The Boston Red Sox won their third World Series crown since 2004 Wednesday, knocking off the St. Louis Cardinals 6-1 in front of a raucous crowd at Fenway Park. It was the first time the Red Sox have finished off a World Series at home since 1918, long before most, if not all, of the Fenway faithful in attendance Wednesday were around to call themselves fans.
For the third time in the series, a Boston starting pitcher out-dueled one of the Cardinals’ aces. This time it was John Lackey, the formerly embattled Red Sox pitcher, tossing six shutout innings before finally relinquishing a run in the seventh. By then, the Red Sox had stretched out an improbable 6-0 lead off of Cardinals starter Michael Wacha, the rookie who had been nothing short of brilliant in allowing just three runs over four postseason starts, including a Game 2 win over Lackey, until now.
Early on, it was Wacha, not Lackey, who looked in better command. His curveball was working and his fastball lively, and he used his signature change-up somewhat sparingly, almost as if he knew Boston hitters were sitting on it. Lackey couldn’t locate much except for his fastball in the first two innings, but like Clay Buchholz in Game 4, he pitched his way out of an early jam even without his best stuff. By the time Lackey settled in, the Red Sox had cracked Wacha on a three-run Shane Victorino double off the Green Monster in the bottom of the third inning. It was all Boston would need, even though it added three more an inning later.
For so much of this series, the Red Sox had only one reliable bat in the lineup, and St. Louis worked to take David Ortiz, who entered Game 6 hitting .733 for the series, out of the game completely. Wacha walked him three times, twice intentionally, and Cards’ manager Mike Matheny elected to pitch around him again in the ninth. That strategy came back to haunt St. Louis, though, as more timely hitting from Boston brought Ortiz around to score after each intentional walk, first on Victorino’s third-inning double and later when Victorino singled him home in the fourth. A lead-off home run from the slumping Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli’s RBI single provided Boston’s other two runs in the third.
Ortiz was magical at the plate throughout the series (his .688/.760/1.188 slash is absurd) but take a minute too to applaud a Boston pitching staff that did what few other pitching staffs did to St. Louis all season: they kept the Cardinals from hitting, especially when it mattered. No team since 1974 has posted a better season-long average with runners in scoring position than St. Louis’ .330 clip from the regular season, but they managed just nine total hits in 42 such at-bats (.214) in this World Series and left 43 runners on base. Those struggles were especially apparent over the final two games of the series, when St. Louis went just 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 runners.
The Cardinals didn’t come through in two huge situations in Game 6. They put the first two hitters on base in the second inning, only to watch Lackey retire Matt Adams, David Freese, and John Jay in succession to escape the inning without a blemish. It happened again in the seventh inning, when the Cardinals loaded the bases and brought Allen Craig, who hit a Major League-best .454 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, to the plate. But Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa induced a groundout, albeit one that was hit hard, to first and St. Louis’ last real threat was over.
Ortiz won the World Series Most Valuable Player award, and he deserved it, but if anyone rivaled Big Papi it was Jon Lester, a pitcher who, like Lackey, entered the season with plenty to prove to Boston fans looking to put 2012′s last-place American League East finish behind them. With all the talk about the strength of St. Louis’ pitching, Lester tossed 15 1/3 innings over two starts, allowing just one run and beating Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright twice. Lester wasn’t alone. Lackey was outstanding in Game 6 and Buchholz managed (with help from the Boston bullpen) to keep the Cardinals at bay even with a dead arm in Game 4, a crucial game that Boston won to tie the series at two games apiece. Over the final three games, all Boston wins, those three starters and the Red Sox bullpen combined to allow just 19 hits (and a .194 batting average) and four runs to an offense that led the National League in runs and finished second in batting average during the regular season.
Boston probably wasn’t as bad as they seemed during that last place struggle a season ago, but the turnaround from worst to World Series was still remarkable to watch. And so another season is in the books, and when spring training opens some 110 days from now, the questions for the Red Sox won’t be about finishing in last place but about how they plan to defend their latest trip to the top of the baseball mountain.