The Red Sox are back on track regardless of what happens in the World Series.
The payroll is under control, the minor leagues are producing talent again and the men running the team, Ben Cherington and John Farrell, know what they're doing. The Red Sox should be contenders for at least a few years to come.
This season has been a rousing success after the last-place embarrassment of 2012, nothing can change that at this point.
But this particular team, this unique group, will never be the same and that is what makes the next nine days so vital. Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mike Napoli will be free agents. Trades will be made, prospects will arrive and the vaunted chemistry that marked this team will change.
"I want to win with this team this year," backup catcher David Ross said. "This is a special group. We need to finish this off."
Here's a look at how the Series might break down:
Starting pitching: The Cardinals are led by Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, the respected veteran and super-talented rookie. Wacha has allowed one run on eight hits in 21 postseason innings. The Sox counter with playoff-tested Jon Lester and John Lackey. The problem here for the Sox is Clay Buchholz hasn't looked particularly good in the postseason and is dealing with enough of a physical issue that Felix Doubront was told to get ready just in case. Jake Peavy has started four postseason games in his career and been bad in three of them. Edge: Cardinals.
Offense: The Red Sox were the highest-scoring team in baseball. But they have hit only .236 with a .690 OPS in the postseason. A full series out of rookie third baseman Xander Bogaerts could spark the offense. Jacoby Ellsbury (16 of 40) has been on a postseason roll. David Ortiz (1 of his last 15) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (one extra-base in 26 at-bats) have been quiet
Look for the Red Sox to game plan against Carlos Beltran and make other hitters beat them. Matt Holliday (.705 OPS in the postseason) hasn't done much yet. The Cardinals hit .269 in the regular season but a record .330 with runners in scoring position thanks to a .377 batting average on balls in play. That kind of good fortune is hard to rely on.
Allen Craig, who hasn't played since Sept. 4 because of a sprained foot, will get a chance to DH. He's a talented hitter, but seven weeks off is a lot of to overcome. Edge: Red Sox.
Bullpens: The back end of the Red Sox bullpen (Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa) has been terrific in the postseason but has to be exhausted. Three days off should help.The Cardinals have a hard-throwing bullpen. But they rely heavily on four rookies, including closer Trevor Rosenthal. The Sox need to get into the second level of that bullpen by grinding down the St. Louis starters. Edge: Red Sox.
Defense: In strong-armed catcher Yadier Molina, the Cardinals have a game-changing defender. The Red Sox are 11 of 13 in stolen bases during the postseason, but Molina will give them pause. He caught 43 percent of runners this season. The Red Sox have a much better overall team defense, particularly in the outfield. But Molina is so good that he matches a group effort. Edge: Even.
Bench: The Sox have a deeper bench thanks to regular-season stalwart Daniel Nava now being on it. David Ross will get a few starts. Mike Napoli coming off the bench in St. Louis is a weapon. The Cardinals have some outfield depth and Daniel Descalso is a solid player. But that's about it. Edge: Red Sox.
Managing/intangibles: Home-field advantage could be significant. The Red Sox are 57-29 at home counting the season and the Cardinals are 45-41 on the road. The Sox will suffer on the road by having to play either Ortiz or Mike Napoli at first base when they lose the DH. But their selection of pinch hitters could come into play. The Sox did not play the Cardinals this season but whupped up on the National League, going 14-6. The Cardinals were 10-10 against the AL. Edge: Red Sox.
Prediction: The Sox can thank the AL All-Stars for beating the NL and giving them home field advantage. Ortiz will emerge and win Game 1 or Game 2. The Sox won't finish the persistent Cardinals in St. Louis, but will get the job done behind Lackey at Fenway. This season is about redemption and Lackey is the symbol of that.
This unexpectedly fun, last-to-first season has to end with a party. Red Sox in six games.