Cards and robbers: Running game in spotlight
Led by Ellsbury, Boston's elite speedsters to test best defensive catcher in Molina
BOSTON -- Cardinals starters Adam Wainwright and Joe Kelly shared an interesting, brief exchange last week. It went something like this:
Kelly: Hey Adam, when's the last time somebody tried to steal off you?
Wainwright: I don't know if somebody's tried to steal off me the last three or four years of my career; I can't even remember it.
Kelly: Yeah, same here.
Days, weeks, sometimes months go by and baserunners hardly dare to run on the Cardinals' pitchers, the luckiest group in baseball because they get to throw to Yadier Molina. Kelly was admittedly slow to the plate during his rookie season last year, and guys used to break for second on him constantly.
"But he threw them all out," Kelly said. "It was amazing. Now, they barely run."
Nobody controls a running game like a Cardinals pitching staff led by Molina, widely considered the best defensive catcher in baseball. And nobody steals bases as frequently and efficiently as these Red Sox.
And therein lies one of the most compelling matchups of this World Series.
"It's going to be a good battle," Molina said during Tuesday's availability, in advance of Wednesday's Game 1 from Fenway Park (air time on FOX is 7:30 p.m. ET, with first pitch at 8:07 p.m.)
"That'll be a fun matchup," Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury said. "You want to face the best throughout the season, and you're going to get that chance in the World Series. It'll be fun. It'll be a cat-and-mouse game."
Molina had the second-best caught-stealing percentage in the Majors this year at .435, trailing only the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis (.444). As a staff, the Cardinals allowed just 39 stolen bases. It was easily the fewest of 2013 (the D-backs were next with 48) and the second-fewest in the Majors since 2000 (Molina's '05 Cardinals allowed just 32).
Since 2009, baserunners have attempted a Major League-low 416 stolen bases against the Cardinals -- at least 132 fewer than any other team.
"It starts with Yadi," Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. "It also starts with our pitchers being able to execute different things, whether it's varying your times or slide stepping, whatever it may be. Shutting the running game down is huge.
And the Cardinals figure to have their hands full in the final round.
The Red Sox deploy the Major Leagues' stolen-base leader in Ellsbury, who just swiped 52 bags during the regular season. Then there's Shane Victorino (21 steals) and Dustin Pedroia (17), giving them a combined 90 stolen bases in the first three spots of their lineup. They also have pinch-runner extraordinaire Quintin Berry, who's a perfect 28-for-28 in steals during his brief Major League career.
"That's why I'm here," Berry said. "I'm going to do whatever I can."
The Red Sox ranked fourth in the Majors with 123 stolen bases this season and were caught only 19 times. The resulting stolen-base percentage (86.6) is the second-highest in baseball in the new millennium, with only the 2007 Phillies (87.9) doing better than the 2013 Red Sox.
It doesn't really seem like they fear Molina, either.
"I'm not going to worry about that, nor am I going to worry about not running on him," Victorino said. "You have to be a little smarter, you have to be more understanding of what you have behind the plate and how good he is. But if I go into a game with the mindset that he's immortal, then I'm doubting myself. I would never go in with that type of attitude."
Boston's 11 stolen bases in the playoffs are nearly three times more than anybody else -- but the Cardinals have allowed only two stolen bases in just three attempts in 100 October innings.
"[If] you control the running game," Molina said, "good things are going to happen."
The Red Sox were 22-7 in regular-season games that saw them steal at least two bases. The Cardinals were 79-48 in games in which they didn't allow any.
It isn't just Molina, though. As Red Sox veteran David Ross said, "As a catcher -- and I feel I do a decent job of controlling the running game -- if a pitcher doesn't give me a good time, I have no shot. It falls just as much on the pitcher as it does the catcher."
But it isn't really times to the plate that they're worried about in St. Louis. Going to a slide step has a tendency of weakening a pitcher's stuff, and with Molina behind the plate, the Cardinals don't necessarily have to make that sacrifice.
"Here, it's more about staying within yourself and varying your looks," 38-year-old Cards reliever Randy Choate said.
"It's just not getting into patterns where they can really count and get that jump. You definitely don't have to slide step as much here. You don't have to do too many things. It's more about changing your looks from first to second to make sure they stay closer and give Yadi a chance."
The Red Sox coaching staff has spent a lot of these last three days poring over video to try to pick up any sort of tendencies within the Cardinals' pitching staff -- when they throw over to first base, what the trigger is for Molina to attempt a pickoff, in which counts pitchers are more likely to bounce a breaking ball, etc.
Molina's presence won't impact the Red Sox's first-to-third aggressiveness, but it will definitely impact how and when they look to steal.
In the end, Red Sox manager John Farrell said, "The game will dictate what we'll be able to do."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.