Commentary

Key questions: Cardinals-Red Sox

Originally Published: October 20, 2013
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN.com

It's a rematch of the 2004 World Series, with some changes.

The Boston Red Sox aren't "The Idiots" who won four straight games over the New York Yankees in the ALCS, making history in the process. They are the big, burly guys with complicated beards who hit grand slams at the most opportune times.

The St. Louis Cardinals don't have that same middle of the order with offensive numbers never seen before from three teammates (Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen) in a World Series. They are, at least lately, more about two pitchers at the top of their rotation.

Everything else is the same: Two historic franchises from great baseball cities, the teams with the best records in their leagues this season, playing in the World Series. But unlike 2004, there won't be a sweep.

Here are five questions:

What are we to make of Michael Wacha?

The Cardinals' rookie sensation and the MVP of the NLCS has allowed nine hits and one run over his last 29 2/3 innings. That stretch covers four starts, three of them postseason games, two of them near no-hitters.

He is the first rookie to have two scoreless starts in one postseason series. He is the third rookie to win each of his first three starts in the postseason. He can throw 98 mph when he needs it, and has a fabulous changeup. "When it's down in the zone, you think it's his fastball,'' said the Dodgers' Nick Punto. "You can't hit it."

Wacha likely will start Game 2, following 19-game winner Adam Wainwright, who won two games for the Cardinals in the NLDS and had another solid outing despite suffering a 3-0 loss to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Those two NLDS wins gave Wainwright 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. With Wainwright and Wacha going 1-2 for the Cardinals, they have a chance to do damage in Boston.

What are we to make of Koji Uehara?

Uehara is the surest thing in the game right now, a lesson in efficiency. He throws almost all strikes (he hasn't issued a walk since Aug. 3), his delivery is deceptive, which allows him to throw the ball by hitters at 89 mph, and he throws a disappearing splitter that no batter has centered in three months.

He pitched six scoreless innings in the ALCS, allowing four hits, walking none and striking out nine, making him the first reliever to win the LCS MVP since Mariano Rivera in 2003. But it's not just Uehara. The reason the Red Sox won the ALCS against the Tigers was the collective work of the bullpen. Uehara, 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.

Breslow will play a crucial role for the Red Sox against the left-handed hitters in the St. Louis lineup, notably Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams. Teams win in the postseason with a deep, versatile bullpen.

How good is the Cardinals' bullpen?

It is almost as good as Boston's bullpen. In 30 innings this postseason, the Cardinals' pen has a 1.80 ERA and a .177 batting average against. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal is a nightmare for opponents; he's 220 pounds of 100 mph heat. He has pitched seven innings in this postseason and has allowed three hits, no runs and two walks, with eight strikeouts and three saves. This is his second postseason (he pitched 8 2/3 innings of relief in last year's playoffs), and he's shown no signs of nerves.

The Cardinals have several setup men, but Carlos Martinez, who bears some resemblance to Pedro Martinez, has become the primary guy. "He throws 98, and looks like he's just playing catch," said teammate John Axford. The Cardinals have lefty specialists, long guys, everything. If this series comes down to the battle of the bullpens, be prepared for long nights and extra-inning games.

Who will play third base for the Red Sox?

Rookie Xander Bogaerts, the youngest (21) Red Sox player ever to get a postseason hit, and the youngest Red Sox position player ever to start a playoff game, has to be the front-runner over Will Middlebrooks.

Xander Bogaerts
Bogaerts

In 11 plate appearances in the postseason, Bogaerts reached base eight times, with three hits and five walks. His walk in the crucial seventh inning of Game 6 of the ALCS against Max Scherzer helped set up Shane Victorino's grand slam.

As for what the Red Sox will do with DH David Ortiz for the games in St. Louis, well, that's a tricky issue. He can play first base if needed, but if they play him there, Mike Napoli will have to sit. Napoli has been the first baseman all season, and he got some huge hits in the ALCS against Detroit.

Will the Cardinals activate Allen Craig for the World Series?

By all accounts, yes. He drove in 97 runs during the regular season, and he batted .454 with runners in scoring position this year, but last played on Sept. 4 because of an injury to his left foot. On Friday, he took batting practice off teammates Jaime Garcia, Sam Freeman and Jake Westbrook, and hit line drives all over the field.

Allen Craig
Craig

"It felt good," Craig said. Craig ran the bases at half speed, with a noticeable limp, but said he did so because "there was no reason to bust it" five days before the start of the World Series. The Cardinals have badly missed Craig this postseason. The thought that they haven't missed a beat with Matt Adams at first base is preposterous: Adams has done a good job, but he's not Craig.

The plan likely will be for Craig to be the DH in the games in Boston. And in St. Louis, he might only be able to pinch hit. But even that would give a huge boost to the Cardinals' bench. In Game 5 of the NLCS, in a key situation in the ninth inning, the Cardinals had no choice but to pinch hit Adron Chambers, who made the last out. With Craig on the active roster, even though he might be rusty, the Cardinals' bench will be much better.

The pick: Red Sox in seven.

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