Expectations for the first weekend of baseball's League Championship Series? They were, like Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter (left), quickly turned on their head.
The Red Sox came into the ALCS with far and away baseball's most powerful offense—they scored 853 runs during a regular season in which no other club topped 800. But through the first 14 2/3 innings against the Tigers, and strikeout-hungry starters Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, Boston squeezed out one hit. In 45 at bats. Twenty-seven of which ended in a strikeout. For a batting average, .022, that looks like a typo.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, had the misfortune of drawing righthander Zack Greinke and lefty Clayton Kershaw, the game's best one-two starting pitching punch, to begin their series against the Dodgers. With Adam Wainwright, their own ace, unavailable until Game 3, St. Louis was forced to counter with a couple of kids: 25-year-old Joe Kelly, who had 31 regular-season starts in his career, and 22-year-old rookie Michael Wacha, who had nine. Naturally, Kelly matched Greinke pitch for pitch, and Wacha (next page) did the same with Kershaw, and the Cardinals left St. Louis with a pair of one-run wins and an unlikely 2--0 series lead. "He was at, what, Texas A&M last year?" Wainwright would say of Wacha, marveling at the scoreless, 6 2/3-inning performance of St. Louis's 2012 first-round pick. "What in the world?"
That was a reasonable reaction to virtually everything that happened in baseball's final four, with two notable exceptions.
October 21, 2013
The first came from Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals' rightfielder is 36 and, though he is still awaiting his first World Series appearance, long ago established himself as one of history's great postseason hitters: In 39 games entering the Dodgers series he batted .345 with 16 home runs and 31 RBIs. He enhanced his October reputation further in Game 1, by driving in all three St. Louis runs, the final one with a game-winning single in the bottom of the 13th (left). The game went that long thanks to Beltran's perfect, run-denying throw from right in the top of the 10th, which cut down the Dodgers' Mark Ellis trying to score on a fly ball. Said Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, "The legend grows."
Another one grew on Sunday night in Boston: the legend of Big Papi. Down 1--0 in the series and 5--1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Red Sox finally started hitting against a parade of Detroit relievers. Will Middlebrooks doubled to left off righthander Jose Veras; then Jacoby Ellsbury walked against lefthander Drew Smyly; then Dustin Pedroia singled off righty Al Alburquerque. Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers' closer, came in to face David Ortiz—who, like Beltran, is (at 37) his club's senior hitter and has a lengthy history of postseason heroics. Ortiz pulled Benoit's first pitch, a changeup, deep to right. Hunter did his best to catch it as he tumbled into the Red Sox bullpen—"I'd die on the field for this," he later said—but ended up with an empty glove and an abraded scalp, and as the costar, with a Boston cop named Steve Horgan, of a photo that within seconds became a viral classic. Hunter's desperately flailing legs and Horgan's triumphantly raised arms seemed, from some angles, to combine to form a W, for win, which was what Ortiz's grand slam and Jarrod Saltalamacchia's subsequent ninth-inning RBI single gave to Boston. It might also have stood for wild, which is what the League Championship Series had so far been—and they were only just beginning.