The home stretch of baseball season is finally here, and after eight and a half months of spring training, regular season, and playoff games, the end is finally in sight. And on Wednesday night, we begin the process of crowning a new champion of baseball, when the Boston Red Sox (97-65) face off against the St. Louis Cardinals (97-65) in Fenway Park.
It's one of the few times that the two best teams are actually facing off in the World Series. The baseball playoff system – or any playoff system, really – is a cruel and unfair one, and the team that is truly the best and most talented doesn't always advance. It's the reason that the Phillies won it all in 2008, and why they lost in the first round in 2011. The playoffs aren't a democracy. Chaos rules supreme in October, and rarely does the World Series consist of two number one seeds.
That said, both teams are due a great deal of admiration. Like I've written before, the Cardinals are annoying in how well-run they are as an organization. They draft and scout better than anyone to the point where you wouldn't be surprised if they had an assembly line of baseball players somewhere inside Busch Stadium. Whether it's second baseman Matt Carpenter, Ace Adam Wainwright, or catcher Yadier Molina, it's a beautiful example of what happens when an organization is solid from head to toe.
Boston is similarly adept at running their organization, but that didn't preclude them from having one of the worst teams in the game in 2012, thanks in part to some bad signings and underwhelming performance from darn near their entire roster. Thanks to a bailout from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox were able to shed some dead weight, re-load, and storm back into baseball relevancy in 2013. They did so with some key signings that they absolutely bulls-eyed, including first baseman Mike Napoli (.842 OPS, 23 homers) and right fielder Shane Victorino (.801 OPS, 15 homers). They were key additions to a roster that already included David Ortiz (.959 OPS), Dustin Pedroia (.372 OBP), and Jacoby Ellsbury (53 SB). Their payroll is among the highest in the game, but the roster is no less well constructed. They are like the Oakland Athletics, if only Billy Beane had a payroll.
So, here we are, and we are looking at one of the most uninteresting World Series matchups in a while. That's not meant to be pejorative, at all. It's just a fact, thanks to both the Cardinals and Red Sox both being well-run organizations that are always competitive. The success of either of these teams is not a surprise, and since about the middle of the season, it was pretty obvious that they both had great odds to play in the Fall Classic. Watching the Red Sox and Cardinals in the World Series is like watching a master chef prepare the perfect steak. Sure, it looks effortless and it comes out great, but sometimes, you want someone to chuck a pie, just because they can.
In the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox dispatched the Detroit Tigers in six games, which is actually pretty impressive considering the series was pretty much over after the seventh inning in game two. After taking the first game, the Tigers had a four-run lead with six outs to go, but their bullpen could not contain the Red Sox, who came storming back in grand fashion on a game-tying slam from David Ortiz. That four-run inning from the Sox turned the series on its ear, and instead of being down two games to none heading into Detroit, Boston found themselves heads-up with the AL Central champs.
Boston took two of the next three, and game back to Boston needing to win one of the next two games to advance to their third world series in the last decade. Down a run in the seventh inning, the Sox battled back and took the lead thanks to another grand slam – this time from former Phillie Shane Victorino – to give them all the offense they would need.
St. Louis, meanwhile, did not have nearly as dramatic a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They took a 2-0 lead in the series, and were never really in danger of not advancing to their fourth World Series since 2004. They dispatched the Dodgers with young pitching, a dominant bullpen, and Carlos Beltran, who continues to add to his legacy as one of the greatest post-season performers of this – or any – era. Beltran has always been a tremendous presence on the field, but he's one of the more interesting players to watch when the playoffs roll around. Whether or not you ascribe to the “clutch exists” line of thinking, it's hard to deny the fact that Beltran elevates his game in October. In 45 post season games, he's got 16 homers, and a .337/.449/.724 line. Pretty good, even if it is a very small sample size.
It's a re-match of the 2004 World Series – the one where the Sox reversed that silly curse and swept the Cardinals – but features hardly any of the same faces. For St. Louis, only manager Mike Matheny (who was the catcher in 2004) and catcher Yadier Molina were around in 2004. On the other side, only David Ortiz was in uniform for the Sox during that series.
As for this series, it's pretty evenly matched. Both teams can slug, though Boston has a considerable advantage on offense. On the mound, the Cardinals feature a deeper and more talented starting rotation. And while Boston possesses perhaps the best closer in the game right now (Koji Uehara), the Cardinals feature some high-octane relievers in the late innings.
They say that pitching wins championships, and the Cardinals certainly have the advantage on the mound. However, the Red Sox know how to work a pitcher, and they should prove to be a foil for the St. Louis arms. Either way, it should be one heckuva series, even if it's boring as all get-out.
Red Sox in seven.