And so, finally, we come to the end of things.
The Boston Red Sox will host the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday in Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, continuing the theme of glee for national sportswriters and media executives alike this postseason. As far as getting eyes on television sets goes, the absolute best matchup would have involved the Los Angeles Dodgers instead, capturing one of the largest media markets in the country at the height of any city's interest in any team -- during the end of a championship run. Still, it's hard to complain about the Cards; though the St. Louis' market itself is dwarfed by Los Angeles, the Cardinals have built an extremely strong regional and national fanbase due to their sustained success. Including this year, St. Louis has made four World Series appearances over the past decade, winning two of them.
The one they lost, of course, was in 2004 to none other than the Boston Red Sox. The only two men from that Cardinals team still around are the catchers: Mike Matheny, the Cardinals' manager, was the starter that year behind the dish, while Yadier Molina, tenured veteran there now, saw substantial time as his backup. The only remaining Red Sox player from the team that beat them is David Ortiz, who put up almost the same season in 2004 at age 28 (.301/.380/.603) as he did in 2013 at age 37 (.309/.395/.564). Expect, perhaps, to hear less about that from sportswriters and columnists than about the intrinsic classiness of the St. Louis organization and the beards of the Red Sox players, but at least be glad that when the Red Sox fistpump and celebrate a key hit -- and they will, because all teams including the Red Sox and Cardinals do -- no one will think to hunt down Stan Musial's grandson and get his opinion on whether or not Bob Gibson would have tackled the offending player on the basepath.
We're less concerned with all that than the game as it's played on the field, however, and this matchup should be a good one. The Boston Red Sox are, generally speaking, who we thought they were and who we knew them to be all year: a well-rounded, solid team getting production from the top to the bottom of the lineup whether the team is at home or away, with good to great starting pitching and an effective bullpen. They've feasted on playing at home in the postseason, losing there only once, and they will continue to have home-field advantage in the World Series thanks to the American League's victory in the All-Star Game. Considering the advantage playing at home gives any team, let alone the Red Sox in Fenway, it's worth noting that under the old system wherein the leagues alternated home-field advantage (in fairness, a no less arbitrary one; in this era of interleague play it would make the most sense to have home-field in the World Series determined by record and tiebreaker just like any other question of seeding), the Cardinals would have hosted four of the seven games of this World Series.
St. Louis has been just as steady as the Red Sox at home in the postseason, dropping only one game to the Pirates and sweeping the Dodgers in the three games played at Busch Stadium during the recently concluded NLCS. Coming into the postseason, the Cardinals were headlined by offense, featuring two MVP candidates in Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, as well as Carlos Beltran (who surely needs no introduction by now) and a lineup that was perhaps not as consistent as Boston's top to bottom -- the Red Sox, for instance, suffered no equivalent to Pete Kozma's 448 PA of .217/.275/.273 hitting -- but which still led the National League in raw runs per game with 4.83 while playing their home games in a pitcher's park. Meanwhile, the pitching rotation is Adam Wainwright and a bunch of question marks -- Lance Lynn had a subpar year as a starter considering the run environment, neither Joe Kelly nor rookie Michael Wacha had any postseason experience of which to speak, and for some reason Shelby Miller, who had an excellent regular season in 2013, was out of the rotation and all but off the roster. Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the game, so his excellence was to be expected, but Wacha has a 0.43 ERA with 22 strikeouts so far this postseason, doing far better than traditional narratives say rookies should do in the playoffs, lacking in experience as they do by definition -- of course, in practical terms, the ones lacking experience when facing talented rookie pitchers like Wacha are the hitters, who have never seen him before and who have very little film to study. With fewer than 100 MLB innings under his belt, Wacha is still making his first rounds through the league, so in the future it would be prudent to expect him to be slightly less effective than he is right now. However, we do not yet live in the future, and while Wacha's two pitch fastball-change mix could lead him back to the bullpen eventually, there's no real reason to think he'll stop being effective right now.
The weakness of the St. Louis rotation, like with any rotation, is the back end. The Cardinals' back end is especially notable because not only is Matheny comfortable going with Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly without shortening up his staff and pitching Wainwright on short rest, but he's comfortable doing it by ignoring Shelby Miller for two inferior pitchers simply because they haven't badly burned him yet. Kelly has continued to get himself into trouble by putting runners on base (1.47 WHIP) while dancing out of it just often enough to reinforce narratives about gumption and fortitude instead of losing games outright (4.41 ERA); Lynn's regular season struggles have only been exacerbated in the postseason, putting up even worse numbers in both departments than Kelly (1.81 WHIP, 5.63 ERA) and offering no particular counterargument to the notion strengthened throughout the year that his true talent level lies at the back of the rotation or in relief.
Assuming Matheny keeps his rotation in order, those two men will be pitching the first two St. Louis home games -- Games 3 and 4. Ideally that would be all St. Louis would see of them, because ideally they'd have the series wrapped up in four or five games. It's unlikely that will be the case, however, and unless Matheny toys with the rotation some, there's the unpleasant possibility that if the series goes seven games, Joe Kelly would be the starter. Meanwhile, the St. Louis offense is coming off a series where they barely hit at all until the last game -- most of their offense was supplied by the aforementioned Beltran -- so they'll need to carry that success at the plate over into Fenway.
At the end of the day, I think the Cardinals are a great team, but I don't think they're better than the Boston Red Sox at home, and I don't think their pitching, especially in the back of their rotation, is strong enough to keep the Boston hitters at bay regardless of where the games are being played. Whether or not that shows up in a seven-game series, of course, is a crapshoot. That said, Boston in six.