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Time Out for Sports Talk: The Road Through Sox-tober (Magic Number = 4)

Todd: Just mere hours before the start of the 2013 World Series, I still can’t help but pinch myself.  Did I actually watch the Boston Red Sox rebound from the worst season of my lifetime to get to where they are right now, playing at Fenway Park on the 23rd of October?

Over the course of the last 14 months, this team has truly pulled off one of the more incredible 180’s in sports history.  Hope began in August of 2012 when GM Ben Cherington unloaded over $250M in long-term player contracts.  Then after Ben jettisoned manager Bobby Valentine for the sane John Farrell, he spent the offseason signing players who seemed to be either past their prime or never had one at all.

Then when this new club finally took the field, they lost their top two closers before the first day of summer, still managed to win an absurd number of games in their last at-bat, improved by 28 games to complete a worst-to-first finish and won the AL East.  If that wasn’t enough, they defeated the Rays in the ALDS and knocked off the talented Tigers in the ALCS.  While I correctly predicted the Sox would beat the Tigers in six games, the way they did so was so unlikely not even Nostradamus in the prime of his prognosticating career could have seen it coming.

It amazed me that a team that hit so well all season only managed a collective .202 batting average in the ALCS, set a new MLB record for most batters to strike out in a postseason series (73), and yet somehow still won four out of six games.  If you do the math, Sox hitters failed to put the ball in play an average of four innings per game, but when they did manage to hit it in fair territory they were an impressive 39-for-120, highlighted by two long home runs in Detroit by Mike Napoli and bookended by grand slams at Fenway from David Ortiz and Shane Victorino (the first time that a pair of slams have ever been hit in the postseason against the opponent’s bullpen).  And didn’t it seem fitting that former Sox infielder Jose Iglesias would make the series’ final out?

Watching the Sox this postseason reminded me a little of 2003 when a bullpen with some question marks kicked it up a notch from their performance in the regular season, but the similarities to those playoffs ended when the Sox won the ALCS.  Instead of resisting the urge to turn to his bullpen the way Grady Little did in New York that fateful night 10 years ago, John Farrell actually rode his hot bullpen arms even more, asking them to get 11 and 12 outs in games 5 and 6 when Lester and Buchholz ran out of gas.  Now this postseason reminds me more of 2004, and hopefully drawing the same World Series opponent as back then again proves to be the championship-winning formula.

Can’t complete up my ALCS recap without some love for Xander Bogaerts, because all the 21-year old wonderkid has done this postseason is walk five times and hit three doubles in 11 plate appearances.  It’s easy to remember the Game 6 grannie from Victorino and even the unpredictable Iglesias error that preceded it.  But it was Xander who drove likely Cy Young winner Max Scherzer from the game by drawing a walk, opening the door to both the Tiger bullpen and another comeback win for the Sox.

If Bogaerts can continue to show this kind of plate discipline while also getting on base, I think Farrell may have found his 2014 leadoff hitter after Ellsbury departs Boston for big bucks elsewhere.  But I digress…let’s talk World Series!

Just to show you how much the Red Sox and Cardinals are practically mirror images of one another, here are some of their numbers from the 2013 season.  Can you guess which team is which?

Team ‘A’: 97-65 regular season, .269 BA, .332 OBP, 4.8 runs scored/game, +187 run differential (2nd in MLB), 3.42 ERA.  In the postseason, the pitching staff has compiled a 2.34 ERA overall while the bullpen alone has posted a 1.80 ERA and an opponents’ batting average of .177 over 30 innings.

Team ‘B’: 97-65 regular season, .277 BA, .349 OBP, 5.3 runs/game, +197 run differential (1st in MLB), 3.79 ERA.  In the postseason, the pitching staff has a 3.05 ERA while the bullpen has posted a 0.84 ERA and an opponents BA of .209 over 32 innings.

Pretty close, huh?  Team ‘A’ would be the St. Louis Cardinals, who like the Red Sox struggled to hit in the LCS (.211 team BA) but like the Sox finished off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games.

Also of note, this the first time since 1999 (Yankees-Braves) that the World Series features the two winningest teams in MLB, and the first Series since the last Red Sox-Cardinals WS matchup in 2004 featuring the top two teams in run differential.

I’ll confess that I’ve spent the last couple of days reading up on the Cardinals because I only saw a little of the NLCS and otherwise didn’t see them play at all since the Sox didn’t face them this year.  One stat that jumped out at me is that during the regular season St. Louis had a .330 team batting average with runners in scoring position, so practically one out of every three times they had runners at second and/or third they came up with a hit.

Just like the Sox, these Cards have consistently been able to come up with the timely hit thanks to a strong heart of the batting order that includes Matt Holliday, Allen Craig (returning to the lineup after missing six the last six weeks with a foot injury) and 16-year veteran Carlos Beltran, who has hit .337 with 16 hit home runs in 45 career postseason games.

Another reason this matchup will be the Sox’ toughest to date is because the advantages they had over Detroit in the ALCS—team speed and being able to exploit the Tigers’ weak bullpen—will be mitigated.  The Cardinals have a deep pen of young power arms (closer Trevor Rosenthal and setup man Carlos Martinez can both register 100 mph on the radar gun) and a catcher in Yadier Molina who might just be the best in the game today at throwing out base runners (this season he threw out 43 percent of attempted base stealers and has thrown out 45 percent in his career).

Even though Sox fans didn’t get the dream of a Boston-LA fall classic, this ought to be an epic World Series featuring two complete teams with deep rosters and strong pitching.  While the Sox will be hurt losing the DH for the three games in St. Louis (meaning that either Ortiz or Napoli will have to sit), having a potential seventh game at Fenway gives them a huge advantage.  My suggestion to Sox Nation is to make sure your kids get home early from trick-or-treating on Halloween night so you can all sit down and enjoy the treat of the third Red Sox championship in the last decade.  Just typing that last sentence makes me want to pinch myself again!

Mike:  Wow…is it real, are the Sox really back in the World Series? Like Todd said, it doesn’t seen like it could possibly be real. After the debacle of 2012, to have the team back on the verge of a championship is like a gift that you can’t believe you are getting.

I must admit, I was a bit nervous during Game 6, it must have been part of my old pre-2004 feelings coming to the surface, figuring they would find a way to blow it. So it was all that more glorious to see Victorino’s grand slam leave the park! In fact, I was so excited, I managed to go from a sitting position on my couch to standing on it without even knowing how I managed to do it!

All in all, it was one of the most exciting ALCS that I can remember in a long time, with the possible exception of the epic comeback against the Yankees in 2004. And I am eternally grateful that Boston took it in six, because, as I said to my wife after the clincher, I wasn’t sure if I could have taken the intensity of a seventh game, I was emotionally wrung out after six, I needed a few days away from it to get ready for the World Series.

Now looking forward to the World Series, Todd has done a thorough job of breaking it down, so I’m going to spare you more stats (he’s so much better at that than I am), I’m just going to write as a fan.

I woke up nervous this morning, and I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that it was because of the World Series starting…which is kind of pathetic, I realize.

But as a fan who came of age in the 1970s (my first game was in 1975), I truly realize how special this is, and it isn’t something that should be taken for granted. The younger Boston fans out there are used to sports success, but believe me, it isn’t always this way. We got kind of spoiled in 2004 and 2007 with championships, but keep in mind that the Sox have the chance to win a third title in a decade, something that hasn’t happened in almost 100 years!

It’s been six years since the Red Sox have played this deep into October, and it’s just the fifth time in my life (1975, 1986, 2004 and 2007) that it has happened, so I’m just going to savor it as much as I can, because you never know when it will happen again.

Oh yeah, Sox in six. I don’t want to contemplate the horrors of a Game 7 on Halloween…

Check out more Time Out For Sports Talk on Facebook and Twitter. You can watch the TOST show here.

The next live show is coming up Monday night, October 28 at a special early time of 7:00-8:00pm, serving as your unofficial pregame show to World Series Game #5.  You can post your Red Sox questions and comments on Twitter using the hashtag #TOSToct28.

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