If you’re ever going to watch a World Series, watch this one.
The 10 reasons, please.
● Boston and St. Louis are especially fine teams. In the past 40 years, just 14 Series teams have outscored their foes by more than 185 runs in the regular season. And, in that time, no two of them have met head-to-head in the World Series — until now.
● You can’t slide a sheet of paper between the talent levels of the Cardinals and Red Sox. Both won 97 games, and the stats that measure luck say that they should have won even more: St. Louis 101 and Boston 100. Neither has a clear weakness. But neither has a rotation so deep that they might not be vulnerable. This is an ideal match of almost-but-not-quite-great teams.
● This series evokes the era from 1903 through 1968 when the team with the best record in its league went straight to the World Series without running a multiple-round playoff gauntlet. Boston and St. Louis had their league’s best records. This has happened just three times since 1995. If you want to call this a “true” World Series, rather than the autumn crapshoot of recent years, go right ahead.
● Both teams are as close to perfect health as you will ever see. Allen Craig, the best clutch hitter in baseball this year, is back, though gimpy, and can DH in Boston while pinch hitting in the games in St. Louis. Both teams had big injuries before opening day, but they overcame them long ago. Every player that contributed significantly to the success of Boston and St. Louis this season is on the World Series roster. No excuses.
● Each has quality pitching — the Red Sox and Red Birds are ninth and 10th in MLB in ERA+ (ERA adjusted for home park) — but their offenses are even better and drive their success. Each led its league in scoring. Oh, goody. So with luck, this should be an “action” series; that appeals to the mob (and me) more than a bunch of pitchers’ duels. Boston’s offense is more versatile with both power (178 homers) and speed (123 steals). But guess what the Cards do best? Prevent homers and stop stolen bases (Yadier Molina).
● Boston and St. Louis may be the two best baseball towns in America for passion and knowledge. Add “per capita” and discussion might be closed. Newbie Red Sox fans were slow to appreciate this year’s team. But longtime Boston fans loved this club all the way. With a respectful nod to polyglot New York, Boston and St. Louis, cities at extremes of the sociological spectrum, show the range of the appeal of baseball.
● There’s World Series history between these cities, three previous meetings and all still memorable. In ’04, Boston remembers joy, deferred for 86 years, and a duck boat parade. St. Louis recalls its mortified 105-win team blowing a Game 1 slugfest, then getting swept. Everyone in New England, including those who weren’t born in 1967 or 1946, are certain that if ace Jim Lonborg had pitched Game 7 on normal rest, rather then two days’ rest, or Johnny Pesky hadn’t “held the ball,” the curse would have ended sooner — like 37 or 58 years sooner. (Don’t mention Bob Gibson to them; they prefer to forget.)
● The Red Sox have the most recognizable player-invented bonding badge in decades — their beards, a season in the making, that make them look like an Amish Invasion. As foils, the Cards are the most fuzzy-cheeked of World Series teams. Partly because St. Louis is MLB’s neat-nick capital but also because seven Cards pitchers, most of the staff, are in their first or second year in the majors. Will they be gun-shy or obliviously bullet-proof?
● Oh, there’s more. The full-blown shooting star of this postseason, rookie Michael Wacha, 22, will start Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 6 for the Cards. He has had just 12 big league starts, including three in the postseason: three wins and a 0.43 ERA. He reminds me of two poised infants that never woke up in October until their teams had won the World Series: Fernando Valenzuela at 20 and Bret Saberhagen at 21.
● This series has so many story lines, they breed like rabbits. Each team has a star trying to play himself into Cooperstown based as much on spectacular clutch postseason hitting as overall body of work. David Ortiz’s playoff stats mirror his normal numbers, with 15 homers and 54 RBI in 279 postseason at-bats. But his key hits always seem to come at the most memorable moments, such as his ALCS-turning grand slam.
Beside every sober stat analysis of why there is no such thing as clutch hitting, there should be a photo of the Cards’ Carlos Beltran as a partial rebuttal. His 16 homers in 163 at-bats, hitting .337 with a 1.173 on-base-plus-slugging mark, make him Babe Beltran.
Naturally, in such an even series, the Game 1 aces have distinguished postseason résumés: Adam Wainwright, 2.10 ERA in 16 games as both a closer and starter in different Cards seasons and Jon Lester, 2.49 ERA in 61 playoff innings. Others, however, like the Cards’ Lance Lynn and Boston’s Clay Buchholz, who may meet in Game 3, have spotty playoff histories with ERA’s near 5.00.
● Okay, I lied. Here’s Reason 11. In an age of interleague play, this series resembles the game’s ancient times when the main pitchers and hitters are mysteries to each other. Few have ever met, or in just a couple of at-bats. Who owns whom? Nobody knows.
The biggest data sample is still small: Wainwright has held four Sox starters in the Game 1 lineup to 11 hits in 62 at-bats, but three of those four hitters have taken him deep. So, even that is indeterminate. Otherwise, the strategy room is almost pitch-black.
The greatness of a particular World Series cannot be predicted any better than the winners of those World Series can be picked. There are too many variables. A key factor in the NLCS was a costly decision to pinch-run for Adrian Gonzalez in Game 1. Pinch-run? The margin is that narrow? Yes, it often is. With luck, this series will be incredibly close. Both bullpens are high-gas and deep. Both defenses are sure-handed, with the Cards adept at double plays. So, most games will have to be won, not accepted as gifts. Or not.
That glorious “or not,” the unexpected colliding with the preposterous, like lifelong switch-hitter Shane Victorino smacking a pennant-winning grand slam right-handed off a right-handed pitcher, is at the center of why we watch all sports.
So, watch this one. Maybe it won’t live up to expectations. But what if it did?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.