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World Series preview: Deep Cardinals are daunting, but Red Sox should reward faith

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 22, 2013 01:21 PM

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Maybe it's because the mementos still hang on our walls and line our bookshelves. Or maybe it's because what they accomplished was so long-awaited and dramatic that the recollections remain permanently vivid.

But the last World Series showdown between the Red Sox and Cardinals cannot really have happened nine seasons ago. It feels like ... I don't know, six, maybe. Even five. But nine? Nine years since Edgar Renteria one-hopped the 27th out to Keith Foulke and Joe Buck nailed the call ("Red Sox fans have longed to hear it ...) and all heaven broke loose?

Nine years? I guess it has been that long -- heck, it's been six years since the second championship, the vastly underrated 2007 Red Sox' walkover of the Colorado Rockies. And the current mindset regarding this franchise is something we never would have dared imagine prior to '04.

We're now at the point where, should the Red Sox win this, proud fans will punch their own chests Shane Victorino-style while letting anyone within earshot know that it's now three championships in 10 years for this franchise that found so much torment in previous Octobers.

If anything, this fun if daunting matchup (or rematch of '04, which was a rematch of '67, which was a rematch of '46 ...) is a reminder of how much has changed, not just concerning the present, but how we regard the past. That generations-old stew of cynicism, the expectation that Murphy's Law will make its presence known at the most inopportune time, has been vanquished, at least among those who want to let it go.

In its place are these "Don't worry about a thing" Red Sox, who overcome premier pitchers such as Justin Verlander, David Price, Max Scherzer, and Matt Moore, wallop grand slams when the moment demands them, turn to their delightful strike-machine of a closer to secure victory after victory, and perhaps most amazingly, turn Fenway into one awesome community Bob Marley sing-a-long.

When you look back at the rosters from nine years ago -- and even six -- the passage of time becomes more obvious. David Ortiz is the only current Red Sox player who can provide a first-person account of what it was like to ride through the grateful, fulfilled city on a duck boat that gray, glorious October 2004 morning.

It has been a long time. Careers have begun, careers have ended. In 2004, Dustin Pedroia had just wrapped up his first partial season of pro ball, hitting .357 between Augusta and Sarasota. Jacoby Ellsbury was coming off a junior year at Oregon State in which he'd hit .352 with three homers for the seventh-place team in the Pac-10. Three years later, both starred as rookies as the Red Sox swept the Rockies for that second championship in four seasons.

The only current Cardinal who was around in '04 was Yadier Molina, who in the interim has built a reputation as one of the greatest defensive catchers the game has ever known, but who in '04 was a 21-year-old backup to Mike Matheny, who happens to be his current manager now. The other constant: Chris Carpenter didn't pitch then, and he won't pitch now, having missed the entire (and likely his final) season.

To get to the World Series nine autumns in '04, the Cardinals had to overcome the Astros, led by Carlos Beltran, who hit eight home runs that postseason, including four in the seven-game NLCS in which he put up a 1.521 OPS. Nine years later, Beltran is still postseason beast -- in 198 career playoff at-bats, he has 16 homers and an 1.173 OPS.

Imagine how recent Red Sox history would be different had Carl Crawford turned down their offer in December 2010. Beltran was the Red Sox' backup plan, and they briefly but seriously pursued him again before the 2012 season.

Sometimes it seems like the only pitcher ever to retire Beltran in a big postseason spot is Adam Wainwright, his current teammate who famously froze Beltran with a hellacious curveball to end the 2006 NLCS. Wainwright's first season in the Cardinals' organization was 2004 -- he'd come over from the Braves as part of a deal for J.D. Drew, who went on to have his share of postseason success himself.

Wainwright was the Cardinals' rookie closer in '06. Now he's their no-brainer Game 1 starter and perhaps the most underrated genuine ace in the game today.

He led the National League in starts, innings pitched, and wins (19) in the regular season. His control is exceptional -- he walked just 1.3 batters per nine innings -- and he has habitually raised his performance in the postseason. In 16 appearances (seven starts), he has a 2.10 ERA and a 0.916 WHIP in 55.2 playoff innings.

Jon Lester's excellence this October (five runs in 19.1 innings over three starts) is one of the Red Sox' overlooked story lines. He needs to be just as good against Wainwright in Game 1 for the Red Sox to get this thing started right.

pedrofinndebutflashback.jpgAnd the Red Sox do need to start it right. I suspect that there aren't many Red Sox fans who are underestimating the Cardinals -- those who are still haven't caught up on their homework. St. Louis is a deep, well-rounded team, stacked with so many impressive young arms behind Wainwright. There is no Woody Williams -- the Game 1 starter in '04 -- or Jason Marquis to be found on this staff.

(I'm not comparing Carlos Martinez to Pedro Martinez, because I compare no one to Pedro Martinez ... but man, that delivery and the filthy stuff suggests what Pedro must have looked like as a young Dodger.)

The Cardinals are a mostly home-grown club -- 18 players on their 25-man roster have known no other organization. The Red Sox have drafted-and-developed core -- Lester, Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz among them. But as Bobby Valentine is apparently quick to remind you, only 12 holdovers remain from last year's hot mess.

Ben Cherington has done a remarkable thing -- he has built a unified, all-for-one team out of free agents and upper-middle-class baseball journeyman. This was supposed to be a bridge year to the next generation of home-grown Red Sox stars.

Instead, there's a chance that bridge leads to a third championship in a decade, and the most promising of that next generation, whiz-kid Xander Bogaerts, is already in the middle of it.

It's incredible, the season's plot almost unfathomable. Yet we don't have to go back that far to find one you'd think was fiction if you didn't know it was fact.

The Cardinals stood in the way nine years ago. Your walls remind you how that went.

You're going to have to clear some space again.

Sox in six.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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