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Baseball's top two clubs evenly matched in Series

Baseball's top two clubs evenly matched in Series

Baseball's top two clubs evenly matched in Series

BOSTON -- You want the two best teams playing in baseball's biggest stage?

Well, here they are.

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The Cardinals, who beat the Dodgers in six National League Championship Series games, paced the Senior Circuit with a 97-65 record and ranked second in the Majors with a run-differential of plus-201. The Red Sox, fresh off eliminating the Tigers in six American League Championship Series games, led the Junior Circuit with a 97-65 record and ranked first in the Majors with a run-differential of plus-212.

On Wednesday night at Fenway Park (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX/8:07 p.m. first pitch), two of the most storied franchises in baseball will meet in the World Series for the fourth time, and the first since Boston swept St. Louis in 2004.

The Red Sox, searching for their eighth title and third in the last 10 years, bring baseball's most productive offense and a slew of battle-tested veterans. The Cardinals, looking for the franchise's 12th championship and third in the last eight years, boast a young, lights-out pitching staff and probably the best situational-hitting team in the Majors.

And both, few would argue, are the best in their respective leagues.

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of how these two teams match up, with input from those who cover them on a daily basis.

CATCHER
This is a position pitting Yadier Molina against Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But the most intriguing matchup here lies with the Cardinals' catcher going up against the Red Sox's baserunners. Molina is the gold standard behind the plate, an NL MVP candidate who's widely considered the toughest of all to run on. And Boston ranked fourth in the Majors in stolen bases this season, with its leadoff hitter -- Jacoby Ellsbury -- leading the Majors in steals. Head to head, Saltalamacchia continues to evolve behind the plate and is coming off a very solid season, but he's no Molina. Nobody is, really.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals

FIRST BASE
It's safe to say both teams have received a lot more production than they expected out of this position. The left-handed-hitting Matt Adams has filled in admirably for Allen Craig, posting a .284/.335/.503 slash line in 108 games during the regular season, but he's struggled against lefties all year and went just 5-for-22 in the NLCS. Mike Napoli, the right-handed-hitting ex-catcher, has played surprisingly good defense at first base, while posting a .259/.360/.482 slash line in 139 regular-season games and hitting two big home runs in the ALCS.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

SECOND BASE
The most talent in this series, at least with regards to the everyday players, comes from this position. Matt Carpenter is sure to get some NL MVP votes after a 2013 season that saw him bat .318/.392/.481 while leading the NL in doubles (55), hits (199) and runs scored (126). But Dustin Pedroia is the proven one here. He's a four-time All-Star, has batted .305/.372/.457 in his seven full seasons and is in his second World Series. He gets the slight edge based on track record, but Carpenter has had the better season, his 7.0 fWAR topping Pedroia's 5.4.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

THIRD BASE
David Freese has struggled mightily for the Cardinals in these playoffs, with just seven hits in 37 at-bats. But the sentiment around St. Louis is that it may only be a matter of time before the 30-year-old gets going again. He's had too many big hits for this franchise in October. And if Game 6 of the NLCS -- when Freese went 2-for-4 with a walk -- was any indication, perhaps he's starting to find his swing right now. The Red Sox are likely to use the 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts, who has drawn five walks in 11 postseason plate appearances and has taken over for the struggling Will Middlebrooks.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals

SHORTSTOP
Stephen Drew of the Red Sox and Pete Kozma of the Cardinals can pick it with the best of them, but they need to give their respective teams more at the plate. Kozma batted .217/.275/.273 during the regular season and went 1-for-15 in the NLCS. Drew has gone 3-for-35 with 12 strikeouts in the playoffs -- but he has a lot more in him. The left-handed hitter batted .320/.417/.578 against righties during the second half this season.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

LEFT FIELD
It looks like the right-handed-slugging Jonny Gomes has taken playing time away from the switch-hitting Daniel Nava, regardless of Nava's .322 batting average against righties this season. Gomes started four of the Red Sox's six ALCS games -- all against righties -- though he went just 3-for-16 with one double. Matt Holliday is coming off yet another solid season in St. Louis, batting .300 with 22 homers and 94 RBIs, and he has a .244/.261/.444 line in the No. 3 spot during the playoffs.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals

CENTER FIELD
Ellsbury stayed healthy and proved once again -- with a .298/.355/.426 line and 52 stolen bases -- that he is one of the best center fielders in baseball. And while Ellsbury continued to surge in October, posting a .400 batting average and a .467 on-base percentage, the Cardinals' Jon Jay has struggled with the glove and with the bat.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

RIGHT FIELD
Shane Victorino, in the words of a champagne-soaked David Ortiz, "is a money player." The Red Sox figured, despite all his struggles in the playoffs, that the gritty Hawaiian would step up at some point. And in the seventh inning in Game 6 on Saturday, with his team down a run, Victorino finally did, lofting a grand slam over the Green Monster to lead the Red Sox to the World Series. But he's no Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals' right fielder is a career .337/.449/.724 hitter in the playoffs, with more postseason home runs (16) than Babe Ruth. At last, the 36-year-old reached his first World Series -- and he'll be a force to be reckoned with.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals

DESIGNATED HITTER
The Cardinals got a big boost at this position via Sunday's workout, when Craig -- out since Sept. 4 because of a left foot injury -- took part in a simulated game and declared himself ready to be activated for the Fall Classic. Craig batted .315/.373/.457 before going down, and he has stepped up in postseasons past. Ortiz, however, has never left. He batted .309 with 30 homers and 103 RBIs during the regular season, and his grand slam in Game 2 -- one of only two hits for him in the ALCS -- was the big momentum swing the Red Sox needed. Expect to see Big Papi at first base when this series shifts to St. Louis.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

BENCH
Boston's bench is among the best in baseball, with Nava, Quintin Berry (a perfect 28-for-28 in steals during his short big league career) and David Ross (the perfect backup catcher) waiting in reserve. Under NL rules at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals figure to have either Adams or Craig available as a pinch-hitter, with infielder Daniel Descalso also a valuable weapon. But they're nowhere near as strong as the Sox are in this department.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

ROTATION
The Cardinals finished second in the Majors with a 3.42 rotation ERA, have veteran ace Adam Wainwright -- four runs in 23 innings of these playoffs -- lined up to start Game 1 and can back him up with standout rookie Michael Wacha, who beat Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS. But get this: The Red Sox won all three games in which Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander started in the ALCS. Don't overlook the more experienced Boston staff. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey combined to post a 3.18 ERA in five ALCS outings, with the very capable Jake Peavy getting hit around in Game 4.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

BULLPEN
The Red Sox's approach at the plate, which has them take a lot of pitches to escalate an opposing starter's pitch count and bring relievers into the game, worked well against the Tigers and their vulnerable bullpen. The Cardinals, however, are a lot better-equipped to handle that. Because in their 'pen are three rookies -- Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez -- who have been lights-out in the playoffs and have turned this relief corps into a major strength. St. Louis had a lower bullpen ERA (3.45 to 3.70) and WHIP (1.24 to 1.31) during the regular season, even though Boston deployed baseball's best closer.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals

CLOSER
That closer would be Koji Uehara. With a fastball that hardly cracks 90 mph and a devastating splitter, the 38-year-old Japanese right-hander posted a 1.09 ERA and a 0.57 WHIP during the regular season, then took it to another level in the ALCS, pitching six scoreless innings and recording three saves en route to being named series MVP. But don't overlook Trevor Rosenthal. With a 100-mph fastball in his back pocket, the 23-year-old right-hander has done a fantastic job locking up the ninth inning in place of veteran Edward Mujica, pitching seven scoreless innings in these playoffs.

ADVANTAGE: Red Sox

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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