BOSTON -- If St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright wants a primer on the challenges that the Boston Red Sox lineup will present in Game 1 of the World Series, he could do worse than pondering the words of two of the most imposing starters in the American League.
He'd just better be prepared for some mixed messages.
When we last saw the Sox in action, they were celebrating an AL pennant forged on toughness and opportunism, airtight relief pitching and a couple of timely grand slams against a beleaguered Detroit bullpen. Tigers starters posted a 2.06 ERA in the American League Championship Series and struck out 55 Boston batters in 39 1/3 innings, so they clearly did their part.
In the end, which attributes of the Boston lineup impressed Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander the most? Scherzer was quick to give the Red Sox their props after Boston eliminated the Tigers in six games to advance to the World Series.
"They have speed, they have power and they hit for average," Scherzer said. "They have lefties and they have righties. You name it. They're able to grind out at-bats, draw walks and do all the little things. That's what makes them difficult. If you give them too many free passes, you're asking for trouble."
Verlander wasn't nearly as effusive in his praise -- although he's admittedly no diplomat when it comes to assessing opposing hitters.
"I think we pitched them pretty dag-gone well," Verlander said, "so you're asking the wrong guy."
Wainwright will find out just how formidable the Red Sox are for himself at Fenway Park on Wednesday night, when he takes on Jon Lester in a matchup of what most baseball observers consider the two most complete, well-rounded teams in the game.
The Red Sox led the majors with a run differential of plus-197 this season, while the Cardinals ranked second at plus-187. Boston led the majors with 853 runs scored, while St. Louis ranked first in the NL at 783. The Sox and Cards also finished the regular season with identical 97-65 records, making this the first time that two teams with the best records in each league have met in the World Series since the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves hooked up in 1999.
If the main October theme persists, the World Series will be a tight, low-scoring affair. The Red Sox survived the first two rounds while batting .236 as a team and averaging 4.5 runs per game (despite scoring 19 runs in back-to-back wins over Tampa Bay's Matt Moore and David Price in the Division Series). The Cardinals captured the NL pennant even though they hit .210 with a .610 OPS against Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in the playoffs. With the exception of an early outburst against A.J. Burnett in the NLDS and a startling display of patience and tenacity against Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS clincher, St. Louis' offense was downright meek.
Things aren't likely to change much given the two pitchers on the mound in Game 1. Wainwright, 32, has developed into the quintessential staff leader-workhorse in the mold of his role model, Chris Carpenter. He's already thrown 264 2/3 innings this season, and has a chance to become the first pitcher to exceed 280 innings between the regular season and playoffs since Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks both achieved the feat.
All that wear and tear hasn't had much of an impact on Wainwright. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he has recorded 15 strikeouts with his curveball in three postseason starts, and opponents have missed on 29 of 63 swings against the pitch. His fastball velocity is also up a tick in October, from 91 to 93 mph, so hitters can't afford to sit on the breaking ball without being late against the heat.
Lester enjoyed considerable success with his cutter against Tampa Bay and Detroit in the playoffs, and did a nice job of bearing down to minimize the damage during jams. In his first three playoff starts, Lester held opponents to a .188 average (3-for-16) with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals batted an impressive .330 with men in scoring position during the regular season, so something has to give.
As the World Series progresses, several other matchups and individual performances will help determine where this thing is headed:
• How will St. Louis RBI machine Allen Craig respond to the DH role after missing seven weeks with a foot injury? It's never easy coming back from an extended absence at this time of year, when the pressure is suffocating and the pitching staffs are so formidable. But Detroit's Jhonny Peralta batted .333 (11-for-33) with five extra-base hits in the playoffs after a 50-game Biogenesis suspension, so it can be done.
• What will happen when Boston's top-of-the-lineup speed encounters Yadier Molina, the most formidable defensive catcher of his era, and a St. Louis staff that's conditioned to try to stifle the running game? The Red Sox stole 123 bases during the regular season with a dazzling 87 percent success rate. The Cardinals, in contrast, allowed opponents to steal only 39 bases in a paltry 65 attempts. Again, something has to give.
• The regular-season numbers suggest that the top of Boston's order is equipped to handle the hard stuff. Jacoby Ellsbury (16-for-35, .457), Shane Victorino (10-for-30, .333) and David Ortiz (11-for-34, .324) all fared well from April through September in at-bats versus right-handed pitchers that ended with fastballs of 95 mph or better.
But things have a way of changing in October, when the bats begin to drag because of fatigue and accumulated injuries. Ortiz went 2-for-22 against Detroit in the ALCS, and his climactic grand slam in Game 2 came off a 74 mph changeup from Joaquin Benoit.
"Big Papi got overmatched hard," said a scout. "There's a lot of power in that St. Louis bullpen and rotation. And Molina really knows how to move a hitter in and out, back and forth, up and down. He does such a good job of making fastballs look even better."
• Boston's lineup is consistently referred to as "relentless" for its patience and ability to drive up opposing starters' pitch counts, but how much of an advantage is it for the Red Sox given the power arms that St. Louis can run out from its pen? Yes, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez & Co. are young and relatively inexperienced. But their stuff is awfully good.
The Cardinals might have a greater incentive to get into Boston's bullpen early given the relative lack of depth at manager John Farrell's disposal. Brandon Workman could play an important role in the series as a reliable arm in front of Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara, the only relievers that Farrell can really trust at the moment. If the Cardinals could force Kershaw to throw 48 pitches in an inning, they have reason to be hopeful they can do it against Clay Buchholz or Jake Peavy.
"Boston gets a lot of credit for grinding out at-bats and taking a lot of pitches," said an NL scout. "But I think St. Louis' hitters do a better job of leaving their egos in the dugout and cutting down their swings than any group in baseball."
A random sampling of talent evaluators came up with some wide-ranging picks for potential dark-horse heroes. St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams, the pride of Slippery Rock University, had a big first series against Pittsburgh and could be a factor against Boston's righties. Conversely, Red Sox rookie Xander Bogaerts looked right in his element after taking over at third base for Will Middlebrooks late in the Detroit series. One veteran NL scout began his assessment of Bogaerts' skills with a deep breath and the exclamation "Holy mackerel!" That about sums it up.
At some point in the next week, maybe Dustin Pedroia will inspire the Red Sox with a clutch hit or great defensive play, or Carlos Beltran will further enhance his Hall of Fame credentials with another indelible October moment. Is Boston slugger Mike Napoli in store for another round of postseason beard-tugging, or will Matt Holliday, David Freese and Craig flip the narrative on its side by playing pepper with the Green Monster?
Even in this age of endless media banter, statistical analysis and Twitter overload, there comes a time for the talk and speculation to end and the games to begin. The pre-World Series interviews are done and the advance scouting reports are on file. It's time to play ball.