In the Cards: Series could tip in St. Louis' favor
Stellar pitching staff, Craig's return can neutralize Red Sox's home-field edge
BOSTON -- Wrapped up as they were in other endeavors at the time, the active members of the St. Louis Cardinals might have missed a good chunk of the American League Championship Series.
No worries. An extensive array of video and a healthy dose of advance scouting reports have adequately updated the Cards on how the Red Sox were able to edge a powerful Tigers team.
And if the Cards were watching closely -- and I suspect they were -- they ought to pick up on the elements that might just make them the team to beat in this World Series that begins Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
Granted, the Cards won't widely be considered the favorites. This Series is too evenly matched, for one, and the home-field advantage boasted by Boston will be considered a big one. Teams with the home-field edge, after all, have won 22 of the last 27 World Series and each of the last nine Game 7s. That's one reason -- and my MLB.com colleague Richard Justice offers others -- why the Red Sox are a popular pick.
But the Cards have the capability to negate that advantage by following and building upon the blueprint the Tigers created. They can win this World Series, not because they represent the most accomplished National League franchise in history and an organization steeped in recent postseason heroics, not because of "The Cardinal Way" or all the other narratives being discussed.
The Cards can win this because they have the arms and bats to tactically neutralize a fellow 97-game winner.
Really, the only specific matchup that ought to worry the Cards is the encounter with Jon Lester, and naturally that occurs right off the bat in Game 1. It's no secret that this Cards lineup struggled against lefties in the regular season, to the tune of a .238/.301/.371 slash line and the fifth-lowest OPS of any Major League club. In the postseason, it's been a .218/.280/.303 slash. Ugly. So the lefty Lester presents an immediate mismatch.
But that's precisely what makes Allen Craig's timely return from a ligament injury in his left foot so encouraging and so important.
Craig had a respectable .779 OPS off lefties this season, so his return as a DH in Game 1 will provide a big boost. And the Cards -- who, for all their struggles off southpaws, did beat up on Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the NLCS -- have also been boosted this October by the improvement David Freese has shown against lefties (.955 OPS in 11 plate appearances) after his surprising season-long struggles.
Factor in the way Matt Adams swung the bat the last two games of the NLCS and the way Carlos Beltran has been swinging it all month, and the Game 1 matchup issue is less of an issue than it might immediately appear. Once the Red Sox turn to their rotation right-handers -- John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy -- the Cards can turn to the comforts of a lineup that had a .755 OPS against right-handed pitching.
From a starting perspective, the Cards undoubtedly have their work cut out for them, but they can have success against a Red Sox team that works the count.
Consider what the Tigers' rotation -- made up of four right-handers, just like the Cards' group -- did to Boston, regardless of the ALCS loss. They limited a deep Red Sox lineup to 10 runs (nine earned) on 27 hits with 55 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings. They did it by pounding the zone against an abnormally patient Red Sox club that waits for mistakes. The Tigers' starters proved that if you can avoid those mistakes, you can thrive against the Boston bats.
The Tigers' relievers? Uh, not so much.
That's where the Cards have an edge here. No, their starting staff isn't nearly as hyped as that of the Tigers, but, led by Adam Wainwright (arguably the best starter who will take the mound for either team in this Series) and rookie revelation Michael Wacha (0.30 ERA and .093 average against in October) it's still a staff that can accumulate K's (8.49 per nine innings in the postseason) and limit walks (2.19 per nine innings). It's a staff deep enough to sit Shelby Miller and assisted by a wise and experienced catcher -- Yadier Molina -- who has no doubt been poring over every facet of that Tigers series.
And when the game gets into the late innings, the Cards have what the Tigers lacked: a finishing touch.
The best description of the Cards' relief corps that I've heard this October is that it's a "clown car." It's amazing how many young, power arms or otherwise effective options stroll out of it. Between Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, John Axford, Seth Maness and lefty specialist Randy Choate, Mike Matheny won't have to take the same late-inning gambles that Jim Leyland -- burned by two late-inning grand slams served up by the 'pen in the ALCS round -- did. And closer Trevor Rosenthal has an electric arm to shut the door.
For the Red Sox, the goal in the ALCS round was to work up the starters' pitch counts and get to the 'pen as soon as possible. Against the Cards, that's a decidedly more dangerous proposition. This is a fundamentally different World Series than the one these two teams played back in 2004, when the Red Sox swept their way to their first World Series title in 86 years, because the Cards aren't rolling out the collection of gassed soft-tossers upon which that Boston club feasted.
With Craig in tow, the Cards offer an AL-worthy lineup unencumbered by the sort of health woes that tamed Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers. Again, if they can survive Lester, they set up very well against the right-leaning Red Sox staff.
It's not a slam dunk, because, again, this Fall Classic seems about as evenly matched as any in recent history. Neither club won 97 by accident, after all.
But if the Cardinals can come reasonably close to duplicating what the Tigers' starters did to the Red Sox bats in the ALCS, they have the bats to back it up and the late-inning arms to finish the job and earn this respected organization its 12th title.