curls and is about to win his second consecutive Cy Young Award.
The Dodgers really are the closest thing baseball has to Showtime. You suspect the input of Magic Johnson.
But in the NL Championship Series, glitz lost to grit. Gonzalez and Puig couldn’t field in the clutch and Kershaw couldn’t pitch in it. So like it or not, the St. Louis Cardinals are going to Boston’s ultra-historic Fenway Park to open the World Series on Wednesday night.
Actually, there’s a lot to like in these Cardinals.
St. Louis is a city that pays attention to baseball like no other city does. Not even Boston, which can get distracted by the Patriots and occasionally by the Bruins or Celtics.
In St. Louis you can be eating in a trattoria on the Hill and hear Cardinals play-by-play on the radio. This is a city that appreciates baseball excellence and demands it. And usually gets it. This is the 19th World Series for the Cards, seeking their 11th world championship.
Opposed by a team that last won one in 2007 and feels a special bond with destiny.
Baseball is, more than any other sport, day to day drama. In Boston the daily progress of the baseball team – on a remarkable last place-to-first journey – weaves into the larger story of recovery from the Boston Marathon Massacre. How do you measure Red Sox resilience aka the Boston Strong effect?
Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes may have touched on it in the ALCS celebration: “There’s something inside you – not so much an anger or trying to prove anybody wrong – but a mission to get to the highest level of the game.”
What makes this such a classic of an October Classic — aside from the traditions and historic backdrops and in spite of some overgrown Red Sox beards — is that we’ll see three impossibly hot and totally dominating pitchers: Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal of St. Louis and Koji Euhara of Boston.
Euhara may be the most surprising development of the baseball season. At 38, the middle reliever turned into the unhittable closer: 33 hits allowed in 74 innings. His split-finger changeup has become devastating even though complemented by a no-hum fastball. In the ALCS he was MVP for a win, three saves, eight strikeouts and no runs in six total innings.
Meanwhile in the NLCS, the 22-year-old Wacha twice outpitched Kershaw. Wacha admitted he couldn’t sleep the night before his Game 6 start. But he calmed his nerves enough to close out the Dodgers and win MVP of the series.
Actually, the final closing was the work of another wiz-kid, 23-year-old Rosenthal. He easily blew his hundred-mile heat past the Dodgers, who could never catch up to the just-slightly lower-powered blue darters of Wacha.
The Cardinals have lots of other talent, including the best catcher in baseball, Yadier Molina, and the best leadoff batter, Matt Carpenter. And they have the all-time postseason home run leader, Carlos Beltran, who has 12 RBIs in the team’s 11 postseason games.
Giving the Cards a boost into the Series is Allen Craig, who led the majors in the all-important Hitting with Runners in Scoring Position: .454. Craig missed most of September with a lisfranc injury but is ready to be Designated Hitter in the venerated American League park hosting the Wednesday-Thursday games. It’s rare for National Leaguers to have a DH like this.
Fed by baseball’s best farm system, the Cardinals have no shortage of arms or bats. Or gloves. They have committed three errors in their 11 postseason games.
Both teams can pitch and hit and slug, with Boston’s “Big Papi” David Ortiz (30 home runs, 3 more in the postseason) the counter to Beltran’s clutch power.
This is a rare baseball season where the two best teams end up in the World Series. The Cardinals and Red Sox were 1-2 in wins (97 apiece) and run differential (+197 for Boston, +187 for St. Louis).
The last time the two best run differentials faced off in the World Series was 2004, with these same two franchises involved. That time Boston swept St. Louis 4-0.
The decider in this one could be speed on the base paths. The Cardinals have no one as fast as Jacoby Ellsersby (52 stolen bases in 56 attempts). They have no one as fast as grand slam hero Shane Victorino (21 of 24 on steals) or Dustin Pedroia (17 of 22).
On the other hand, Molina is able to control most running games. The Cardinals allowed just 39 stolen bases this season. For his team to win, Molina will have to keep the thievery down.
The teams match up in a way that makes the Series look almost even, with promise of dramatic mano-a-mano action between truly elite athletes.
St. Louis has the two most dominating starting pitchers. As overpowering as Wacha is, the team’s designated ace is Adam Wainwright, 19-9 in the regular season, 2-1 in the postseason with a 1.57 ERA and a 20-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks.
Boston’s Jon Lester and John Lackey are solid, but they are not shutout threats like Wainwright and Wacha.
A victory by Wainwright in the opener would put St. Louis in a very commanding position. It takes the pressure away from Wacha in Game 2. Regardless of how well he handled the stress of the league championship series, that’s nowhere nearly as challenging as the World Series, where the media scrutiny multiplies exponentially.
If Wainwright wins the opener on the road, Wacha is likely to feel relaxed; he will let his fastball run. But if Wainwright stumbles, Wacha would feel the weight of the World Series. Tenseness could ensue. It may be asking too much of a rookie.
Both bullpens are lights-out, but St. Louis has two righthanders who throw 100 mph – Carlos Martinez as well as Rosenthal.
If St. Louis has the favorable matchups at the top of the rotation, at No. 3 it becomes advantage Boston. Clay Buchholz, 12-1 and 1.74 this season, has much better numbers than Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller. Buchholz would be in line to be Game 7 starter. However, Buchholz has been strangely mediocre in the postseason, no wins and a 5.40 ERA.
Boston’s roster, as befits a $140 million payroll, is more complete than what St. Louis could put together for $102 million. Home-field and base-running advantages weigh in Boston’s favor. And John Farrell is a very reliable tactician – more so than Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
And you do have to wonder if the wonder boys of St. Louis can take their command performance to the ultimate stage. In the end, the seasoned Red Sox (nine players with World Series experience) should prevail over the young fire of the Cardinals. Sox in Seven.