With the Cardinals and the Red Sox both wrapping up their respective League Championship Series this weekend, the World Series matchup is now set. Game 1 doesn't take place until Wednesday, but here are a half-dozen first impressions regarding this particular pairing.
1. This is a matchup between the majors' two best teams, which is exceedingly rare
In terms of both wins (97 apiece) and run differential (+197 for the Red Sox, +187 for the Cardinals) Boston and St. Louis were the best teams in major league baseball in 2013. If you think that the multi-tiered playoff format appears designed to prevent such an occurrence via its short-series mayhem, history is on your side. Only twice during the Wild Card Era -- in 1995, when the Indians met the Braves in the first year of the three-tiered format, and in 1999, when the Yankees played the Braves -- has the team with the best record in each league squared off in the World Series. Not since 2007, when the Red Sox faced the Rockies, have the two leagues' top teams in terms of run differential met in the Fall Classic, and even then, there were two AL teams with differentials better than that of Colorado.
The last time the teams with the two best run differentials in all of baseball faced each other in the World Series was 2004, with these very two clubs; the Cardinals (+196) were swept by the Red Sox (+181). To find the last time that the top two teams in terms of both wins and run differential met in the World Series, you have to go all the way back to 1979, when the Orioles (102 wins, +175 runs) fell to the Pirates (98 wins, +132 runs) in seven games.
2. History is repeating itself
Given that the Cardinals are tied for second among all franchises with 19 pennants and that the Red Sox are fifth with 12, it's no surprise that the two teams have met before in the World Series -- and they've produced some classics.
As I noted earlier this week, theses two teams have opposed one another three times. The Cardinals won a seven-game squeaker in 1946, when Enos Slaughter dashed home from first base in the eighth inning of Game 7 for the deciding run. That series featured each franchise's most iconic player, Stan Musial for St. Louis and Ted Williams (in his only Series appearance) for Boston.
The Cardinals won again in 1967, when Bob Gibson's three complete-game victories with three runs allowed overcame Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski's monster series (.400/.500/.840 with three homers); that was the year of the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream," as they climbed from a 72-win, ninth-place finish the year before.
On the heels of their unprecedented comeback from a 3-games-to-0 deficit in the ALCS against the Yankees, the Sox won in 2004, sweeping St. Louis for their first championship since 1918.
3. Three in a decade
Whichever team wins this World Series will become just the third one to win three World Series in a 10-year span since the dawn of the Expansion Era in 1961. The 1996-2000 Yankees, who won four times in a five-season span, and the 1972-1974 A's, who won in three straight years, are the other two (the 1961 and '62 Yankees had won three other titles in the previous decade).
Of course, these two teams' championships have been more spread out, with Boston winning in 2004 and 2007, and St. Louis doing so in 2006 and 2011. You can't exactly call either a dynasty by the common standard, but both have been under the same ownership groups during these runs, and each has a common thread from all of those titles who are still active in the Red Sox' David Ortiz and the Cardinals' Yadier Molina.
4. Managerial legacies
Each of these team's managers is attempting to step out of the spotlight of a more famous predecessor to whom they're tied. Boston manager John Farrell served as pitching coach under Terry Francona from 2007-2010. Francona, who managed the Red Sox from 2004 through 2011, was at the helm for both of Boston's recent Series victories, making him the only manager in franchise history besides Bill Carrigan (who won in 1915 and 1916) to win it all more than once; he took the Sox to the playoffs five times during his reign. This is Farrell's first year as manager of the Red Sox; he piloted the Blue Jays in 2011 and 2012 before returning to replace Bobby Valentine this past winter.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny played for predecessor Tony La Russa from 2000-2004; he was the starting catcher ahead of Molina the last time these two teams met in the World Series. La Russa managed St. Louis from 1996 through 2011, leading them to nine playoff appearances, three pennants and two championships; he's the only manager besides Hall of Famer Billy Southworth (1942 and 1944) to win multiple championships with the Cardinals, and his 2,591 games, 1,408 wins and 1,182 losses are all franchise records. Matheny is in his second year as St. Louis' manager. He led the Cards within one game of the World Series last year, but they blew a 3-games-to-1 NLCS lead to the Giants.
5. Carlos Beltran's first World Series
Beltran has put up an eye-popping .337/.449/.724 line with 16 homers in 198 postseason plate appearances during his career. Six of his homers have given his teams the lead, which is tied for sixth all-time (Albert Pujols is first with nine), and both his slugging percentage and his 1.173 OPS rank third among players with at least 100 postseason plate appearances behind Babe Ruth (.744 and 1.211) and Lou Gehrig (.731 and 1.208).
Still, he has never before played in the World Series, having fallen short in three previous League Championship Series (2004 with the Astros, 2006 with the Mets, 2012 with the Cardinals). He's been right in the middle of so much action thus far; though this fall's .256/.383/.538 line isn't as impressive as his overall body of work in October, his 12 RBIs lead all players, his six extra-base hits are tied for the first with Hanley Ramirez and A.J. Ellis and his eight walks are tied for the most with Ortiz.
6. The return of Allen Craig
Though he hasn't played since Sept. 4 due to a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot, Allen Craig appears likely to be activated for the World Series. Despite playing in just 134 games, the 28-year-old first baseman led the Cardinals in RBIs with 97 while hitting .315/.373/.457; he hit an insane .454/.500/.638 in 152 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. With Matt Adams holding down the fort at first base, Craig would likely be limited to DH duty when the series is in Boston (Games 1 and 2, and, if necessary, 6 and 7) and pinch-hitting duty when it's in St. Louis (Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5). Given the weakness of the Cardinals' bench, that's still huge. Craig was a difference-maker in the 2011 World Series against the Rangers, hitting .263/.417/.737 with three homers in 25 PA; two of those homers came in Games 6 and 7, and the latter put St. Louis ahead to stay.
Craig, a righthanded batter, hit better against righties than lefties this year, but owns a career .302/.336/.549 line against lefties, which is particularly significant because his team as a whole has struggled against them (.238/.301/.371 in the regular season). It will be interesting to see whether Farrell attempts to neutralize Craig's presence by holding lefty Jon Lester back until Game 3 (when Craig would have to come off the bench) instead of starting him in the series opener, as he did in the Division and League Championship Series.NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the inclusion of the 1999 Yankees and Braves in the best records category.