BOSTON -- Much of the talk leading up to the World Series has been about how evenly matched the Cardinals and Red Sox appear to be.
These are two teams that led the Majors with 97 wins and topped their respective leagues in runs scored and run differential. They tout relatively inexperienced managers who preach the importance of playing the game the right way and grinding out at-bats. The franchise histories are storied; the fan bases are devout.
Either the Red Sox or the Cardinals will soon become the first team in the Majors to capture a third World Series championship since the turn of the century. And in a series where so much else seems equal, the little things could make a sizable difference.
As the Cardinals prepare to open the World Series at Fenway Park on Wednesday night (airing live on FOX at 6:30 p.m. CT; first pitch at 7:07 p.m.), here are three keys that would give them a series edge:
It has been the postseason of the pitcher, and there is no expectation that will change in the World Series. The Cardinals do not advance past Pittsburgh and Los Angeles without dominant starting pitching, and they'll need it again to quell a Red Sox lineup that led the American League in runs scored.
The Cardinals rotation, which ranked second in the National League with a 3.42 ERA during the regular season, has been even more dominant in October. Through 11 playoff games, it has posted a 2.57 ERA and held opponents to a .218 batting average. Of particular note is the job done by the team's top two starters. Adam Wainwright helped the Cardinals out of the NL Division Series with bookend wins. Michael Wacha has allowed one earned run in three starts (21 innings).
Boston's rotation, in comparison, has been knocked around. It has a 4.29 ERA this postseason after finishing with a 3.84 mark during the regular season. If the Cardinals cannot get to the Red Sox starters, then they will be left to scrape for runs against a bullpen that has allowed just three tallies in 32 innings this postseason.
Sure, the Cardinals got past the Pirates and then the Dodgers sans Craig, but there was also no designated-hitter spot to fill in either of those two series. Craig is coming off a left foot injury that ended his regular season back on Sept. 4. He has been hitting off Cardinals pitchers for the past week, but no one knows how quickly his timing will come back in a game setting.
If Craig comes back resembling the cleanup hitter who drove in 97 runs and hit .454 with runners in scoring position through 134 games, the Cardinals not only have a legitimate DH, but their offense becomes considerably deeper. If the layoff limits what Craig can do in the World Series, the Cardinals' lineup won't match up with Boston's.
It's likely that Craig's production potential will fall somewhere in between, which could be sufficient for the Cardinals. They have no other threatening bench player that can jump into a DH role, which makes even a limited Craig an asset. Nevertheless, Craig has the potential to be a difference maker for an offense that, even after breaking out in Game 6 of the NLDS, has a .210 average through 11 postseason games.
What Craig contributes once the series shifts back to St. Louis also remains an unknown. He has not resumed defensive work, though the Cardinals are not yet ruling out the possibility of Craig having time to get ready to play the field by next weekend. That, too, would be a boost for the Cardinals, who could then move Matt Adams back to the bench.
Carlos Beltran joked during the NL Championship Series that perhaps their naivety to this grand stage was serving the young Cardinals pitchers well. Whether they've ignored the pressure or merely thrived in it, the club's young corps of relievers has been dominant in the late innings so far this postseason. If the Cardinals want to match the formidability of the Red Sox 'pen, they'll need similar contributions in the World Series.
Rookie Trevor Rosenthal has stepped in to handle the closing duties with no issues. Fellow rookies Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness have been the bridge to get the game to the ninth. Each has made at least five appearances during the playoffs as the Cardinals became the first team in Major League history to use at least four rookies four times in one postseason. Combined, the group has allowed 12 hits, three earned runs and four walks in 19 innings.
The Cardinals have some relievers with age -- Randy Choate, Edward Mujica and John Axford -- but manager Mike Matheny has been clear in indicating whom he trusts with the game on the line. If this group of youngsters remains unfazed by the stage, the Cardinals will make it hard on the Red Sox to come from behind.