Baseball's playoffs are the great equalizer. The team that wins isn't always the best team; rather, it's the team that gets the biggest contributions from the most unlikely places that advances to the next round of the postseason.
That hasn't necessarily been the case in 2013, as the argument could be made that the two best teams in the game—the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals—are exactly where they're supposed to be, playing for the sport's ultimate prize: a World Series championship.
While we often think of X-factors as only being players who seemingly come out of nowhere to perform at an incredibly high level, that's simply not always true. Established veterans who have struggled at the plate or on the mound and players returning from injury can also be classified as X-factors—and the 2013 World Series is full of players that fit all three descriptions.
Let's take a look at 10 players—five from each team—who could ultimately be the difference makers when the Red Sox and the Cardinals meet in the Fall Classic for the fourth time in their storied histories.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
While Jon Jay didn't quite have the offensive numbers during the regular season that he did a year ago, the 28-year-old center fielder was a productive member of the St. Louis offense, hitting .276 with a .721 OPS. In the process, he set career highs in hits (151), doubles (27), RBI (67) and runs scored (75).
It was that offensive production that allowed skipper Mike Matheny to look past Jay's shortcomings with the glove. According to FanGraphs, Jay ranked 17th out of 19 qualified center fielders in UZR/150 (minus-7.5) and 18th when it came to defensive runs saved with a minus-10 mark.
But Jay's bat has disappeared in the playoffs, as he is hitting only .206 (7-for-34) with a .488 OPS. His defense remains suspect, so much so that Matheny had no choice but to bench him in favor of Shane Robinson—a career fourth outfielder—in the crucial Game 6 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Even with his struggles, Jay is likely to remain the starter in center field, and some production—any production—from him at the plate could swing things in the Redbirds' favor.
One of the best prospects in baseball, Xander Bogaerts' first taste of the big leagues was nothing special, as the 21-year-old hit .250 with three extra-base hits, five RBI and one stolen base in 18 games down the stretch for the Red Sox.
He was only used as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner in the ALDS against Tampa Bay, drawing a pair of walks and scoring three runs, but we had yet to see what all the fuss was about his bat, which has long been touted as his greatest asset.
That all began to change against Detroit in the ALCS, as Bogaerts replaced Will Middlebrooks at third base in the sixth inning of Game 4 and hasn't looked back, hitting .600 (3-for-5) with three doubles, three walks and four runs scored.
He's been solid defensively as well, and while Middlebrooks may have more power than Bogaerts does at this point in their respective careers, there's little doubt that the rookie is mature enough beyond his years to make a significant impact in the Fall Classic.
Things haven't gone according to plan for David Freese in the playoffs, as the former NLCS and World Series MVP has gone 7-for-37 (.189) while once again battling an injury to his right leg. This time, he has been dealing with a calf issue that forced him out of Games 3 and 4 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers early.
While his lack of production is troubling, it's his health that really has to concern the Cardinals. Without moving Matt Carpenter off of second base, the only real option the team has is Daniel Descalso, and he's most valuable as a utility player off the bench.
It's unrealistic to expect Freese to repeat his 2011 postseason performance, when he hit .397 with a 1.258 OPS and record-setting 21 RBI, but if he can produce to last year's playoff numbers, when he hit .277 with a .774 OPS, it could give the Cardinals offense the boost that it needs.
Jake Peavy was apologetic after his performance in Game 4 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, when he allowed seven earned runs over only three innings of work, as he explained to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe:
It was tough. I felt like I let the boys down. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I just couldn’t make that big pitch. It was about damage control and when I created the mess, I couldn’t limit the damage. We saw it can escalate and get out of hand. No excuses. It’s on me. I can promise you, we’ll be back tomorrow as a ball club.
While the Red Sox bounced back, can Peavy do the same?
He's made four playoff starts over the course of his career, failing to go six innings in any of them. Even worse, he's allowed fewer than five earned runs only once, in his Game 4 outing against the Tampa Bay Rays in this year's ALDS, when he held them to one earned run over 5.2 innings.
If there's reason for optimism, however, it's Peavy's career numbers at Busch Stadium, the site of Game 4 in the World Series this year. He's pitched to a 2.25 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in three starts, striking out 18 batters in 20 innings.
Of course, he hasn't faced the Cardinals since 2008, when he was with the San Diego Padres.
Michael Wacha has allowed one earned run and eight hits in 21 postseason innings, walking four and striking out 22.
In his first postseason start against Pittsburgh in Game 4 of the NLDS, he had a perfect game heading into the bottom of the sixth inning and a no-hitter heading into the bottom of the eighth. Making his second start of the NLCS against Los Angeles in Game 6, he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning.
With only 64.2 major league innings under his belt heading into the playoffs, Wacha's dominance has been nothing short of incredible, and he was rewarded with the MVP award for his performance against the Dodgers in the NLCS.
But can he keep this up?
It's not a question of Wacha's talent but rather a question of experience. Can a 22-year-old pitcher—who was drafted a year ago and has fewer than 90 innings against major league lineups on his resume—shut down what was baseball's most dangerous offense during the regular season?
Keep in mind that the Cardinals haven't exactly been tearing the cover off of the ball when Wacha toes the rubber. With the exception of the team's 9-0 victory against the Dodgers to win the NLCS, the Cardinals have supported Wacha with a total of three runs in the playoffs.
It's certainly possible that Wacha keeps this up, shuts down the Red Sox in two starts and wins the World Series MVP award as well, following in the footsteps of teammate David Freese.
But it's also possible that Wacha comes back down to earth a bit, allowing three or four earned runs in a start. Can the Cardinals find success if he isn't superhuman?
While Dustin Pedroia has never been a terrific postseason performer—a career .252/.344/.461 slash line over 115 playoff at-bats heading into this season—the Red Sox certainly expected more than the .256 batting average and .619 OPS that they've gotten from their All-Star second baseman this October.
More troubling is that his ability to hit with runners in scoring position has all but disappeared. After hitting .312 in that situation during the regular season, he enters the World Series with only one hit in 15 at-bats, a woeful .067 average.
He may get overshadowed by teammates like David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury at times, but Pedroia is the key to Boston's offense. His subpar performance thus far has played a major role in the team's overall inability to put up the kind of numbers that we've come to expect from the Sox.
With Ellsbury swinging a hot bat and getting on base consistently ahead of him, Pedroia getting back to his usual level of production could tilt things in Boston's favor.
A 15-game winner during the regular season and a sure vote-getter in National League Rookie of the Year ballots, Shelby Miller has been all but invisible during the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The only member of the team's roster to not see action in the NLCS against Los Angeles, Miller hasn't been used since Game 2 of the NLDS against Pittsburgh, when he pitched one inning of relief and allowed a solo home run to Starling Marte in a 7-1 Pirates victory.
St. Louis insists that Miller is not injured and has no predetermined innings limit that he's in danger of exceeding. As manager Mike Matheny told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Miller's presence in the bullpen has given him some flexibility:
He allowed us to make some moves knowing that we have him there. He’s going to be a guy we’re going to use if we get into a situation where we’ve got a bunch of innings to eat up, whether it’s at the front end or back. He’s going to be our guy (if) we have to put things together.
Yet with neither Joe Kelly (4.41 ERA, 1.47 WHIP) nor Lance Lynn (5.40 ERA, 1.80 WHIP) lighting things up in the postseason, it's fair to wonder whether one of them might switch places with Miller, giving the 23-year-old a chance to start in the World Series.
While the Red Sox had used a platoon of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in left field for most of the regular season, manager John Farrell has primarily gone with Gomes in the playoffs, despite the veteran's struggles at the plate.
So far this postseason, the right-handed Gomes has gone 5-for-25 (.200) with two RBI, two walks and eight strikeouts, while the switch-hitting Nava has gone 3-for-11 (.273) with three walks and five strikeouts.
Farrell told the Providence Journal's Tim Britton that it's more a matter of a gut feeling than anything else:
We have a different feel and a different personality on the field when Jonny is in the lineup. Call that a hunch, call it whatever you might. That's what it boils down to. And it's not easy to leave that left-handed bat out of the lineup. ...
At this point in time, gut feel comes into it a little bit more than numbers will tell you on a stat sheet. The way players respond under these circumstances in this environment has got equal weight, if not more, than maybe what the numbers might indicate or drive you to make a decision over the course of a regular season game or over 162. This is a different environment. And I think that's why we've got to remain in tune with how guys are responding in those key moments, pressure packed moments.
While Gomes has had his moments, such as when he threw out Miguel Cabrera at home plate in Game 5 of the ALCS, it's not as if he's come through at the plate in the clutch, hitting only .200 (1-for-6) with runners in scoring position, down from the .346 mark that he posted during the regular season.
Still, it seems as though the veteran will continue to get the bulk of the playing time in left field. If he can get hot, he has enough power to change the outcome of a game with one swing.
Out of action since Sept. 4 due to a foot injury, Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig is finally healthy enough to occupy a spot on the team's roster in the World Series. He is likely to be the team's designated hitter when the Fall Classic gets underway Wednesday, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Craig, an under-the-radar candidate for NL MVP before the injury, was one of the Cardinals' most consistent bats during the regular season, hitting .315 with an .830 OPS, 13 home runs and a team-leading 97 RBI. More importantly, Craig led all of baseball when it came to hitting with runners in scoring position, hitting .454 with an OPS of 1.138, strengthening an area the Cardinals improved in during the NLCS.
But can he play the field when the series shifts to St. Louis for Games 3, 4 and, if needed, 5?
Or will Matt Adams, who's hitting .268 with a .724 OPS, three extra-base hits and four RBI in 11 playoff games, remain the team's starter at first base?
Either way, manager Mike Matheny will have another option on the bench in the World Series, whether it is Adams or Craig, though it's fair to wonder just how rusty Craig will be after missing more than a month of action—and how long it will take for him to get back into the swing of things.
Shane Victorino leads the Red Sox with eight RBI in the playoffs—including four of them on one dramatic, ALCS-clinching swing—and has raised the level of his play with runners in scoring position, going 7-for-15 (.467), a hefty jump from his .315 average with RISP during the regular season.
But when there's nobody in scoring position, Victorino has been as close to an automatic out as they come in the playoffs, going 2-for-23 (.086). He's failed to draw a single walk and has struck out 12 times, numbers that don't exactly fill you with a warm, fuzzy feeling from any batter, much less one who hits second in the lineup ahead of the team's biggest bats.
While the Red Sox have proven that they can win without a major contribution from Victorino at the plate, doing so becomes far easier when their veteran right fielder is making contact and getting on base consistently.