ST. LOUIS — Seven-plus months since Opening Day, baseball is down to two teams. For once, it’s not only the two hottest teams that will meet in the World Series, but the two best.
The Cardinals and the Red Sox both won 97 games and finished with the best record in their respective leagues.
The Red Sox led the AL in scoring; the Cardinals led the NL. (Neither offense, however, has come close to its regular-season numbers in the postseason. The Red Sox hit .202 in the ALCS, the Cardinals .211 in the NLCS.)
Both clubs have plenty of pitching. The Red Sox’s rotation is more experienced; the Cardinals have the edge in stuff.
Both teams pride themselves on their cohesion and playing the game the right way. Those who have watched them play say this is more than just talk, too.
When two clubs as evenly matched as these meet in a best-of-seven, something has to give. Here are three possibilities that could go a long way in determining the champion:
Will the Red Sox try to run on Yadier Molina?
Red Sox leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury led the majors with 52 stolen bases and was thrown out only four times. When he was caught by Alex Avila in the Red Sox’s clincher Saturday night, it ended a streak of 16 successful swipes.
Now Ellsbury will be running into an even bigger challenge — Molina. Since Molina took over as everyday catcher in 2005, he has caught in 1,144 games and allowed 285 stolen bases. Only one other catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, has caught that many games. In the same number of games caught, coincidentally, Pierzynski has been stolen on 720 times, or 435 more than Molina.
Because the Red Sox haven’t been hitting that well in the postseason, their running game becomes more important. Through the regular season, they did not waste their opportunities. Boston’s 86.6 percent success rate on stolen bases was the best ever in the AL.
As efficient as they have been on the bases, you can be sure they will pick their moments to run very carefully with Molina behind the plate.
Will Red Sox hitters try to wait out Cardinals pitchers?
The Red Sox are famous for their discipline at the plate. Their hitters swung at fewer pitches than any team in the majors. The Cardinals’ pitching staff is stocked with strike throwers, most notably Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
So the Red Sox will have to decide how aggressive they want to be. Take the first pitch against St. Louis and they’re more likely than not to be in an 0-1 hole. Wacha, especially, likes to come right at hitters. His typical response whenever he’s asked about his game plan is, “I just want to attack the zone.”
The Cardinals’ power arms could diminish Boston’s production, too. Against the Rays, the one AL team to feature as many power arms as St. Louis, the Red Sox hit only .208, by far their lowest batting average against any opponent.
Who will sit in St. Louis?
While the return of Allen Craig will give the Cardinals a lift by providing a capable DH for the games in Boston, the Red Sox’s lineup will be handicapped by the lack of a DH for Games 3-5 in St. Louis.
One of Boston’s middle-of-the-order bats, David Ortiz or Mike Napoli, figures to be reduced to one pinch-hit appearance for the games at Busch. Because the Cardinals don’t have any lefty starters, Ortiz would seem the more likely choice to be in the lineup for the games in St. Louis. The right-handed hitting Napoli fares much better against lefty pitchers.
Though Ortiz has served mainly as a DH for years, he played six games at first during interleague play this season and did not embarrass himself.
There is, however, another factor to consider. Napoli is a much hotter hitter. He went 6 for 12 with two homers in Games 3-5 of the ALCS before an 0 for 4 in the clincher. Ortiz finished the ALCS 2 for 22, though one of the hits was a grand slam that decided Game 2.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.