The Boston Red Sox are American League champions for the third time in 10 years and there isn't a statistic in the world that could put a damper on their celebration. "Scoreboard", as they say in the sports world, is all that matters right now.
But once the smoke clears and Boston's focus turns to the World Series, their recent struggles at the plate have to be a concern as they get ready to face a St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff led by ace Adam Wainwright (1.57 ERA, 23 IP, 4 ER, 17 H, BB, 20 K in three postseason starts) and NLCS MVP Michael Wacha (0.43 ERA, 21 IP, ER, 8 H, 4 BB, 22 K), who are in line to start two games each in the best-of-seven series.
After posting an .803 OPS and scoring 26 runs in four games during their ALDS victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Sox's bats were cooled off by the Tigers starters. In the six game series, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister combined on a 2.06 ERA and 55 strikeouts while allowing 27 hits and 15 walks in 39.1 innings pitched.
Great teams find a way to win, though, even when they are overmatched in one facet of the game. And that's exactly what the Sox did.
Aside from Game 4, when the Tigers jumped on Jake Peavy for seven runs in three innings pitched, the Sox were either ahead or within striking distance after knocking the starting pitcher out of the game. Only Verlander made it through eight innings. In both of Scherzer's starts—Game 2 and Game 6—he left with a lead and his bullpen blew the advantage each time.
This turned out to be the difference in the series.
In Game 2, Scherzer left with a 5-1 lead after seven innings. An inning later, closer Joaquin Benoit allowed a game-tying grand slam to David Ortiz after three different relievers had allowed a runner to reach base in the eighth. A fourth reliever, Rick Porcello, gave up a walk-off single in the ninth as the Sox completed the come-from-behind win.
After leaving with a 2-1 lead and two runners on base in the seventh inning of Saturday's game, it was the Tigers defense that let Scherzer down. With Drew Smyly on the mound to face Jacoby Ellsbury, shortstop Jose Iglesias' fielding error allowed the Red Sox to load the bases. Jose Veras entered the game and allowed this go-ahead grand slam to Shane Victorino.
In case you're wondering, the two biggest hits in the series came from a pair of players who combined to go 5-for-46. It wasn't exactly an offensive explosion for the Sox in the ALCS.
So is it possible for the Sox to win it all if their offense hits .202 with over 11 strikeouts per game, as they did against Detroit? Sure. But it's not as likely.
The Cardinals bullpen may be young but they've gotten the job done all year and aren't as likely as Detroit's relief corps to have a meltdown. Closer Trevor Rosenthal (pictured) hasn't allowed a run in seven innings this postseason while fellow rookies Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist have combined to give up just three earned runs in 12 innings. None have allowed a homer in the playoffs.
Veteran lefty Randy Choate hasn't allowed a hit in 2.2 innings and mid-season acquisition John Axford has also pitched well with one run allowed in 3.1 innings.
Martinez, 22, and Rosenthal, 23, in particular, are turning into quite a dominant force in the eighth and ninth innings. Both are former top starting pitching prospects, but they've made their marks in the majors as relievers. Armed with plus fastballs and nasty secondary pitches, neither is much fun to face late in a ballgame.
And it could be especially tough for a team that's never faced either pitcher. Only Victorino has logged an at-bat against Rosenthal.
If the Red Sox are going to get going, they'll have a chance against the St. Louis' likely Game 3 and 4 starters, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn, who haven't been terrible but have combined to allow 15 earned runs in 28 innings over five postseason starts.
They're much more hittable than Wainwright and Wacha, as well as Detroit's quartet. And unless the Cards plan on starting Wainwright on three days rest so he could possibly pitch three games in the series, one of them would likely pitch a deciding Game 7, if necessary.
So there is a very good chance the Sox offense has at least one or two big games in them. A World Series title in Boston isn't happening, though, unless they can beat Wainwright or Wacha at least one time and probably more than that. And it's not likely they'll have a big offensive outburst against either.
Great pitching usually shuts down good hitting. The dominant offense could return against the likes of Kelly and/or Lynn. But the road to the championship will need to include a combination of strong pitching performances, smart base running, steady defense and timely hitting.
All you have to do is take one glance up and down the Red Sox's deep and talented roster to know that they're perfectly capable of doing this four times over the next seven games.