Looking at five facets that could factor prominently into the Red Sox' quest to go up 2-0 in the World Series, fairly confident that none involve ill-advised 3-pointers followed, or a little shimmy. "Wacha" and "Walker" aren't actually the same, despite our regional pronunciations...
1. Make Wacha wiggle a little bit.
Michael Wacha's meteoric rise is one of baseball's more remarkable stories in recent memory, as just 16 months after being drafted with the No. 19 overall pick he dominated the National League portion of the postseason, and will make his first start since winning NLCS honors when his Cardinals look to rebound against the Red Sox in Thursday's Game 2 of the World Series.
Wacha's numbers are ridiculous. In 21 innings he's allowed eight hits and one run, that coming on a solo homer that busted up a no-hitter in the eighth inning of a game in which Pittsburgh had a chance to eliminate St. Louis. He also came up one out shy of pitching a no-no in his final start of the regular season, losing it when Washington's Ryan Zimmerman beat out a grounder to short.
At 22 years old, he's made it look absurdly easy. But what we don't know for sure is how he'll respond in a playoff game when things gets difficult.
Through his first three starts, there's only been two innings in which he's allowed more than one baserunner. Of the 19 innings he's finished, he's retired the side in order 14 times. Only once has he faced more than four batters before getting back to the dugout.
So, yes, he won a 2-1 game when the Cardinals had their backs pressed up against the wall by the Pirates. Yes, he won a 1-0 decision in his first start of the NLCS. And, yes, he pitched a shutout during the pennant clincher in which he was opposed by Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw.
But Wacha hasn't yet been forced to really make pitches to stunt a rally or stem momentum or minimize damage. Only once -- when he faced six batters and loaded the bases with an intentional walk -- has he had to pitch his way out of a jam. He hasn't had to work around defensive letdowns or stay effective while laboring. Obviously the primary reason for that is because it's been extremely difficult for offenses to gain those advantages against him -- but the Red Sox have a way of making pitchers uncomfortable. Especially at Fenway Park, they have a way of grinding down the best of the best.
And, if they're able to do make him squirm a bit in Game 2, Wacha's response will say a lot about whether he truly belongs in that class.
2. Lackey needs to mix and locate.
As John Lackey returns to the mound for the first time since outdueling Justin Verlander in Detroit, he looks to duplicate that dazzling performance. Not just in terms of results, but in terms of recipe, too.
What stood out most from Lackey's 6.2 shutout innings against the Tigers was his ability to throw strikes without leaving the ball over the middle of the plate -- look at this -- and his ability to keep hitters off balance by varying his pitch selection. He used his secondary pitches rather than rely to heavily on his fastball.
In featuring 38 cutters and 15 curveballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net, Jon Lester's performance in Wednesday's Game 1 was similarly effective in that regard. And the data suggests that will be the way to attack the Cardinals all series. They're among baseball's 10 best offenses when hitting the fastball, but the more offspeed the pitch, the more average (or even below-average) they become.
Lackey doesn't have the velocity he had back in April, in his first few starts after returning from Tommy John Surgery. He's not going to blow away these St. Louis hitters. But if he mixes and locates, he won't have to.
3. Get on ahead of Napoli.
John Farrell makes no secret what Sox fans have known since April: With Mike Napoli, you're going to have to put up with the peaks and valleys that come with such a streaky hitter.
But Sox fans should also know by now that Napoli craves the big moment. He said as much on Wednesday, when asked about his career 1.104 OPS in the World Series -- "I love this stage. It's in the spotlight. I really enjoy this time of year" -- and it was on full display during the regular season when he came to bat with the bases loaded, batting .458 with three grand slams, 31 RBIs, and a 1.480 OPS in 25 such opportunities.
He affirmed that production once more with a three-run double in the first inning Wednesday, so if the top of the Red Sox lineup can continue to set him up with these chances to get a big hit in a big spot in a big game, his track record suggests both he and the club should feel good about having the bat in his hands at that moment.
And there were indications in Game 1 that the guys hitting ahead of him might just give him those chances. Both Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz had two hits, while Jacoby Ellsbury has been good throughout the postseason and Shane Victorino looked better (despite going 0-for-4) than he did in the Detroit series.
4. Trust the scouts.
Will Middlebrooks played Legion ball with Wacha, but none of the Sox have faced the Cardinals pitcher, obviously. And, conversely, none of the Cardinals have ever got a hit off of Lackey. (Matt Holliday is 0-for-7 lifetime, while Carlos Beltran is 0-for-9.)
So there'll be a lot of first encounters playing out in Game 2, which should put a heavy emphasis on the information provided by the teams' scouts and disseminated by the leaders of those staffs, as well as the coaches. They are the folks who have seen the Cardinals in person and have the best idea about where St. Louis may be prone to attack -- and in the case of a guy like Wacha, who has only recently burst on the scene, they may need to make those assessments with limited info.
The Red Sox organization honored their collection of scouts and minor-league coaches Wednesday night by giving them and their wives tickets to sit in the center field bleachers, and by asking the Fenway sellout to give them all a round of applause during one of the between-innings breaks. But back behind the scenes, that group may give those fans even more of a reason to cheer in Game 2.
5. Be ready for a better effort from the Cardinals.
To a man, the Red Sox insisted in the clubhouse after Game 1 that the Cardinals are a much better team than they showed Wednesday. St. Louis Manager Mike Matheny went so far as to say his players were "embarrassed."
So Boston should be prepared for a sharper, more focused, more urgent performance from the Cardinals on Thursday, particularly at the start of the game when they'll be trying to change the tenor of the series and swing some of its momentum in their favor.
At the very least, it's unlikely the Sox will be able to count on the Cards making three more errors and a couple other costly misplays -- and when Game 1 is reconsidered with those factors removed from the equation, there probably wasn't as much difference between the two teams as an 8-1 score would usually indicate. Boston had eight hits, St. Louis had seven. Boston had three extra-base hits, St. Louis had two. Both teams drew one walk.
This was always expected to be a tight series, between baseball's two best teams, and Thursday night's game is likely to be more reflective of that than Wednesday was. The Red Sox have to be ready for that. And seven months of evidence suggests that they will.
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