Nine years to the day since Woody Williams opposed Tim Wakefield, Manny Ramirez went sliding into a sprinkler head, the teams were tied at 9 entering the bottom of the eighth -- and the Red Sox opened a four-game World Series sweep of the Cardinals, the same two teams return to Fenway Park for a rematch featuring baseball's two best teams.
Here's a look at five keys for the Red Sox going into Game 1, with no expectation that the final score will wind up anywhere near 11-9...
1. Don't expand the strike zone for Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals' ace is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, regardless of whether you put that list together with thinking from the old school (he led the NL with 19 wins) or the new (his xFIP of 2.80 was fourth in the big leagues). His career earned run average of 3.11 is the third best among active pitchers who've thrown at least 1,000 innings, and once Mariano Rivera's exit becomes official he'll slide up to second.
He presents a heck of a challenge for the Red Sox in Game 1, especially considering he can -- and will -- throw three plus pitches at any time. That unpredictability gives him an advantage in every encounter, right or left, scrub or star, and with that upperhand Wainwright does a terrific job of getting hitters to chase. In fact, according to Fangraphs, opposing batters swung at 36.2 percent of the pitches the right-hander threw outside of the strike zone during the regular season, which was third highest in the majors.
So it'll be important Wednesday night that the Sox don't play into Wainwright's strength by straying off the plate and expanding the strike zone. That'll be easier said than done, of course, considering the statistics suggest he has the second-best cutter and second-best curveball in all of baseball -- and with those come a lot of ugly swings. But Boston's best chance against Wainwright is to be disciplined, and try to get themselves in positions to capitalize on his comparatively average fastball when he's forced to throw it over the plate.
"The key for us is if we get pitches on the plate, in the middle of the plate somewhere, " Sox Manager John Farrell said, "is not to miss them."
They'd also be well served not to miss any early chances that present themselves. Wainwright's first-inning ERA this season was 6.09, and he's most hittable in his first 25 pitches; conversely, opponents hit .216 with a .544 OPS after pitch No. 100, better than any segment before that.
2. Jon Lester needs to capitalize on Cards' vulnerability to lefties.
The Cardinals clinched their trip to Boston by beating up on sensational southpaw Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NLCS -- but that appears to be the aberration. Against left-handed pitching the Cardinals batted just .238 during the regular season, ranking 27th of baseball's 30 teams. Their .672 OPS was fifth-worst, and neither of those numbers changes much whether matched with a starter or a reliever.
Lester personally held lefties to a .237 average and a .670 OPS this season, so he has an arsenal that should play well against those deficiencies of a St. Louis lineup in which leadoff man Matt Carpenter (.294) is the only left-handed swinger who bats better than .231 against pitchers throwing from the same side. The righties aren't great, either, with Matt Holiday hitting only one homer against a lefty this season, Allen Craig posting an OBP of .311, and switch-hitter Carlos Beltran batting just .252 against southpaws.
Lester's biggest obstacle could be Yadier Molina, the catcher with an .883 OPS against lefties in 2013.
3. Keep Carpenter off the bases.
The Cards' second baseman scored 126 runs during the regular season, which was 17 more than any other player. For perspective on how important that was for St. Louis, consider that they went 32-41 when he didn't score a run -- compared to 65-24 when he did cross the plate.
He gave himself so many chances to score by accumulating a .392 OBP in the regular season, though in the NL Division Series the Pirates did a good job keeping him off the bases, and Carpenter scored only once. As a result, the Cardinals fell behind in that series and twice had to fend off elimination.
If Boston can duplicate what Pittsburgh did, it'll go a long way toward negating some of the boost St. Louis will get from the return of Allen Craig.
4. Put pressure on the defense.
If they didn't do it against a hobbling Miguel Cabrera, it's hard to envision the Red Sox often trying to bunt for hits in this series, or any other. And against baseball's active leader in caught stealing percentage for a catcher, Molina at 44.5 percent, it's hard to envision the Red Sox trying to swipe many bags.
But Boston can help itself by finding a way to keep pressure on the Cardinal defense. Baseball Info Solutions rated them as the second-worst defense in the National League according to its defensive runs saved metric, with particular weaknesses at third base and across the outfield, with David Freese, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay all well below average.
St. Louis doesn't make a lot of errors, typically. If the Sox hit it at the Cardinals, generally the Cards will make the play. And they turned more double plays this season than all but one team. Yet if Boston can get them moving, and keep them challenged, it could create some additional opportunities for itself.
5. Keep doing what they've done to get here.
The Red Sox didn't hit much against Detroit -- but they came through when it counted, seized opportunities, pitched pretty well, and played good defense. That multidimensional ability is a big reason they won 97 games during the regular season, and if the players just continue to focus on doing their jobs and playing solid baseball for just one more round, Boston should like its chances.
"A lot of things that work in the regular season still work in the postseason," General Manager Ben Cherington said after his team won the ALCS. "The numbers may not look the same, but if you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation, then you can have a quality at-bat in a tough situation. If you can make a defensive play when you need it, you can make a defensive play when you need it. If you can execute a pitch, you can execute a pitch.
"We've seen a lot of that in (the ALCS) in different spots. Even though some guys' numbers in the series were better than others, we've had contributions from just about everyone. We won games in different ways."
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