World Series preview: Cardinals have just enough to beat Red Sox

Monday October 21st, 2013

NLCS MVP Michael Wacha will be looking to help St. Louis to its third title in eight seasons.
David E.Klutho/SI

The American League champion Red Sox and the National League champion Cardinals, a pair of 97-win juggernauts, are no strangers to World Series meetings. Boston swept St. Louis in 2004, though the Redbirds beat the Red Sox in seven games in both 1946 and '67. They oppose each other for the fourth time beginning Wednesday at Fenway Park.

Player To Watch: Michael Wacha, Cardinals, RHP

No one has pitched better than Wacha in the last month, as the rookie 22-year-old has taken the NL by storm. A first-round pick out of Texas A&M just last year, he now gets to contend with an AL lineup that scored nearly 60 more runs than any other offense in baseball.

Over his last four starts, Wacha has thrown 29 2/3 innings and allowed just one earned run for a cool 0.30 ERA to go along with his .093 average against. (That's nine hits in 97 at bats.) With a roughly even groundball-to-flyball ratio, he's been especially effective in pitcher-friendly ballparks, sporting a 1.66 ERA in nearly 60 innings pitching at Busch Stadium and making quality starts at Citi Field and PNC Park. If he starts Games 2 and 6, however, he'll pitch in hitter-friendly Fenway Park both times.

Key Matchup: St. Louis' righthanded rotation vs. Boston's lineup

No team hit righthanded pitching better in the regular season than the Red Sox -- their .818 team OPS against righties was the best in majors by 30 points -- and all four Cardinals starters are righthanded: ace Adam Wainwright, Wacha, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn. Most of St. Louis' top relievers are also righthanded, with only Kevin Siegrist and LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) Randy Choate the exceptions. In fact, lefthanders threw just 15 percent of the Cardinals' regular-season innings and have logged only 5 percent of their postseason innings.

This was also Boston's key matchup in the ALCS as the Tigers similarly sported an all-righty rotation, and it's one the Red Sox unequivocally lost. Detroit's starters held Boston's hitters to a .189/.275/.287 batting line with a postseason series-record 55 strikeouts. The Sox survived by feasting on the Tigers' bullpen, but that task will be tougher against St. Louis' relievers, led by hard-throwing Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal.

JAFFE: Six first-impressions about the 2013 World Series

Stat To Know: .354 OPS

Honestly, any Uehara stat from this year is mind-boggling, but his dominance of lefthanded batters is especially noteworthy. Thanks to a devastating splitter, he's held them to that .354 OPS in the regular season and playoffs, which is less than half of the typical production by lefty hitters this season (.722 OPS). This is especially pertinent against the top of the Cardinals' order where Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran and Matt Adams have gone lefty-switch-lefty in the 1-2-4 spots of St. Louis' playoff lineup, and another lefty, Jon Jay, hits sixth. (The return of Allen Craig, discussed below, could make it 1-2-5, but the general point remains. Also, don't think No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday will get off easy; Uehara has also dominated righthanded batters, though not as severely, holding them to a .459 OPS.)

Uehara has allowed only two home runs allowed to lefthanded batters in 150 plate appearances this season (though one of those two was the game-winner off the bat of Tampa Bay's Jose Lobaton in ALDS Game 3). The Cardinals were the majors' least home-run dependent team this season, scoring only 26.05 percent of their runs via the longball according to Baseball Prospectus, but led the majors in hitting with runners in scoring position. Their .330 average and .865 OPS in those situations far exceeded second-place Detroit's .282 and .806.

Complete postseason schedule: Start times, TV listings, recaps, analysis

Uehara, meanwhile, held opposing hitters to a .135 average and .399 OPS with runners in scoring position, which could help defuse Cardinals rallies. Boston manager John Farrell has shown a willingness to let Uehara get crucial outs in the eighth inning, as the righthander already has three postseason saves of at least four outs. In those eighth innings, Uehara may enter with men on base -- he has stranded all three runners he has inherited this month -- which increases the likelihood he'll have to face the top of the order in either the eighth or the ninth. (Statistically, it's more likely to happen in the eighth inning.)

Of course, Boston needs to get to the eighth inning with a lead, which could be a challenge with its rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy having completed the sixth inning in only four of the team's 10 postseason games.

Roster Snapshot: Red Sox' first base decision in St. Louis

It's a dilemma that has baffled AL teams for decades: What to do with the DH in an NL ballpark? It's especially pressing for Boston because its DH, David Ortiz, is also its best hitter. Complicating matters is that Ortiz is relegated to first base when he does take the field, as he did for 39 interleague innings this season, and the Red Sox' most productive hitter in the ALCS, Mike Napoli, is their first baseman.

Napoli batted went 6-for-20 (.300) with two doubles and two home runs against Detroit. Ortiz was only 2-for-22, though one of those hits was the series-changing grand slam in ALCS Game 2. The platoon advantage favors the lefthanded-hitting Ortiz against the Cardinals' predominantly righthanded pitching staff, but Napoli has exceeded expectations as an above-average first baseman this year while Ortiz hasn't logged more than two complete games at first since 2005.

Ortiz, however, is Ortiz, Boston's superstar and longtime postseason hero, so the guess here is that he gets two of the three starts at first in St. Louis. But the Red Sox should be especially appreciative of the AL's winning effort in the All-Star Game so they don't have to make this decision for four games.

X-factor: Allen Craig, Cardinals

After missing the past six weeks with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot, Craig seems ready to rejoin the active roster for the World Series. Craig had a robust .315/.373/.457 batting line this season and led the majors with a .454 average with runners in scoring position (59-for-130).

The ability of Craig, a first baseman/outfielder, to play in the field remains uncertain, but his bat could have value as both a designated hitter at Fenway Park and as a pinch hitter at Busch Stadium. Even if he doesn't enter a game, Craig can have a late-innings impact because he poses a credible righthanded-hitting threat off St. Louis' bench who might make Boston manager John Farrell think twice about summoning a lefty reliever to face a lefthanded batter such as Matt Adams and Jon Jay -- both of whom have struggled against same-side pitchers this season.

Prediction: Cardinals in 7

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