If last Halloween someone had come to your door and told you that the Red Sox would at this point be one victory away from winning the World Series, and that Red Sox Nation would feel good about the chances of John Lackey securing that clincher, you'd have sooner believed the trick-or-treater in the red cape really was Superman.
But here we are. Boston is one win away from becoming the second team in baseball history to go from worst to first in a single season, and completing a redemption story like few others in the history of sports -- so let's look at five key factors that could determine if the fairy tale does indeed become reality in Wednesday night's Game 6...
1. Remain patient against Michael Wacha, and make him challenge.
The Cardinals' remarkable rookie had issued a total of just four walks over his three starts in the National League portion of these playoffs -- and one of those was intentional -- but the Red Sox worked him for four free passes the first time they faced him.
It wasn't that Wacha was wild, or that he was afraid of challenging Sox hitters. He threw 42.1 percent of his pitches within the strike zone -- which is a higher rate than his season average, and higher than in any start since an Aug. 10 outing against the Cubs.
It was more that the Sox did a better job of laying off his changeup than either the Pirates or Dodgers did, and stuck to their patient approach. Among his 114 pitches, Wacha threw a career-high 39 changeups, but Boston offered at only 18 of them, or 46.2 percent. In two NLCS starts, Los Angeles swung 64.2 percent of the time he changed speeds. And in his NLDS start, Pittsburgh hacked at 58.8 percent.
The Red Sox were the best fastball-hitting team in baseball this season, so even though Wacha amped it up to as high as 97 mph in Game 2, and lived around 94 that night, he and catcher Yadier Molina are likely to stick with the strategy based around using his heater to get ahead, then trying to finish hitters and get outs with the change (and the occasional curveball, as well). At Fenway last week, Wacha threw his changeup on 19 of the 30 pitches he threw with two strikes, but only 20 of the 84 pitches he threw with one or no strikes.
So the Sox' task is to get Wacha in situations where he's throwing a predictable fastball, and can't force the Sox into missed swings or weak contact by chasing his offspeed stuff outside the zone. And they must be ready to take advantage when he leaves that fastball over the plate. They were willing to wait him out in Game 2 -- only two of the first 17 Sox hitters swung at the first pitch they saw, and only four of 24 hacked right away -- so he only managed just one of the 1-2-3 innings that have become a hallmark of his dominance this October. He was done after six innings.
And as good as the Cardinals' bullpen is, the Sox will take their chances if they're able to oust Wacha so early again.
2. Hope Lackey does what Lackey does.
In terms of the circumstances and the matchup, it's hard to envision a scenario set up better for Lackey.
The pressure shouldn't be overwhelming, not after making his first relief appearance in a decade during the eighth inning of a tight contest in Game 4, and not after already having pitched a World Series clincher back in 2002.
He's pitching amid the comforts of Fenway Park, where he was excellent in Game 2, and has been great all season en route to a 2.47 ERA, a .236 opponents' batting average, and a 1.03 WHIP -- all of which are dramatically better numbers than what he's delivered on the road.
And he's pitching to a lineup full of players against which he's had previous success. Nobody in the Cardinal lineup has more than one hit against Lackey in his lifetime, with Carlos Beltran at 1-for-12 and Matt Holliday at 1-for-10 in the middle of the order.
Holliday, of course, got that hit in Game 2 -- a triple to the triangle that bounded by Jacoby Ellsbury and led to St. Louis' first run. However, Lackey has otherwise controlled the Cards' most dangerous bat. And throughout the season he's done a good job in limiting damage (in part because 22 of the 26 homers he allowed were solo shots).
If that remains true, and he capitalizes on his experience in these big spots, and in this ballpark, he should give the Sox what they need.
3. Fill the role Craig Breslow has played after Lackey.
John Farrell has kept Lackey on a relatively short leash in his starts, despite their general effectiveness. In fact, Lackey hasn't yet hit the 100-pitch mark in this postseason.
But in all three of those starting performances it was Breslow who came in to replace Lackey on the mound -- and with Breslow's recent ineffectiveness, it will be interesting to see if the manager lets Lackey pitch his way out of potential trouble in the middle innings, or if he turns to another member of his relief corps to pick up the slack in a pressure spot.
Breslow has retired one of the seven hitters he's faced in this series, and dating back to the start of the Detroit series he's walked six and yielded four hits over 3.2 innings. Unless Farrell is blindly loyal he's got to go in a different direction, which could be Felix Doubront if the manager wants to go with a lefty, or it could be Junichi Tazawa or Brandon Workman if the matchup splits are less relevant.
Either way, Breslow has recorded some very important outs for the Sox this year and this postseason -- especially following up Lackey. And Farrell will need to figure out how he's going to get those outs in Game 6.
4. Xander Bogaerts.
If David Ortiz wasn't in the midst of what may be the greatest World Series performance of all-time, the Red Sox' most dangerous hitter might be their 21-year-old third baseman.
Bogaerts has five hits and a walk in his last 11 plate appearances, boosting his OPS to 1.032 during the postseason. He's reaching base 46.7 percent of the time he comes to bat, and with those numbers Sox brass should give serious thought to moving him up in the order for Game 6, maybe to second (if Shane Victorino slides down in his return), or maybe even to fifth, where he could help Mike Napoli protect Ortiz.
It wouldn't be a bad idea to leave him as a presence near the bottom of the order, either. But no matter where he hits, he's a guy the Sox want to see walking to the plate in a big spot. Despite a total of 80 big-league plate appearances, they trust him as much as almost anyone at this point.
And with the way he's going there's a chance that he just might end a season that began in Portland by playing a significant part in the game that sees Boston win the World Series.
5. Keep Thursday in mind.
At this point, the Sox would love to get this over with Wednesday. Win the series in six. Seize the momentum created by winning twice in St. Louis. Celebrate all night. Not have to worry about a winner-take-all Game 7.
But they must remain mindful of that possibility.
Everything done in the course of Game 6 should be done in an effort to win that game -- though no decision should be reckless enough that it could potentially compromise the club's chances of winning the series if it gets to Thursday.
The biggest advantage a team earns by going up 3-2 at this point is that it gets two chances to win one game, but a major part of that advantage is that it spares the series-leading club from some of the desperation that's being felt and considered on the other side.
The Cardinals and Mike Matheny need to do whatever it takes to see tomorrow, so they can burn through pitchers, and put their players in crazy positions, and take an all-hands-on-deck approach. But Farrell and his staff should resist the urge to do the same. They've earned the right to be calm, and to retain the urgent levelheadedness that's put them here.
The goal isn't necessarily to win tonight. It's to win the World Series. And the Red Sox should keep that in mind in every choice they make.
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