The improbable is four victories away from reality. After a dreadful 2012 season, the Boston Red Sox rebounded to win 97 regular-season games, captured the ALDS over Tampa Bay and ousted Detroit in the ALCS. Now, they'll meet an equally excellent St. Louis Cardinals group in the 2013 World Series.
With apologies to the entire AL East gauntlet, Tampa Bay and Detroit, the Cardinals will represent the stiffest test of 2013 for this Red Sox team. In order to win four of seven games against the National League champs, Boston will have to play their best baseball of the season.
In a series that looks destined for a storybook finish, here is a step-by-step guide for the Red Sox to finish their worst-to-first ride with a World Series parade in Boston.
1. Win one of the first two games in Fenway Park
At first glance, that key is strange to fathom. How can the best team in the American League, coming off a 53-28 record in Fenway Park during the regular season (4-1 thus far at home in October), be satisfied with a split in Boston?
Two reasons: Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
After giving credence to the thought process of Jon Lester and/or John Lackey matching the top two Cardinals starters over the first two games of the series, reality will set in for Red Sox fans: St. Louis is bringing the better pitchers to Fenway Park to start the series.
In 13.2 innings of work in the NLCS, the 22-year-old Wacha didn't allow a single run. Adam Wainwright has now pitched three straight games with at least seven innings pitched and one or zero earned runs allowed. As ESPN's Tim Kurkjian pointed out, only three pitchers (Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Christy Matthewson) topped that in a single postseason.
Despite losing the DH when the series shifts to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for Game 3, 4 and 5, Boston will have the starting pitching advantage. If Boston can split the first two against the dominant St. Louis starters, it will be a boon for their chances at a title.
2. Don't be afraid of playing David Ortiz at first base in St. Louis
The good news: David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, two of the most dangerous October hitters of recent memory, are both healthy and ready to roll in the World Series.
The bad news: When the series shifts to St. Louis, both can't be part of the starting lineup unless Boston manager John Farrell decides to play Napoli, a former catcher, behind the plate for the first time this season.
Don't expect that to happen, meaning Farrell will have to choose between his regular first baseman (Napoli) and his designated hitter (Ortiz) when writing out a lineup card for the middle games of this World Series.
Here's why Boston shouldn't be afraid of using Ortiz in the field, thus in his customary fourth spot in the lineup, in at least two of the three games in St. Louis: the 2013 interleague play schedule and St. Louis' right-handed starters.
First, the schedule. Unlike in previous years, interleague play extended throughout the season for all teams. During Boston's trips to NL parks this past summer, Ortiz saw action at first base in six games, including a series in Colorado during the final week of the regular season. Unlike the critical first base decision that plagued former Red Sox manager Terry Francona during the 2004 and 2007 World Series, it has not been long since Ortiz played first base. Furthermore, Boston's pitching staff is more prone to allowing fly balls than grounders. During the season, they ranked just 25th in GB-FB ratio (via Fangraphs), signaling that Ortiz's defensive limits can be hidden for a small, three-game sample.
Of course, if St. Louis featured a left-handed starter, the platoon might be easier for John Farrell to deploy. In Napoli's career, he has hit lefties better than righties (.908-.840 OPS). Similarly, Ortiz, the left-handed slugger, has fared better against righties (.980-.816) by a wide margin. The three projected starters for St. Louis during the games in Busch Stadium (Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright) are all right-handed.
When John Farrell writes out his lineup cards, David Ortiz over Mike Napoli is the correct decision.
3. Use a deep, versatile bench
When assessing the Red Sox 25-man roster, their bench depth stands out. Depending on how John Farrell writes up his lineup card on a given night, there is an abundance of power (Johnny Gomes, Will Middlebrooks), patience (Daniel Nava), athleticism (Xander Bogaerts) and speed (Quintin Berry).
Ironically, the rules of the American League and outstanding depth throughout Boston's everyday lineup has curtailed Farrell's ability to deploy his bench on a daily basis throughout the season. Outside of spot starts or occasional pinch hitting or running appearances, the American League game doesn't lend itself to a major impact from the bench unit on a game-by-game basis.
With the prospect of double switches and removing pitchers when their turn at-bat comes up, look for Farrell to use his bench depth early and often when the series shifts to St. Louis.
The pitching of Lester and offense of Ortiz and Pedroia will be paramount to Boston's success, but don't count out a major contribution from players entering the game in the sixth inning or later.
4. Play Xander Bogaerts over Will Middlebrooks
The future is now in Boston. After becoming the youngest Red Sox player (21) in history to record a postseason start, it's time for Bogaerts to be inserted as the starting third baseman, over Will Middlebrooks, for this World Series.
In total, Bogaerts has reached base in 8 of 11 plate appearances in this postseason. His one-out walk off Max Scherzer during the Red Sox game-winning rally on Saturday night was one of the best postseason at-bats you'll ever seen. To lay off the 3-2 offering from Scherzer showed more plate discipline in the biggest moment of the season than Middlebrooks showed all summer long.
As Joe Buck said on the Fox broadcast, it was "a pitch that barely missed."
It's hard to imagine Bogaerts not in Boston's opening day lineup in April of 2014, but it's even harder to imagine them winning this World Series without him in it right now.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted
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