By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – Boston’s bearded band of brothers will go against the burgeoning talents of a remarkable St. Louis Cardinals rookie class in the best-of-seven World Series beginning on Wednesday at the Red Sox home of Fenway Park.
The two best teams in Major League Baseball, representing two of the most rabid fan bases in the sport, renew their rivalry in a fitting championship climax.
American League champions Boston and National League winning St. Louis tied for most wins this season with 97 and led their respective leagues in runs scored.
“They’ve got a fantastic team,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “And a lot of young power arms that will walk to that mound.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said the Red Sox reminded him of his own club in critical ways.
“They’re about doing the little things right — about family, about considering each other and thinking about the team,” Matheny said. “Those are the sorts of things that ring real true with us.”
They last met in the 2004 Fall Classic with the Red Sox ending an 86-year World Series title drought with a four-game sweep of the Cardinals, who had beaten them in seven games in their other two championship showdowns of 1946 and 1967.
Only one player on each side – slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Red Sox and premier catcher Yadier Molina of the Cardinals – carry over from the 2004 teams.
Power-hitting Ortiz and Mike Napoli helped carry the Red Sox past the Detroit Tigers, while extraordinary 22-year-old rookie pitcher Michael Wacha shut down the Los Angeles Dodgers twice for St. Louis, who like Boston won their pennant in six games.
Roaring crowds of red-clad fans packing each home park should be treated to a highly competitive series.
Both clubs have strong starting rotations with Boston featuring Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz, while the Cardinals counter with a group led by Adam Wainwright and whiz kid Wacha.
St. Louis might have advantage at the top of the rotation, with Wacha having allowed just nine hits and one run over his last 29 2/3 innings, but the resourceful Red Sox managed to get through the fearsome troika of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez in eliminating the Tigers.
The bullpens of both teams have been formidable with Boston thriving with the late-game efficiency of closer Koji Uehara and set-up men Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow.
Uehara, named the American League Championship Series most valuable player, pitched six scoreless innings in that series, notching one win and three saves. An uncanny strike thrower with a devastating, diving splitter, Uehara has not walked a batter since early August.
The Cardinals bullpen is loaded with hard-throwing rookies with Trevor Rosenthal serving as the closer, touching 100 mph with his fastball, aided by fellow first-year players in Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist.
Boston’s attack may be more explosive as demonstrated by the grand slam home runs blasted by Ortiz and Shane Victorino that swung games their way against Detroit, and the homer hit by Napoli that provided the only run in another of their wins.
But St. Louis boasts a premier postseason hitter of their own in Carlos Beltran, making his first World Series appearance of his 17-year career, and help could be on the way with the expected return of Allen Craig.
Craig drove in 97 runs and batted an incredible .454 with runners in scoring position this season before being sidelined in early September by a foot injury but appears ready to serve as designated hitter.
The designated hitter spot is used only in games hosted in the American League park. The lack of the DH role when the series shifts to St. Louis for the middle three games will rob the Red Sox of one of their more productive bats.
Ortiz, Boston’s regular DH, is only fit to play first base, the position played by Napoli.
Regardless of the outcome, the World Series winner will be celebrated for bouncing back from disappointment in 2012.
The Red Sox went from worst to first after a dysfunctional 69-93 season, achieving that feat in unusual fashion by dumping high-priced players and replacing them with veterans who changed the chemistry of the clubhouse.
The additions of Napoli, Victorino and Jonny Gomes not only helped on the diamond but fostered team spirit when they took to growing long beards that became a trademark of the club.
The transformation of more than half the club did not stop on the field, as Boston traded with Toronto to acquire their manager Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach who brought stability and guided starters Lester and Buchholz to a return to form.
St. Louis looked poised to return to the World Series last season following a rousing seven-game triumph over Texas in 2011 before squandering a 3-1 lead over San Francisco in the NLCS.
Then they lost top starting pitcher Chris Carpenter to injury in spring training.
Riding to the rescue were a posse of rookie pitchers led by Wacha, who have made a strength out of a pitching staff that could have headed in the wrong direction.