Way back in April, and for the better part of the following six months, Boston sat in disbelief of a trip to the World Series. Not Boston, as in the guys in the Red Sox clubhouse, but Boston, the city and the fans (save for those who pick the Sox every year), had a hard time understanding a team coming from where this team had come from, to reach heights that so few Red Sox teams ever had.
But now that they’re here, it makes sense. The “Oh my God, this can’t be real -- how is this happening?” feeling has since been replaced by total confidence in what these guys are capable of. That they were the best regular season team in the American League. That they were the best postseason team in the American League. That they’re just the best team in the American League. That even if we hit the playoff reset button, took this whole thing back to Wild Card play-in round and re-lived all the insanity, the Sox would end up right where they are now: Four wins from a World Series title.
Of course, you can say the same thing about the St. Louis Cardinals. You can say, without a doubt, that there’s nothing fluky about the championship matchup that will begin to unfold tonight at Fenway. But there are more than a few questions about the state of both teams as the baseball world waits for Jon Lester’s opening pitch.
Here are six quick ones. One for every year since the World Series has come to Fenway:
1. What’s up with Clay Buchholz?
OK, so here’s what we know: Buchholz hasn’t been great in these playoffs. Not even close. He’s made three starts, labored through only 16.2 innings, posted a 5.40 ERA and notched exactly zero decisions.
On top of that, that Felix Doubront threw live to hitters yesterday at Fenway, under the supervision of John Farrell and Ben Cherington, which would indicate that the Sox were at least considering the possibility of Doubront making a World Series start. Also, two sources told Red Sox Insider Sean McAdam that the Red Sox are concerned with Buchholz's durability.
We also know that, despite everything you’ve just read, the Sox fully expect Buchholz to make his schedule start this weekend at Busch Stadium. Whether that’s gamesmanship or the honest truth remains to be seen, but at the very least, this whole situation puts more pressure on Lester (tonight) and John Lackey (tomorrow) to step up and make home-field advantage count, because the Cardinals outlook for Game 3 in St. Louis looks sweeter than ever.
2. What will they do with Ortiz?
Buchholz’s status is one Game 3 storyline, but another, for that game and each one these teams play in St. Louis, is how the Sox will handle the deletion of the DH.
The decision may have been a little easier earlier in the season, back when there was still a sense that Mike Napoli couldn’t hack it at first base and Ortiz was using a bat straight from 2007. But these days, with Napoli flashing the glove and in the midst of one his trademark hot streaks, and Ortiz coming off a brutal (aside from the obvious) ALCS and having dealt with a back injury last time he tried to play the field, I don’t envy John Farrell’s position.
He’s already said that Ortiz will play some first base in St. Louis, we just don’t know how much. Naturally, it would be nuts for the Sox to just sit him for three straight games with everything on the line. At the same time, without Napoli’s bat, they may have never gotten by Detroit. As of right now, they need Napoli’s bat.
This decision will probably come down to what happens in the first two games. Not only how the Sox fair, but what specifically happens with those two.
If Napoli falls back into another slump, and goes 1-8 with seven strikeouts at Fenway, then the allure that exists right now, on the heels of the ALCS, will have faded. But if he keeps rolling, and Ortiz stays at level we’ve seen the last six games, it will be hard to lose Napoli, even if it’s almost impossible to imagine — just based on history and reputation — the Sox trotting out a World Series line-up that features Ortiz on the bench.
3. How healthy is Allen Craig?
As the legend goes, beware of the man with two first names. In St. Louis, that man goes by Allen Craig.
Craig hit .315 with 13 homers and 97 RBI this season, but his greatest and most legendary statistic is this: He’s a career .394 hitter with runners in scoring position. This season alone, he hit .454 with ducks on the pound, which according to ESPN Stats & Info, is the third best single-season RISP average in the last 40 years, behind George Brett (.469 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.459 in 1997).
But as far as the World Series goes, here’s the most pressing Allen Craig issue: He hasn’t played since September 4.
That’s thanks a foot injury, which has obviously heeled enough to earn Craig a spot on the World Series roster. But his capabilities are still in question. At the very least, he’ll be able to pinch-hit, probably DH while the series is in Boston. But if that foot holds up to the point where Craig can get back out to first base when the series moves to St. Louis, the Cardinals will get an obvious boost. Meanwhile, the Sox can only hope that when Craig steps into the box, he does so with the bases empty.
4. Does patience pay off?
You know how the Sox roll. Every at-bat is a battle. They live to work starting pitchers to the bone and get to the bullpen as soon as possible. And obviously, that approach has paid off. But that’s not the only way to find success in this game — a point that the Cardinals have proven all season.
It’s one of the more interesting dynamics at work in the World Series. (One I originally read about over at Viva El Birdos.) The Red Sox are one of the most patient teams in the league. Only the Twins averaged more pitches per at-bat this season than Boston. On the other hand, the Cardinals ranked 27th in baseball. Once they step up to the plate, they let their freak flag fly and swing at will.
That may be good news for the Red Sox pitch counts. But seeing how the Birds scored the third most runs in the majors this season, it may not be good news for the Red Sox pitchers.
That doesn’t mean that Boston will change how they do things, either. You better believe that they’ll step in looking to make life hell for Adam Wainright and Michael Wacha’s arms.
The whole thing just makes for an interesting sidebar and a serves as a reminder that there’s more than one way to eat a Reese’s.
5. Is Carlos Beltran human?
Lately, he has been. In fact, Beltran’s only hitting .256 this postseason. But that doesn’t mean he won’t instill the fear of Alfredo Aceves in you every time he steps to the plate.
As of today, Beltran’s not the best player to have never won a World Series ring, but he’s probably the most dominant postseason performer to never win one. For his career, he hitting .337 with a 1.173 OPS and 16 home runs in only 45 career post season games. That’s a 57 home run pace over a 162-game season.
On this season, Beltran hit 24 homers, which led the team. And his 84 RBI were third behind Craig and Matt Holiday. For his career, he’s 1-1 in three career at-bats against Jon Lester, he’s 0-9 in 12 career at-bats against John Lackey, he’s never face Clay Buchholz and he’s 8-for-20 (with one home run) in 25 career at-bats against Jake Peavy.
But in the postseason, you can throw all that out. Beltran is a beast.
6. How much Koji is too much Koji?
Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa have been more than OK in these playoffs. They’ve been absolutely awesome. Better than Timlin and Embree. Better than Hall and Oates. They’ve bridged the gap to Koji Uehara better than anyone could have dreamed.
But with the Sox four wins from the title, it’s probably time to decrease the size of that bridge.
Does that mean using Uehara for six outs a game? Probably not. But I doubt anyone would put up stink if that’s the road John Farrell chooses to take.
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