With Major League Baseball's 8-team and now 10-team playoff format, it's actually become somewhat rare to see teams with the best regular season records reach the World Series. Fans of the 97-win St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox certainly aren't complaining.
Both teams found a way to fend off opponents and reach the 2013 World Series, which will be a rematch of the 2004 Fall Classic. This time around the series will be decided by four names: David Ortiz, Koji Uehara, Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran.
The clutch-performing role of David Ortiz hasn't changed one iota since 2004. To take home the hardware, Ortiz will have to do more than his 2-for-22 line in the ALCS. Ortiz will be playing defense from the dugout as usual in Game 1 at Fenway, but the real challenge comes when the Sox travel to St. Louis. Ortiz will likely play first base.
Ortiz is an adequate first baseman, "I've seen Big Papi play a lot," said Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes, via Danny Knobler, Baseball Insider for CBSSports.com "I mean, the guy can play first base. If you ask me, you can go #goldglove for Napoli, but Ortiz isn't bad there."
The main downfall is that the Red Sox will then have to pull Mike Napoli out of the lineup. Limiting his plate appearances, possibly disrupting his rhythm and removing protection in the batting order for Ortiz. Napoli has been a primary source of offense for the Red Sox hitting .300 with a pair of doubles and home runs in the ALCS.
Sitting Napoli is a hefty price to pay and that makes the production of Ortiz that much more important to the series. Farrell has left the door open saying Ortiz will get time over Napoli at first base, but not revealing the number of games he'll start according to Alex Speier of WEEI 93.7.
Ortiz and his clutch hitting have been a constant for the Red Sox since 2004, but the role of clutch pitching has seen many names. The latest of said names is ALCS MVP Koji Uehara. The 38-year-old Uehara isn't the typical overly animated gas-throwing closer, but he gets the job done with a fastball that sits around 90 mph.
To beat the Cardinals and the clutch hitting they always seem to find, Uehara will have to be the shutdown closer he was against Detroit. In the closer role one lapse or one bad pitch can lose a game making it a crucial position.
Uehara's deception and control should continue to work in his favor. The Red Sox players certainly aren't worried about Uehara, "Well, ‘invincible’ is not a word we use because we don’t ever like to take things for granted in this game, but you’ve got a lot of confidence in Koji, that’s for sure,” Red Sox Catcher David Ross said via Scott Lauber of The Boston Herald. “As a catcher, you’re just trying to get to the end of the game, and with a guy like that, you realize, if I can just get through the eighth with a lead, we’ve got it.”
One of the clutch hitters Uehara may have to face is Allen Craig, who sustained a foot injury on Sept. 4th. Before the injury Craig was the Cardinals' primary clean-up hitter and he racked up a solid .315 AVG / 13 HR / 97 RBI line.
Craig will likely be the DH in Boston and coming off the bench in St. Louis according to Anthony McCarron of New York Daily News. Craig does, however, boast a .454 clip with runners in scoring position. Production like that is sure to be a series changer. Luckily, Craig will have two games to prove his worth in Boston before moving back to St. Louis.
While Craig's clutch regular season hitting and valiant return to the lineup earn him a mention Carlos Beltran needs no such validation. Beltran is in the debate as the greatest postseason hitter ever. A great performance in his first World Series would certainly help solidify that claim and fuel the existing conversation. Here's what some analysts are already discussing:
To win a ring this year, Beltran will have to continue his clutch postseason hitting.
Thus far, Beltran has provided 12 RBI's for the Cardinals, who have 42 runs in the 2013 postseason. For the Cardinals to be successful Beltran will have to continue receiving high fives after RBIs as he's doing in the picture below.
If the Cardinals continue to rely on Beltran for over a quarter of their offense he'll have to produce in a big way. The switch hitting Beltran may have a tough time in the series with Jon Lester taking the hill as the Red Sox starter.
Beltran was a much better hitter from the left side (.315 AVG / .509 SLG / .871 OPS) than from the right side (.252 AVG / .448 SLG / .729 OPS). Lefties Lester and Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow will likely force Beltran to take a good portion of his cuts from the right side.
Beltran is, however 4-for-13 from the right side this postseason, but that's a pretty small sample. Plus, both of his home runs have come hitting left-handed. No matter which side Beltran is taking his hacks from he will have to continue to be a primary source of offense for the Cardinals to revenge their 2004 World Series defeat.
One way or another these four players will decide how this series will be won. Will it be decided by brilliant pitching and a few clutch hits? Will both teams find their offense? Who will gain the edge? It all remains to be seen, but one way or another these four players are at the heart of which way the series goes.
Each of these four players will likely be at the crux of their teams victory or failure. Newcomers like Xander Bogaerts and Matt Adams might be the heroes. Or pitching performances from Michael Wacha or Jon Lester might steal the headlines. Ortiz, Uehara, Craig and Beltran are necessary pieces to their respective teams, will have opportunities to perform in the clutch and will be the deciding factors in the outcome of the 2013 World Series.