Commentary: World Series should be a classic

BOSTON — When the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox look at each other, they see a mirror image. OK, maybe not a mirror image. The Cardinals don’t have any players who look like Ulysses S. Grant, Grateful Dead lead singer Jerry Garcia, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, or Uncle Jesse from the old TV show “Dukes of Hazzard.”

You can’t even find a guy who looks like a respectable Civil War re-enactor in the Cards’ clubhouse. But in this compelling Beards vs. Birds World Series matchup, these simple truths are evident:

The Cardinals and Boston Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball. They have the highest-scoring offenses in their respective leagues.

They have very good rotations and imposing bullpens that peaked during October’s push to the pennant. They each enjoy a tremendous home-field advantage.

And generally speaking — and sure it’s become cliché — the Cards and Sox play hardball. They are quite serious about it. Their hitters extend at-bats and exhaust pitchers. Their own pitchers will throw inside with a purpose. They’ll break up double plays with considerable zeal. They’ll run into walls to catch a ball. Getting the uniform dirty and ripped isn’t an option.

This is baseball raised from the badlands: The Cardinals and Red Sox will keep pushing until it’s understood. You’ve got to live it every day.

“It’s a team that’s very similar to ours,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Tuesday at Fenway Park. “You hear some of the things that they say, and it’s a lot of similar things that have been preached in our clubhouse — that it’s about team, it’s not about us individually.

“And grinding out at-bats and playing tough, playing hard, playing all the way through nine. Those are the things that I believe set good teams apart, and that’s what they’re all about.”

And since I’m shamelessly trafficking in Springsteen lyrics, let’s throw in another one: no retreat, no surrender.

“There’s a relentless approach to play a complete game every night,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “We look to be relentless in every aspect of the game.”

So how will the 2013 World Series separate the winner from the loser? When you have baseball clones going at it, success and failure will probably be determined by a few factors. Some are obvious; others not so much.

For example:

Can the Cardinals win a game at Fenway Park? Since the current DH rules for the World Series went into effect in 1986, the team with the home field advantage has won 21 of 26 Fall Classics. Since 2004 the Red Sox are 100-57 at home against NL teams. That includes a 4-0 record in the World Series.

National Leaguers aren’t comfortable there. There’s an exceedingly boisterous home crowd, the intimidating left-field wall, the crazy angles in the outfield. It’s easy to become dizzy in this funhouse.

Can one of the rotations dominate? Tough call, but if Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha are on — and they’ll start four games if the series goes seven — they’re capable of burying lineups and can own this series. The Red Sox probably have the deeper rotation, though.

Will the Cardinals experience bizarre defensive mishaps that turn a potential conquest into defeat? According to baseball analyst John Dewan of the Fielding Bible, the Red Sox defense saved their pitchers 24 runs this season. The Cardinals’ range-limited defense cost their pitchers 39 runs this season. In a closely contested series, the gloves could really matter.

The Allen Craig factor: No team has a designated hitter with the credentials of Boston’s David Ortiz. But in Craig the Cardinals are adding a potential force to the DH role. Over the past two seasons Craig has driven in 189 ?runs, averages an RBI every 5.17 at-bats, and is at the top of the list with a .427 average when runners are in scoring position.

In the 2004 and 2007 World Series losses to Boston, Cardinals and Rockies designated hitters combined to go 0 for 11 with seven strikeouts. Obviously Craig can make a big difference. The only question is Craig’s game-ready sharpness after being out with a foot injury since Sept. 4.

Who will win territorial rights to the strike zone? Boston hitters swing at fewer first pitches, take more pitches and average more pitches per plate appearance than any MLB team. Their patience helps them control the counts. And once the Bostonians get ahead in the count, they’re happy to accept a walk; the Sox led the majors in on-base percentage. If the opposing pitcher decides to groove one, that’s good with the Red Sox. They jump on the mistake.

However, if pitchers get ahead of the Red Sox hitters, the advantage shifts. The Red Sox will strike out … a lot. They had one of the worst swing-and-miss rates in the majors this season, and their contact rate on pitches in the strike zone ranked 26th among 30 teams according to FanGraphs. Boston hitters set a franchise record for most strikeouts in a regular season, and already have struck out 106 times in 10 postseason games.

The Cardinals have plenty of swing-and-miss pitchers in the rotation and the bullpen. This can be a good matchup for St. Louis. But their pitchers can’t get cute. They can’t nibble.

After a 2-0 count this season the Red Sox bat .368. After a 2-1 count, they bat .428. After a 3-1 count, their average is .381.

After an 0-1 count, the Red Sox bat .250. After a 1-2 count, they hit .204. And they’re at .195 after an 0-2 count.

Get ahead, expand the zone, and the Red Sox (like all teams) aren’t nearly as formidable.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do, and that’s control counts,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “And if we stay in positive pitching counts, it will bode well for us. It’s what we’ve done all year, and we’re not going to break from that mentality of attacking the strike zone.”

The bullpens will be crucial. First of all, the Red Sox relievers have been phenomenal this month, with an ERA of 0.84 in 32 postseason innings. The Cardinals’ bullpen will have to match their rivals on the Boston side.

That’s essential if the Cardinals hope to foil Boston’s plan to run up high pitch counts, knock the starter from the game, then attack a vulnerable bullpen. That’s how the Red Sox came back to beat the Tigers in two critical games in the AL championship series. The Cardinals’ pen should prove to be a more difficult challenge for the Red Sox. In their seven postseason wins, the Cardinals’ relievers didn’t allow a run (and only six hits) in 18 2/3 innings.

This should be a great series. Which is exactly what you’d expect from MLB’s best teams.

“I can’t wait to get this thing started,” Cards third baseman David Freese said. “St. Louis, Boston, Fenway Park, Busch Stadium. This should be a ridiculous amount of fun.”

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