The rematch of the 2004 World Series may feature the same teams, but don't expect anything similar.
Back then, Boston was lead by a bunch of "Idiots" proclaiming their motto "Cowboy Up", a group of dirty (literally) scrappy players that willed their way to reversing an 86-year Boston curse. Now, we have a group of burly (still dirty) bearded men who crush grand slams and tug on each other's facial hair routinely.
The St. Louis Cardinals have changed significantly as well, the only common denominators on their team being two catchers. One, a then 21 year-old-rookie named Yadier Molina starting what would turn out to be a tremendous career. The other, a 33-year-old veteran named Mike Matheney. Both still with the Cardinals organization, with slightly different roles now.
It is the first time since the 1999 season where the two teams with the best regular season record in their respective leagues both reached the World Series. In fact, Boston and St. Louis tied for the best record in all of baseball, both at 97-65. Although their records are similar, their playoff road to get to this point differs significantly.
St. Louis has profited off the bat of one of the most dominant post-season hitters in the history of the game, as well as the arm of a young rookie. Carlos Beltran routinely flies under the radar in the regular season, hitting .283/.359/.496/.854 over his career. In the postseason, those numbers skyrocket to .337/.449/.724/1.173. His defensive presence in right field shouldn't be overlooked either, as his arm has been known to gun out an overconfident baserunner or two. I've heard Jeff Fischer has contacted Beltran about the Rams open QB position with Sam Bradford done for the year, that could just be speculation though.
Michael Wacha, a rookie that was drafted as compensation for Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis (which is ironic in itself) is now 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA and 22 K's in the post-season. He became the first rookie to win a postseason MVP award since Livan Hernandez in 1997. Johnny Manziel may be the most attention-grabbing athlete from Texas A&M today, but Wacha has solidified that #2 spot (and he is also allowed to sign autographs for profit, which he will do quite a bit once the season is over).
To be fair, both Beltran and Wacha have been genetically altered to play in the postseason: Beltran possesses a Clutch gene, and Wacha has ice water running through his veins.
Boston has been the beneficiary of clutch power hitting and the most lights-out bullpen in baseball. If any Red Sox starter gets through six innings, opposing lineups have two words resonating in the back of their minds: Game Over. Connecticut-native Craig Breslow, as well as Japanese pitchers Junichi Tazawa, and Koji Uehara (who may be the most entertaining relief pitcher of all time) have been the backbone of this Boston team. Think back to the beginning of the season, and what the Red Sox bullpen was supposed to be: Andrew Miller, Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan. There was your $12 million relief lineup to start the year. Those guys we're touted as one of the best bullpens in the American League. Nobody had those other guys on the radar, and even up until the postseason, there was significant worry as to how much the bullpen would limit Boston. Now, it's the bullpen that is carrying them.
A lineup that was supposed to be relying on franchise-changing players like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, is now getting key contributions for "overpaid" players coming off down seasons like Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. Nervousness surrounding David Ortiz's contract and Dustin Pedroia's early-season thumb injury has long been eased. Question marks surrounding how Jon Lester and John Lackey would bounce back have been answered. In the right place, at the right time, a team is starting to peak right before our eyes in thrilling fashion each and every night.
But, are they peaking higher than their opponent? That's the question that will be answered over the next week, starting Wednesday night in Fenway Park.
Boston has the home-field advantage thanks to a ridiculous rule that makes an exhibition All-Star game actually have significant meaning. I won't complain this year, but it's dumb, and this is another discussion for another day.
Game 1 will feature a great pitching performance, with the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright likely to face Boston's Jon Lester. After that, I have serious question marks when it comes to St. Louis' pitching, more so than Boston's. Michael Wacha goes in Game 2, and while he has been spectacular in the past month or two, continuing to post numbers like he's had is extremely unlikely. Couple that with him being a rookie, on the biggest stage you could possibly set, on the road. This game will be more of a test of his mental character than his pitching ability. Following that, the Cardinals rotation on the back end with Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn isn't very strong, especially against a potent Boston offense. Unlike in Detroit, where nerves set in if Boston dropped Games 1 and 2, I don't feel as uncomfortable with them dropping a game or two at home.
Official Prediction: Sox in 7. I wanted to say Sox in 6 here, but I'm going to play on the safe side. I'm hoping for a truly exciting series, as these two teams have, in my opinion, the two best fan bases in all of baseball. Along with that, the Cardinals have shown they can really grind out wins. When their pitching is off, their bats pick up the slack, and vice versa. I think Boston has finally gotten the "let's dig ourselves a hole and climb out of it in a thrilling way" mentality out of their system, but don't be surprised if Farrell needs to dig into his bag of tricks to edge out a few victories here.
To be honest, really what this series boils down to is beer. The Cardinals play in Busch Stadium, while the Red Sox play in the heart of Beer Capitol, USA. I'll take a Sam Adams OctoberFest over a Bud heavy every day of the week. So, wherever you like to watch your games, grab a couple cold ones and enjoy the ride, we're in for a fantastic series.
Extra Note: I suggest you listen to an interview we did on a show I'm a producer on for ESPN Radio. Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino joined the Mike Lupica Show on Sunday morning, and when Chairman Tom Werner found out, he decided to call in as well. That makes my life significantly easier, but it also makes for great radio. Check out the interview here: http://espn.go.com/espnradio/play?id=9854565
(Shameless plug: The Mike Lupica Show every Sunday morning from 9-11am ET on ESPN Radio)