Tonight, the most anticipated, prestigious and scrutinized series of the year begins in Boston's Fenway Park. No less than four and no more than seven games across the next eight days will determine which of two teams (that quite frankly everyone outside their respective cities is sick of) will win the time-honored privilege of delaying the start of a game next April for a ring presentation ceremony, and which will have their manager raked over hot coals by the Internet at large. The World Series is once again upon us.
Somewhere between the Fall Out Boy montages, the rambling narratives about character and camaraderie and the pregame shows featuring some of the loudest suits known to man, there will be actual baseball played. Given the two teams involved, that baseball has a puncher's chance of being quite good. Regardless of how you feel about the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals as a fan, it's hard to argue against the notion that the best team in the 2013 American League really is hosting the best team from the 2013 National League tonight, as opposed to two teams who just had the dice roll their way in a month-long tournament.
In a World Series that looks like it should be (fingers crossed) an evenly matched, close affair, conventional wisdom would favor the team that plays more games in their home park -- that is why I think the Red Sox have the greater chance of prevailing, though I'm hardly alone or revolutionary in that regard -- Boston opened as substantial favorites in the Vegas sports books, for instance. But while baseball is a team sport, it consists mainly of individual transactions, competitions and performances. An entire series can turn on how two men fare against one another across a span of mere moments; just ask David Ortiz and Joaquin Benoit. These meetings are as much decision as they are destiny, however; who faces who, when and how has as much to do with the choices each dugout makes as it does ability, luck or fate. Four matchups that could hold that kind of essential importance to this Fall Classic follow, and how they resolve themselves could decide whether Boston or St. Louis will be celebrating their third title in the last 10 years.
Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha vs. Fenway Park
Going on the road to start a best-of-seven series, the Cardinals now face the exact same situation in which the Los Angeles Dodgers found themselves when visiting St. Louis for Games 1 and 2 of the National League Championship Series: forced to throw their two best starting pitchers against a quality hitting team in their home park, hoping the greatness at the top of their rotation can overcome the deck stacked against it. The Dodgers got exactly what they wished for -- great starting pitching from Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke -- and not a single thing more; Los Angeles' bats disappeared in Busch Stadium against the back end of the Cardinals' playoff rotation. Perhaps the Cardinals hitters are in luck, then, as Fenway is no pitcher's park like Busch, but that still leaves Wainwright and Wacha with the task of walking into a loud, cramped bandbox of a baseball field and stopping cold the team that calls it home. It's a difficult task -- the Red Sox scored 5.17 runs a game at home in the regular season -- but it can be done. Just ask Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.
Jonny Gomes vs. Daniel Nava
Look through the pitchers listed on the St. Louis Cardinals' playoff roster for a half-minute and something will immediately jump out: There are only two left-handed pitchers on the squad, Kevin Siegrist and Randy Choate, and both of them work out of the bullpen. Choate, who has been one of the best left-handed one out guys in baseball the past few years, is often deployed to record a single out, and while Siegrist has had a fantastic start to his career, he's barely thrown 40 MLB innings including the playoffs. The vast majority of the pitching Boston will face in the World Series will be right-handed … and yet last series, confronted with a similarly unbalanced Detroit Tigers staff (relievers Drew Smyly and Jose Alvarez were the only lefties on that roster), Boston manager John Farrell preferred to play the right-handed hitting Gomes over the switch-hitting Nava, despite Nava not only having a favorable handedness matchup, but also playing better defense and hitting better on the whole the entire year. Perhaps unsurprisingly Gomes had a dismal ALCS, striking out seven times in 16 at-bats with only a double and two singles to his name; Nava was only given six at-bats in the series, but managed two singles and a walk of his own.
Gomes isn't significantly older than Nava -- he is 32 to Nava's 30 -- nor does he have significantly more postseason experience than Nava, with only 34 playoff PA to his name (Nava has 14). He is, however, an outspoken veteran leader on the team who is making roughly 10 times more money this year than Nava, and in fairness to John Farrell there is far more to managing a baseball team than simply plugging players into a lineup where history has shown they've performed best; these are people, and there are egos, feelings and the clubhouse mood to consider. The Game 1 lineup is hardly a suicide pact, and Gomes' previous experience against Wainwright could make the difference, who knows -- he does have a home run off the Cardinals' ace. Even if Gomes does start the entire series, it's highly unlikely he'll be the one weak link in the chain that brings Boston to ruin.
At which point every St. Louis fan smiles and nods and thinks fondly of Nelson Cruz.
Carlos Beltran vs. Koji Uehara
St. Louis outfielder Carlos Beltran is likely used to dragging teams deep into the postseason kicking and screaming. Beltran's .899 OPS in the NLCS against the Dodgers was more than 100 points better than anyone else on the club's except Shane Robinson's, and Robinson had a third of the plate appearances Beltran did. In a lineup that features Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina, Beltran is the guy beating teams this October. Accepting, then, that the St. Louis rightfielder will continue his dominance int the World Series -- fresh territory for the 16-year veteran -- it's only a matter of time before he runs headlong into Koji Uehara.
Uehara has been dominant since 2011, when he returned to the relief role he'd served during his final year playing professional baseball in Japan: the closer. Though a starter for much of his career, including his first two years in MLB with the Baltimore Orioles, Uehara has a deadly relief profile focusing around abusing hitters with a diving splitter of which he has fantastic command. After the Orioles traded Uehara to the Texas Rangers, it appeared his days closing were done -- leaving Uehara off the World Series roster in 2011 didn't cost the Rangers their first championship as surely as Cruz's miscue, but it certainly didn't help -- and he signed a short, cheap contract with the Red Sox this offseason, relegated to middle relief. Then Joel Hanrahan hurt his arm about a month into the season and suddenly there was a vacancy at the top of the Boston bullpen. And now? Now Uehara is getting five-out saves to clinch series like he's been doing it for years.
They're more alike than they are different -- both old baseball veterans, both looking for their first ring, both embraced by their current team, players and fans -- and right now, they're both at the top of their game. It would be only fitting to watch them face off on the biggest stage of their careers.
Mike Matheny vs. Shelby Miller
Shelby Miller is healthy, that much is certain. If he wasn't healthy, he wouldn't be on the World Series roster, and he certainly wouldn't be throwing simulated games to help Allen Craig to get back into the swing of things. I'm unaware of any injury under the sun a pitcher can suffer that renders them unable to start a baseball game but perfectly capable of entering in relief; if Miller's gassed or has hit his innings threshold for the year, the absolute worst thing to do would be to change his routine and have him throw max-effort short relief innings. Luckily, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny isn't having one of the strong downballot candidates for National League Rookie of the Year do that.
He's not having him do much of anything, really. Shelby Miller threw 173.1 innings of 3.06 ERA baseball this year, was a mainstay of the Cardinals rotation for five and a half months or so, and has thrown one inning of mop-up relief so far in the 2013 postseason. Matheny had this to say when asked about Miller's role:
"He needs to stay sharp. We had an opportunity for him to see some live hitters, and live hitters an opportunity to see him as well. Everybody got a benefit through that. We need Shelby to stay sharp in his mind, because at any point, we might need him to come and fill a number of different roles. He looked good today, and we were excited to see that."
That's a bunch of words that doesn't really tell anyone anything, which is the point. First the reasoning given was Miller had some bad starts against the Pirates in the second half of the season, then it was that he'd flagged in the second half of the season and needed rest and now it's that he needs to be ready to step into a role, any role, at any time. There's some truth to all of those reasons, but some of it -- probably most, maybe all -- is a smokescreen. What's going on here seems to be pretty straightforward: Mike Matheny is running with a four-man playoff rotation, he's put the four guys he thinks are his best starters into that rotation, and Shelby Miller isn't one of the four. At the end of the day the wager is AJoe Kelly and Lance Lynn can handle the Boston Red Sox hitters better than Miller can. That's a bet the Sox should be more than willing to take.