There a zillion different ways for the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2013 World Series, but trusting each step in this guide would put them in the best position to knock off the Boston Red Sox.
It will take a mix of strategy and plain ol' execution to exact revenge on the Sox after being swept by them in 2004. The Rally Squirrel is also an essential piece of the equation.
If the Cards do wind up as MLB champions, it will likely be because they took advantage of particular matchups with the following suggestions.
1. Get Allen Craig back in the lineup
For Games 1 and 2 of the Fall Classic, manager Mike Matheny will be grateful for American League rules. They'll allow him to insert Allen Craig back into the starting lineup alongside all the other reputable Cardinals batters.
As Bleacher Report's Jason Catania explained, the Cardinals' leading run producer from the regular season ought to be a lot more intimidating than soft-hitting Shane Robinson or Daniel Descalso. Matheny would likely choice his DH from that pair if Craig weren't arriving the end of his comeback trail.
The 29-year-old's dominance with runners in scoring position led the team to an MLB-best .330/.402/.463 batting line in such situations.
However, the once-elite offense has been barely recognizable in the playoffs. Four times during the NLDS and NLCS, St. Louis was limited to four hits or fewer. The club limped past the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers with a .610 OPS.
Even at less than full strength, Craig will bolster the roster. He'll instantly become the No. 1 weapon off a terrible Cardinals bench once the series shifts to Busch Stadium. St. Louis pinch hitters have gone only 2-for-15 at the plate in October, a figure Craig could certainly improve.
2. Don't push Adam Wainwright too deep
St. Louis will open the World Series five days after finishing off the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, which means all the bullpen arms will be fully rested.
Depending on what Adam Wainwright's body language is telling Matheny during the middle innings of Game 1, the skipper shouldn't hesitate to make a change.
Granted, the veteran right-hander has been fantastic over the past month-and-a-half. Waino boasts a 1.71 earned run average in eight starts dating back to early September, and his stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio has held steady.
Nonetheless, 264.2 total innings is uncharted territory for him. Actually, it's insane by almost anybody's standards.
|Most Innings Pitched in a Year, 2004-2013|
|Pitcher||Year||Total Innings (Regular Season and Postseason)|
You'll notice that most pitchers on this list began deteriorating in their mid-30s (Justin Verlander isn't quite there yet). Wainwright is signed to a lucrative contract for the next five seasons, so the Cardinals won't be thrilled if he follows that same path.
But there's also the question of whether leaving their workhorse in the game for the later innings gives the Cards their best chance to win.
|Adam Wainwright: Times Facing Opponent in Game, 2013|
|Times Faced||Batting Average Against||OPS Against|
Although Waino occasionally cruises from start to finish, he's also prone to minor implosions. Even coughing up a couple of runs in Game 1 or 5 of this series could doom the team against Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester and Boston's lights-out, late-inning relief.
Matheny has to have the courage to make an early switch if the 32-year-old is flirting with disaster.
3. Throw first-pitch strikes to Jacoby Ellsbury
Ideally, the Cardinals will uncover a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement that makes Jacoby Ellsbury a free agent immediately. That way, he'll go out and search for his $100 million contract instead of wreaking havoc in the World Series.
Assuming that doesn't happen, they'll actually need to prepare for this speed demon.
The 30-year-old center fielder has been the best player for the Red Sox in the postseason, batting .400/.467/.525 with six stolen bases and 10 runs scored. Because St. Louis cannot prevent Ellsbury from tracking down balls in the outfield, the club must focus on minimizing his offensive impact.
That means regularly getting ahead in the count.
By throwing first-pitch strikes, you slice his odds of walking in half. During the season, he drew 31 free passes in 270 plate appearances when ahead 1-0 compared to only 16 in 297 situations when he fell behind. Keeping the MLB steals leader off base is so important because he's one of the few players who can succeed against Yadier Molina's throwing arm.
Ellsbury is generally patient, as he has swung at only 45.5 percent of pitches this year and 43.8 percent in his major league career. However, he might not be able to resist a Wainwright curveball or a Michael Wacha changeup if forced into a lousy count.
4. Embrace small ball later in the series
Red Sox skipper John Farrell plans to use David Ortiz at first base for some portion of Games 3-5 (h/t ESPNBoston.com), and the Cards better use that matchup to their advantage. Big Papi has 250 career starts at the position during the regular season but only 25 since 2008.
To be fair, he sometimes has himself a clean day, like this one from 2012:
With that said, it's likely the 37-year-old's glacial running speed and laughable lack of range will lead to him faltering on one or more makeable plays.
With Ortiz out of his comfort zone, St. Louis should encourage struggling batters like Jon Jay and Pete Kozma to mess with the infield defense. This could mean bunts to the right side that test Ortiz's athleticism and situational intelligence or grounders the other way that force Xander Bogaerts and Stephen Drew to connect with an inflexible target.
We noticed from the early playoff rounds that the Red Birds were frustratingly inconsistent when they blindly put balls in play. Just another reason to buy into this strategy.
5. Bring in power arms early and often
The Red Sox offense ranked atop the sport in numerous categories this summer. Farrell's team is powerful, disciplined and situationally sound.
Thankfully for St. Louis, the American League Championship Series revealed their kryptonite: power pitching.
The opposing Detroit Tigers set an all-time record by racking up 73 strikeouts in a single postseason series (and it took them only six games to do it). There was a dry spell during which Boston had three hits in 16 innings.
Although the Cards starting rotation doesn't feature swing-and-miss masters like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the pitching staff as a whole certainly does. Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal all possess that kind of ability out of the pen.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, typical 2013 batters produced at only 86 percent of their usual OPS against power pitching (see tOPS+). Boston's guys were all the way down to 74 percent this season.
Feel free, Mr. Matheny, to ride your starters for awhile if they have healthy leads, but remember to exploit your opponent's not-so-secret weakness whenever the outcome is in doubt.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He’s hoping to deepen relationships with his fantastic online audience (that means you) via Twitter.