BOSTON — In the best October battles, both protagonists on the World Series stage take turns showing the best and worst of themselves, the key stars who might lead them to a title and the flaws that might unravel their hopes. Each watches the other, measuring, testing and looking for the next advantage.
In just two nights the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox now have plenty to digest, and lose sleep over, before they meet again. The long tangled Series that many hope these Cards and Sox can provide started to become reality Thursday night in Fenway Park with a 4-2 St. Louis win.
St. Louis — the real Cardinals, not the clumsy imposters of Game 1 — overcame a go-ahead two-run homer by Boston’s David Ortiz with a three-run rally in the seventh inning to knot this struggle at a game apiece.
The key play of the night was a game-tying sacrifice fly by Matt Carpenter in that seventh that turned into a disastrous Red Sox circus. Reliever Craig Breslow, backing up home plate, suddenly found himself in possession of an errant throw. In a moment of haste or panic or simple human fallibility, Breslow tried to throw out the Cardinals’ Jon Jay advancing to third. He probably had Jay dead. That is, if he hadn’t frozen for an instant, then hurled the ball into the third base box seats on the fly. The winning run scored on his heave and the insurance run moved from first to third where Carlos Beltran, the Cards’ clutch answer to Big Papi, scored him with a hit.
Thus, in one crazy instant, the Red Sox had nightmares of their own to match the ugly memories that St. Louis inflicted on itself one night earlier.
In a span of 27 hours, both teams showed they could butcher enough defensive plays to generate a loss. Boston discovered its ace Jon Lester matched up well in a Game 1 win against a St. Louis team that was 19-23 against southpaws this year.
John Lackey, with almost no exposure to St. Louis hitters in his career, had worried the Red Sox stat freaks who couldn’t get their computer Carmine to say whether the Cardinals would crush him. Lackey looked first rate.
However, the new information in this game, and sobering news for the Red Sox, was their first glimpse of three of the best young arms in baseball. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal closed out the ninth with 11 pitches, all fastballs from 95 to 98 mph, except the final pitch which touched 99 to strike out the side. He was preceded by rookie Carlos (Little Pedro) Martinez, 22, whose gas range reached 98 with diving movement, plus a tight curveball that was so evil it did indeed evoke the former Boston ace.
But the central figure again for the Cardinals, the winner of this game, and before this Series is over perhaps this classic’s central figure, was winning pitcher Michael Wacha, a 22-year-old rookie who has now started four postseason games, won all four and has a 1.00 ERA after giving up only two runs in six innings in Game 2.
“I didn’t have my best stuff tonight,” said Wacha. Yet it was good enough to win a vital World Series game with his team facing a two-game deficit before 38,436 decidedly unsympathetic fans in Fenway.
Just so you know what you are watching, Wacha, the 19th player taken overall taken in the 2012 draft, is the baseball equivalent of hitting the lottery.
Almost nothing in baseball is as rife with pure chance, as impelled by dumb luck, as trying to pick a great starting pitcher in the first 20 picks in the June amateur draft. The idea that Wacha could be the dominant figure in this entire postseason, and the foundation stone of a possible 12th world title for St. Louis, is so ridiculously wonderful that you just grin stupidly watching it happen.
Since the draft began in 1965, hundreds of pitchers have been picked from No. 1 to No. 20. Only one of them, Roger Clemens, who also was taken 19th, has Hall of Fame statistics. “Projecting” high school or college pitchers is about one step up from necromancy, trying to guess which kids have the spirits of the great Old Ones lurking in them waiting to emerge.
Once you get past the 10th pick, you may find a Scott McGregor or a Cole Hamels, a Don Gullett or Chris Carpenter. They exist. But, mostly, you’ve never heard of ’em. They get hurt. They can hum-babe, but not with big-league precision. Their confidence cracks, their presence melts to mush.
The notion that, less than 18 months after he pitched for Texas A&M, Wacha could allow only three runs in 27 postseason innings with four wins seems preposterous even to the Cards themselves. Yet St. Louis also took a pitcher with the 19th pick in the ’09 draft and, this season, he turned out to be their 15-win rookie Shelby Miller.
When you hit that lottery twice in four drafts, maybe that’s scouting, analytics and Cardinal experience, too.
Many teams who passed on Wacha now will ask for patience for their own draft picks to mature; they’ll express confidence that the verdict remains out on their wisdom. The Nats are among that group, and with some logic. Their choice, at 16th overall, was 6-foot-6 Lucas Giolito, 19, who’s now back from elbow ligament replacement surgery and has hit 100 mph again in the low minors.
But prospects aren’t stars like Wacha. Without him and Miller during the regular season, St. Louis would be at home now — watching.
Now it is the Red Sox who must spend two days wondering if their sloppy seventh inning, like the ugly early innings by the Cardinals in Game 1, is an omen. Breslow not only made a wild throw but also allowed a double steal and a walk to the No. 9 hitter to load the bases before Carpenter’s innocent-looking but lethal little fly to weak-armed Jonny Gomes in left.
Improvisation in a moment of Series crisis, like the one that Breslow faced, is almost terrifying to watch. The acts of pitching and hitting practiced constantly. But when an outfield throw barely escapes your catcher and suddenly appears in your glove, what do you do with Cards flying everywhere? Close World Series games turn on such utterly unforeseen moments.
“That’s not characteristic of the way we have taken care of the baseball this year,” said Boston Manager John Farrell.
Now the Red Sox must play three games in St. Louis without a designated hitter, meaning either Ortiz or big bopper Mike Napoli will have to sit. Jake Peavy, Boston’s Game 3 starter, has a 10.41 postseason ERA because he’s always been wound far too tight in October. So in a day, the balance of anxiety has shifted, as it may several more times.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.