Clutch-hitting, relief pitching key factors in World Series

The year was 2004 and the Boston Red Sox had just completed perhaps the greatest comeback in Major League history when they came back from an 0-3 deficit to defeat the New York Yankees in the ALCS.  They then met up against the St. Louis Cardinals who had dominated the National League that year, but struggled in the NLCS. The Red Sox used their newfound momentum and the weight of their franchise’s 86 year “curse” to wash away the Cardinals in four straight games.  Now, nine years later, these two teams meet again in the current season.

Much has changed for the Red Sox since that fateful October. With the weight of the “curse” lifted, the Sox have remained perennial contenders, winning another World Series in 2007. David Ortiz remains perhaps the only prominent face from the magical 2004 squad, yet the spirit of Boston’s team seems oddly similar. The 2013 beards are reminiscent of the ‘04 squad’s rough, rag-tag appearance and demeanor and the fight and drive seem to be there as well.

St. Louis has been equally, if not more dominant since their last matchup with Boston.  They have won two championships and have built a model of strength and consistency that refused to fade even with the departure of Albert Pujols two seasons ago.  The question remains though.  Which league powerhouse will take the 2013 World Series crown?

Offensively, the Boston Red Sox dominated 2013, scoring the most runs, as well as posting the best on base and slugging percentages.  Their pitching, on the other hand, was slightly more average, although Lester, Buchholz, and Lackey are all capable starters in their own right. The dichotomy of these two teams is astounding.  The Red Sox were fourth in the majors in stolen bases, sixth in home runs, and eighth in strikeouts.  Conversely, the Cardinals were twenty-ninth in steals, twenty-seventh in home runs, and twenty-sixth in strikeouts.  In terms of rotations, the Cardinals have the second youngest and Boston has the third oldest.  Although the stolen base and home run stats seem to favor Boston, St. Louis’s pitching has been dominant to the point where those statistics may become obsolete. Adam Wainwright went a dominant 19-9 and pitchers Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, and Michael Wacha were all superb as well throughout the baseball season.

The collective energy of the Sox, however, has proven to overcome just about anything this season. Grizzled veterans growing beards have forged a relentless bond of unity and determination. Boston seemed eager from the get-go to prove itself after an abysmal 69-93 campaign last season and, while they were the only team in baseball to score over 800 runs this year, their heart and will may render these numbers useless.

The Cardinals were just about as dominant offensively and their pitching remained consistent, yet like they always say, once you enter the playoffs, it is not necessarily the best, but the hottest team that will take the title.

Both teams have faced somewhat difficult roads to the World Series. The Red Sox took care of the Rays fairly easily, winning the series 3-1, yet faced a roaring Tigers team that nearly took them to the brink. If it were not for Shane Victorino’s clutch grand slam in the seventh inning of game 6, the Sox would have had to face a rejuvenated Justin Verlander in game 7. Despite his slightly off season, it is fair to say that Verlander can still be considered one of the most feared pitchers in the game today.  With the Red Sox, the case this postseason has not necessarily been how well they were hitting throughout the series, but instead when they got their hits. While Jacoby Ellsbury has been nothing short of terrific, the rest of the team has been batting under .260. It has been clutch hits that have won the Sox many of their games. In game 2 it was who else but David Ortiz who smacked a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 5 and help even the series at 1-1 before going off to Detroit. Mike Napoli then provided a key solo home run to propel Boston to a 1-0 win in game 3. Aside from clutch hitting, the Red Sox bullpen has been unstoppable of late. Series MVP and closer Koji Uehara has been lights out and as Tigers manager Jim Leyland exclaimed “The way I would sum it up is that I thought their starters were good. I thought their bullpen was great.”

St. Louis has faced an equally as difficult road  in their journey to the championship. Beginning with their tight 5 game series with the Pirates, the Cards seemed as if they were in for a long and challenging post season. In similar fashion, they began the NLCS with a 13 inning win over the Dodgers.

After a stellar performance from youngster Michael Wacha in game 2, they were shut-out in game 3. Yet after the Dodgers managed to win game 5, the Cardinals made sure that they would be heading to the fall classic with a convincing 9-0 shutout win pitched by none other than rookie Michael Wacha. The Cardinals offense has been stagnant at times this postseason, coming through in bunches at times, yet also faltering completely in certain games. Yet like the Red Sox and their main man in October, David Ortiz, St. Louis has their own postseason monster. Carlos Beltran has made a living out of coming up big during playoff time. With the exception of his last at bat of 2006 (although to be fair that was the nastiest pitch of Adam Wainwright’s career), Beltran has solidified himself as one of the best and most clutch postseason hitters of his generation. His 13th inning single gave the Cardinals game 1 of the NLCS and helped set the tone for the entire series. Also, where Boston’s bullpen has been stellar, the Cardinals starters have been dominant.  Adam Wainwright has been as strong as ever, winning both starts against Pittsburgh. The real story so far, however, has been Michael Wacha, who is 3-0 with a disturbing 0.43 era this postseason. Against the Pirates in 7.1 innings pitched, he gave up one run.  Even more devastating, however was what he did to the Dodgers. In two games against Los Angeles, Wacha gave up 0 runs. In his first appearance, he out-dueled former Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw for a 1-0 victory. His second outing was far less stressful, however it was equally as impressive. He only seems to be getting better.

Judging by these two teams’ postseasons and the way they’ve played out so far, it is fair to say that this series will be hard-fought. It seems to be that the pitching match-ups will play a pivotal role in the outcome of this series.  Can anyone hit Michael Wacha?  Will Clay Buchholz return to form? Will lacking a DH in St. Louis and having Ortiz play first base effect Boston’s chances in any way? If the Red Sox can secure some early runs throughout the series, their bullpen should be able to carry them. Their clutch hitting as an x-factor will come up big in at least a couple of situations. Regardless of who wins, this will be a battle for both teams.  Based on a stranger I saw in Cooperstown this past Saturday, I say Red Sox in 7. However, I really have no idea. I’m just ready to watch.

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