Sunday, October 20, 2013


The best teams won.

The World Series will have the perfect set-up to be a classic; it will match up not the hottest or the luckiest, but the best team in each league, the Boston Red Sox and Saint Louis Cardinals.

It gives me no pleasure to report this.  I rooted against the Sawx and the Cards in every series up the playoff ladder.  But truth is truth.  And is that one the grand things about sports, they tell the truth, winners always win, losers (however gallantly or undeservedly) always lose, and the result does sum up the story of the event.

This time, the truth about baseball 2013 is remarkably affirming.  The best teams won for all the right reasons: they had the best front office managers, the best on-field manager and the best mix of very talented players, almost all of whom had years to be proud of.

The second-bests, the losers in the recent League Championship Series, the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers were worthy pretenders.  Their executive managers, field managers, and most of their players had good years and decent post-seasons, but not with the breadth, depth and consistency of the winners.

The teams assembled in Boston and St Louis over the year are great credits to their General Managers, Ben Cherington and John Mozeliak.  Cherington’s makeover of last year’s last-place finishers will be noted in baseball’s history books.

Among Boston’s starting lineup, only Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Second Baseman Dustin Pedroia, Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Designated Hitter David Ortiz were inherited.  Third Baseman Will Middlebrooks was moving from a rookie year spent largely in the minors or on the bench to a starting role.  He did OK and is likely to be replaced next year.  In fact, it looks like he was replaced 2 games ago by another of the delightful young talents bursting onto the major league scene, Xander Bogaerts, who already reminds me of Baltimore’s superkid Manny Machado. Tigers’ Shortstop Jose Iglesias came from Cuba to the Red Sox, where, earlier this season, he saved the club while regular SS Steven Drew recovered from an injury.

When Drew got healthy, Iglesias became tradeable (because Bogaerts is already conceded to be Boston’s SS for the next decade.  Lucky Sox.)  Iglesias went to Detroit, where despite a few misplays in the field, he established himself in the Tigers’  just-concluded post-season, as their long-term SS.  Iglesias, who is one of the best fielding shortstops to show up in years, is 23; Bogaerts just turned 21.  In a 3-team maneuver, Boston got for Iglesias, the Chicago Whites Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, who moved into the team’s regular pitching rotation, and pitched consistently well, before having a nightmare outing against the Tigers.  Peavy had great stuff, but no command at all, issuing a bunch of walks – very unusual for him – and watching several pitches move into dangerous hitters’ zones.

The Peavy move was the capstone on Cherington’s year of Great Acquisitions.

He had already changed the batting order considerably by adding free agents outfielders Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, back-up catcher David Ross, and another catcher who would be re-routed to First Base, Mike Napoli and a backup for him, Mike Carp.  Outfielder Daniel Nava who had for years been a pogo-stick that popped up to Boston and down to minor-league Pawtucket was established as the spare.  And they all prospered.

Pedroia fought through injuries, and prevailed.  Ellsbury lost weeks to injury, but came back strong.  The 2 First baseman had among the best years of their careers, enjoying the fabled Fenway Effect (an antique, supremely eccentric playing field, statistically well-established as a “hitter’s park.”).  All the rest played up to who they are, which in the cases of Victorino, Gomes, and Ross meant, not only solid, if middling talents tucked inside tough, serious, focused professional ballplayer bodies, but gregarious spirits, welcomed and appreciated in the clubhouse of every one of the several teams each had played for. 

They helped heal a team which last year had been a study in fragmentation, manager Bobby Valentine at odds with many of the players, and coaches, and among the players themselves, cliques and backbiting seemed to divide pitchers from field players, this one from that one.  It was ugly, and so was the won-lost record.

This year, under manager John Farrell, the gregarious newcomers and proud Red Sox lifers grew together.  They grew beards, many of them, funny beards.  They laughed at them, tugged at them, knitted together around them.

And they remembered how to play baseball.  How take pitches to expose what was being thrown and wear the pitcher out; how to advance and score baserunners, with or without actual basehits; how to string together walks and singles and “keep the line moving” without the traditional Red Sox crop of home runs.  Over the last 20 years, the 2013 team would rank #11 in Home Runs, but #8 in runs scored. 

On the pitching side, they survived.  Their best starter, Clay Buchholtz was hurt for months.  Their big pre-season addition Ryan Dempster was mediocre, and in the bullpen their first 2 closers, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost for most of the season.  But manager Farrell, a former big league starter and pitching coach, and his new pitching Coach Juan Nieves found answers.  Big lefty Felix Doubront proved a serviceable starter, and then Cherington brought in Peavy, and with a healthy Buchholtz, and thriving veterans John Lester and John Lackey near their career peaks, the rotation got good.  The bullpen got just as good, especially as Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara took over the 8th and 9th inning responsibilities.  Uehara always pitched well in Baltimore and Texas, and I always thought I liked him even better than his managers did.  His great half-season in Boston rang every told ya so chime in my body.

Like their hitters, the Red Sox pitchers didn’t overwhelm you, but they consistently out-command you, out-think and out-execute you.  Add it up, and the truth is Boston won more games than any team in its league this year as well as both its playoff series.  They were the best team.

So were the Cardinals, also tops in their league in wins in-season, and playoff victories post-season.  While Ben Cherington radically rebuilt his Sox, John Mozeliak just perfected an already-productive lineup. 

When, standout First Baseman Allen Craig lost 6 weeks to injury, Matt Adams stepped right in and supplied more power, if a lower batting average than Craig.  Second Baseman Matt Carpenter blossomed into one of the best players in the game, breaking team records held by the sainted Stan (the Man) Musial.  SS Pete Kozma, of whom little was expected when he was rushed in from the minors where he was considered a marginal prospect, to fill in for injured Rafael Furcal late last year, has continued to surprise by producing few surprises, good solid defense and barely acceptable offense (although he did produce at crucial moments), enough to keep the pot boiling.  At third, David Freese played hurt all year and it showed.  But he too, performed best when needed most, and the rest of the team more than covered for his less-than-his-best play.  The outfield features the superb glove of John Jay in Center, and the power bats of Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran in Left and Right.  Both Holliday and Beltran excelled in the playoffs.  Beltran is notorious for doing that.

Of all the players mishandled in recent years by the miserable NY Mets, none can compare, in talent and undeserved abuse, to Beltran.  Rushed back from serious injury, Carlos was often ripped, sometimes by anonymous mice from his own front office, in the tabloids’ back pages.  But, he was well-liked and completely respected by his teammates in the clubhouse.  Even when they were left bereft the Mets rank and file celebrated Beltran’s liberation when the Mets traded him to the Giants, from whom he went to the Cardinals..

The key to the Cardinals is their Catcher Yadier Molina.  The only question about this offensive and defensive standout is whether he is the best catcher in the game or the best player in the game.  The youngest, and by far the best, of 3 major league catching brothers, Molina’s arrival was the reason why his manager Mike Matheny, his predecessor as Cardinals backstop, was traded away from St Louis.

Like the Sox, the Cards play smart, consistent, disciplined baseball.  More explosive across the lineup than the Red Sox, they also excel at “small ball.”  They all, like Molina, reflect Matheny’s influence.

Probably not coincidentally, the area of greatest improvement in the Cardinals over Matheny’s 2 year tenure is pitching.  Here, like the Sox, the Cards lost their ace, Chris Carpenter, but not for months, for the whole season.  They also saw their projected 5th starter Jaime Garcia founder.  But luckily Adam Wainwright returned after an injury-ruined 2012 to step in as ace, veteran Lance Lynn performed well, and 2 rookies Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller did even better.  Then, in mid-September, the Cardinals unleashed their 2102 first draft pick Michael Wacha, and from that moment to this one, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball.

In the bullpen, again like the Red Sox, the Cardinals lost their closer, saw his replacement falter and wound up using a stable of rookie or almost-rookie studs whose 95-100 mph stuff has consistently snuffed their opponents.  Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal have given Cardinals’ opponents only 6 innings to get all their scoring done.  From the 7th on, fuggedabouddit.

The two managers, and they should be (notwithstanding several other worthy claimants) the Managers of the Year, share several salient characteristics.

Both were players.  Neither were stars (although Matheny had a stellar “inside” reputation for defense and working with pitchers).  Both speak softly and carefully to the media, but each is reputed for complete control of their rosters.  Both have the same extra motivation to succeed.  Each saw his playing career prematurely ended by injury.

Farrell was a better than average starter for the Indians when he tore an elbow.  He hung on after missing 2 years, to play 3 more, but you and he don’t want to talk about the results.  He was just 33 when he retired.

Matheny was just a year older, an established starter at St Louis and then San Francisco, when a series of foul balls off his mask left him with post-concussion syndrome.  After most of a year on the disabled list, he, too, quickly retired, and without even a year of fallow, or training, or build-up, he was hired by the Cardinals to replace the certain Hall of Fame manager, Tony LaRussa.  His team last year lost in the League Championship Series, 4 games to 3, losing the last 3 in a row.  This year, so far, they’ve won it all, and will probably be favored over the Red Sox.

The teams first game is on Wednesday.  The time off will be good for the pitching staffs and will raise a great question; should the Cardinals open with their veteran ace, and reliable post-season standout Wainwright, or the kid Wacha who is hotter than a Hatch Green Chile? 

I’m pretty sure LaRussa would go with the vet, only slightly less sure about Matheny.  My guess is Lester and Buchholtz will start the first 2 for Boston.

The Cardinals play in a much bigger park than Fenway, and hit fewer home runs.  But doubles?  This team has 9 players with at least 20 2-baggers, 8 with 25 or more…Carpenter and Molina have 99 between ‘em, while Holiday, Craig and Beltran share 90 more.  Look for them to play “wall ball” off Fenway’s “Green Monster” high and shallow behind left field. If they do, the Sox will be hurting.

Boston likes to run.  Yadier Molina is one of the best at stopping stealing.  My guess is, he’ll be tested, and will do fine.

Don’t count out Boston.  This team of bearded characters (and yes, damn right, mine was the first beard in network TV news and sports!!) has character, way beyond the beards and have proved all year, they are winners.  Only the Cardinals deserve the chance to apply a different label.

And speaking of just deserts, the Red Sox and Cardinals have among the most engaged, engaging, knowledgeable, emotional fan bases in baseball.  The crowd cutaways, which can be so distracting, will likely be very entertaining in both Fenway and New Busch Stadium.

 I don’t love either team, but I have to love this Series.  And that, like the eventual outcome, is the truth.





No comments:

Post a Comment