St Louis Cardinals’ Allen Craig checks his elbow protection. BOSTON: The resurgent Red Sox will try to cap a worst-to-first season with a World Series win over talent-laden St Louis in a battle of baseball’s best teams that starts today.
The 109th World Series, which opens at Boston’s Fenway Park, is one for the purists. For the first time since 1999, the teams with the most wins in the American League and National League have made it through the playoffs to Major League Baseball’s Fall Classic.
Both Boston and St Louis posted 97 regular-season victories and both led their leagues in runs scored.
The Red Sox wrapped up the American League pennant with a six-game triumph over Detroit in the AL Championship Series, while the Cardinals downed the Dodgers in six games in the NLCS.
“I’ve faced the Cardinals a lot over the years and that’s one excellent baseball team,” Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino said. “We’re going to have to be at the top of our game.”
For the Red Sox, the entire season has been about rebounding from a dismal 2012 campaign that yielded only 69 victories and 93 defeats.
A roster makeover included the addition of Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes, with former pitching coach John Farrell returning to Boston as manager to guide the turnaround that the Red Sox say won’t be complete without a World Series triumph.
“We’ve got to win four more games,” right-handed hurler Clay Buchholz said.
“But the way this team jelled and meshed right away in spring training, obviously every team in Major League Baseball has a goal to make the World Series and the playoffs from the start.
“Everybody here just believed it, and the numbers this year, they speak for themselves. The way guys grinded out at-bats throughout the season, passing the torch to the next guy -- it’s what this team’s about.”
The Cardinals are back in the World Series for the fourth time in 10 seasons, but they too have had to put behind them the disappointment of 2012.
After lifting the title in 2011 they appeared headed back to the World series last season, only to surrender a 3-1 lead in the NL Championship Series to San Francisco, which went on to sweep the Tigers for the crown.
The Cardinals haven’t displayed the kind of offensive power shown by the Red Sox, who had grand slams from both 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz and Victorino in the series against Detroit.
However, the St Louis offense led by Carlos Beltran has shown an uncanny knack for the timely hit.
Beltran, a 17-year veteran who is playing in the World Series for the first time, is hitting only .256 this October, but has driven in 12 runs in 11 games.
St Louis’ offense could also receive a spark from the return of first baseman Allen Craig.
Craig, who led the Cardinals with 97 runs-batted-in and a .454 batting average with runners in scoring position, hasn’t played since September 4 because of a broken foot.
He was expected to be back on the roster, perhaps as a designated hitter.
Defensively, the Cardinals boast a rising star in 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha, who twice out-dueled Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
The rookie has won all three of his post-season starts and was named Most Valuable Player of the NLCS.
“I think we just don’t talk about it much, because we don’t want it to change,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of Wacha’s brilliance. “We just want him to think that this is normal and this is expected.”
Wacha’s emergence should help St Louis counter a strong Boston rotation that includes the powerful Jon Lester, John Lackey and Buchholz. The rock-solid Red Sox bullpen features Japanese closer Koji Uehara, the AL Championship Series MVP.
Uehara hasn’t walked a batter in his last 30 appearances and has five saved games in the post-season.
St Louis will send right-handed ace Adam Wainwright to the mound today. Wainwright, the National League wins leader in the regular season with 19, is 2-1 in this post-season.
The Red Sox give the ball to Lester, who has bounced back from a 9-14 2012 to go 15-8 in 2013 and 2-1 in this post-season.
Given how finely matched the teams are, game one could be the start of an epic clash between clubs that are meeting for the fourth time in US baseball’s championship showcase.
Most recently, in 2004, the Red Sox ended their fabled 86-year title drought with a four-game sweep of the Cardinals.
In 1946 and 1967, however, the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in seven games. REUTERS