WHEN the baseball world packed things up last March, and scattered from Florida and Arizona to begin its seven-month adventure, there weren’t many who thought Matt Holliday would be sitting in Fenway Park on the fourth Tuesday of October, tugging on the cap atop his head, and rocking front to back in his seat.
And it wasn’t just because Fenway’s residents, the Red Sox, were coming off a last-place finish and predicted to finish somewhere among the middle of the pack. It was also because Holliday’s Cardinals, even after getting to the National League Championship Series a year earlier, were considered to have too many question marks to be thought of as prime contenders in 2013.
Yet, after 205 days in which execution mattered more than expectations, and teams’ actual level of play replaced the preconceptions about it, Holliday wasn’t alone in feeling as though he was right where he was supposed to be.
“This is the World Series. We’re in Boston. We’re playing the Red Sox,” said the St. Louis left fielder. “Storied franchises, teams that both led their league in wins — I think it’s worked out really well. I think guys are excited about the atmosphere. I feel like it worked out pretty well for MLB.”
Indeed, Major League Baseball has to be thrilled that its championship will be decided before two of its most fervent fan bases, beginning with tonight’s Game 1 between Holliday’s Cardinals and the hometown Red Sox. And even more so, in the interest of attracting the interest of fans from outside those two baseball hotbeds, the commissioner’s office has to be ecstatic because this series has the chance to be special.
Sox fans may have thought their six-game ALCS tussle with the Tigers was an all-timer, what with four one-run contests and another decided by a late-inning, go-ahead grand slam — but this matchup has a chance to be even better, considering that St. Louis may not have as loaded a starting rotation as Detroit threw at Boston, though the Cardinals are probably better and deeper and more dangerous everywhere else, and do many of the same things well that the Sox do themselves.
“You hear some of the things that they say, and it’s a lot of similar things that have been preached in our clubhouse,” said Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny. “That it’s about team, it’s not about us individually, and grinding out at-bats, and playing tough, playing hard, playing all the way through nine. Those are the things that I believe set good teams apart, and that’s what they’re all about.
“So we’ve got to very similar teams in my opinion,” he continued. “It’s a matter of who goes out and jumps on the opportunity.”
Jumping on opportunities is where the Cardinals set themselves apart from the rest of the NL this season, batting a baseball-best .330 with runners in scoring position — when no one else hit better than .282, and the Red Sox were third in the majors at .278. That statistic is often considered somewhat fluky, and generally settles somewhere nearer to the team’s numbers overall, but that the Cardinals were able to sustain their collective success over the course of a full season, while also having five of the NL’s six best individuals in that category, is an indication that they have professional hitters who’ll do what the situation dictates.
But it also says they’ve got good hitters. And while the Tigers’ lineup thinned out in the lower half, the Cardinals have four hitters who batted .300 or better. They have four hitters who knocked home at least 80 runs. And they’re balanced.
Leadoff man Matt Carpenter had a .392 on-base percentage this season and scored 126 runs. Carlos Beltran, Holliday and Yadier Molina are three veteran stars who were excellent again this year. Matt Adams has some pop at first base, and Allen Craig’s .315 average and 97 RBIs will be a big addition as he returns from a foot sprain that’s sidelined him since early September.
The Cards missed him in the NLCS, when they batted just .211 and scored only 3.5 runs per game. But they still dispatched the Dodgers in six games, a sign that speaks to their ability to do enough of the little things to win — much like the Sox did to beat the Tigers. But most of all, it speaks to their sensational pitching.
Tonight they’ll send one of the best pitchers in the game to the mound, as Adam Wainright and his three plus pitches face Boston’s Jon Lester. Then Thursday they’ll send the game’s hottest pitcher to the hill, as rookie and NLCS MVP Michael Wacha takes the ball after yielding seven hits and no earned runs in 13 2/3 innings of that series. He’ll be opposed by John Lackey.
Beyond that, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly aren’t as good as what the Tigers threw at Boston with Justin Verlander and Doug Fister — but the difference is that St. Louis’ bullpen is much better than Detroit’s. It allowed Los Angeles just three runs in 17 innings, and is stacked with young power arms, most notably the right one belonging to closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Boston has a closer it likes, too. The back end of its bullpen has been just short of brilliant in this postseason. It also is comfortable with the starters it’s sending to the bump. And it’ll stack its lineup of grinders against anyone else’s.
So as good as the Cardinals feel about their chances to become baseball’s first three-time champions of this century, the Sox are just as convinced it will be them. The Cardinals are good. But so are the Sox. And that part, at least, doesn’t surprise Holliday at all.
“I thought last year was more of an aberration than some sort of trend,” he said. “I knew they’d be good.”
And now it’s time to decide who is best.
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.