Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Ten reasons to love this World Series
By David Schoenfield
This probably isn't the World Series you wanted, assuming you don't root for the Red Sox or Cardinals. After all, both franchises have been to the World Series multiple times in the past decade and both have won twice. So maybe you wanted some new blood. Instead you'll get beards. Lots of them.
But you also get two great teams, with no shortage of reasons to watch. Here are 10:
1. Adam Wainwright. He was a rookie closer when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 but was injured when they won again in 2011. In a season where much of the attention for pitchers went to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera, Wainwright quietly went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched. This is his chance to make his October mark in Cardinals history alongside the likes of Bob Gibson and his mentor Chris Carpenter, who won two games in the 2011 World Series. He has that big curveball -- maybe the best since Bert Blyleven was spinning his own -- that he'll throw on any count but is especially deadly with two strikes, when opponents hit .118 with 130 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances.
2. David Ortiz versus Carlos Beltran. They're not facing each other, but you sort of get the feeling they are. Few hitters have delivered in their playoff careers like these two, although Ortiz did go just 2-for-22 in the American League Championship Series. Beltran had six RBIs in each of the Cardinals' first two series and now gets the opportunity to play in his first World Series … and perhaps make a Hall of Fame statement.
3. John Lackey's redemption. Two years ago he was the most hated man in Boston after posting a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and ordering lots of fried chicken between starts. Now, after beating Justin Verlander 1-0 in the ALCS, he's going to start Game 2 of the World Series. Remember, he's familiar with the pressures of a big game: As a rookie with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7.
4. Yadier Molina. One of the memories of the 2011 World Series that stuck with me was the ovations Molina received from his home fans -- louder than those given Albert Pujols. Perhaps Cardinals fans anticipated Pujols' departure, or maybe they just appreciated everything Molina does for the team, from his hitting to his defense to the confidence he instills in his pitchers. Few players ever perfect their jobs on a baseball field, but you get the idea Molina has perfected playing catcher. Appreciate and enjoy. And then see if the Red Sox -- who set the all-time record for stolen-base percentage (123 for 142) -- attempt to run on him.
5. Power versus RISP. Each team led its league in runs scored, just the fourth time since 1976 that's happened (1976, Reds-Yankees; 2004, Cardinals-Red Sox; 2009, Phillies-Yankees), but did so in different ways. The Red Sox, while not as powerful as some Red Sox teams of the past, hit 178 home runs (sixth in the majors), but also pounded out 363 doubles (first) and drew 581 walks (third). The Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and don't steal many bases (just 45), but they put the ball in play, an attribute that allowed them to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest figure in the majors since that stat has been recorded beginning in 1961. The Red Sox beat the Tigers largely because of three key home runs -- the grand slams from Ortiz and Shane Victorino plus Mike Napoli's solo shot in the 1-0 victory in Game 3 -- and while the Cardinals have hit just .210 in the postseason they've hit .286 with RISP.
6. Michael Wacha. In the span of 16 months he's gone from Texas A&M to ... well, almost unhittable. In his past four starts, going back to his final outing of the regular season, he's allowed an .093 batting average -- 9 for 97. In his three postseason starts, he's allowed one run for a tidy 0.43 ERA. He has a chance to become just the sixth pitcher to have four starts in one postseason where he allowed one run or less, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972), Burt Hooton (1981), John Smoltz (1996), Ryan Vogelsong (2012) and Curt Schilling (2001, the only one with five). I can't wait to see what the rookie does.
7. Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and had just 18 games of big-league experience before the playoffs began. Now he may be starting at third base, like he did the final two games of the ALCS. He's going to be a big star down the road so this is kind of like a sneak preview. He's had 11 plate appearances in the playoffs and drawn five walks while going 3-for-6. How can a kid have such a mature approach at the plate?
8. Cardinals relievers. Speaking of kids, the Cardinals' top four relievers right now -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- are all rookies. Teams have won before with rookie closers -- Bobby Jenks of the White Sox in 2005, Wainwright in 2006 -- and the Cardinals had some inexperienced relievers in 2011. But four rookie relievers in key roles? (Five if you include starter Shelby Miller working out of the bullpen.) How can you not be pumped watching Rosenthal and Martinez throwing 100 mph in the eighth and ninth innings?
9. Koji Uehara's splitter. It's the most dominant 81 mph pitch in baseball history, a force of nature that breaks the natural laws of baseball, a pitcher who turns skilled batsmen into helpless amateurs. Including the postseason, batters are hitting .134 off Uehara. Against the splitter, they're hitting .096. Since the All-Star break, they're hitting .074 against the splitter, just 6-for-81 with 37 strikeouts and no walks. He's 38 years old and basically the opposite of the gas-throwing Rosenthal and Martinez. The contrast in styles should make for some exciting late-game drama. One more thing: In what other sport could a 38-year-old guy, who while a good pitcher was never to be confused with Mariano Rivera, suddenly have a year better than any season Rivera ever had?
10. The best against the best. For the time since 1999, the teams with the best records in the majors will face off in the World Series. For the time since 2004, the teams with the best run differentials will face off. The rejuvenated, bearded Red Sox against the youthful, talented Cardinals. Players trying to create postseason legacies, others trying to add to existing ones. Big stars and future stars on the rise. To me, it's a World Series that has the elements for a classic duel. I think we're going to get one.