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In World Series opener, Jon Lester excels as Red Sox roll over hapless Cardinals

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 24, 2013 02:28 AM

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If you're one of those straggling Red Sox fans who still believes in curses and ghosts and various other apparitions despite all of the affirming joys that have occurred since 2004, have I got a cockamamie theory to sell you.

Here goes: I think in Game 1 of the World Series Wednesday night at Fenway Park, the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals were somehow possessed by their baseball forefathers of 100 years ago.

Really. Think about it: The 2013 Cardinals arrived as the National League representative in this World Series with a sterling reputation and a vast reservoir of respect, having just vanquished the talented Dodgers with a combination of a deep lineup, a deeper bullpen, and a starting rotation led by true ace Adam Wainwright.

So what happens when they finally take the field? The Cardinals make three errors, botch a popup to the pitcher, and Wainwright, a strike-throwing machine who walked 35 batters all season, requires 31 pitches to get through the first inning. After the first, the Cardinals were already in a 3-0 hole that became 5-0 an inning later.

The way Jon Lester was dealing for the Red Sox, the five-run hole felt insurmountable, and it was. The outcome was determined long before the final 8-1 score became official.

These weren't the Cardinals we were told were coming to Fenway to put up a real fight, something their 2004 squad couldn't do. No, these looked more like the hapless 1913 Cardinals of Rebel Oakes, Possum Whitted, and Wese Callahan, a unit that went 51-99, got outscored by 227 runs, made 219 errors, and finished dead-last in the National League.

I know ... cockamamie, right? OK, probably. Possum Whitted has better things to do in the afterlife than haunt Fenway. But it does lead to a real question:

Could winning a third World Series in a decade actually be as easy for the Red Sox as it appeared Wednesday night?

Is another National League opponent about to be steamrolled in October?

The Red Sox have now won nine World Series games in a row -- they swept the Cardinals of Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen in '04, and did the same to Matt Holliday's Rockies three years later.

The Cardinals, winners of 97 games during the regular season, are worthy foe by any measure statistical or observational. This is a damn good team, possibly a great one. But Wednesday, they looked rusty and rattled, and if young Michael Wacha succumbs to Fenway's intimidation factor in Game 2, this series really could be over in a hurry.

"We had a wake-up call [tonight]," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, sounding as if he were hoping someone would provide him a mulligan. "That is not the kind of team we've been all season. And they're frustrated. I'm sure embarrassed to a point. We get an opportunity to show the kind of baseball we played all season long and it didn't look anything like what we saw tonight."

Meanwhile, the Red Sox looked like a team intent on finding a higher peak with each performance. Mike Napoli. who hit .350 with 10 RBIs in the World Series two years ago while with the Rangers, roped a three-run double to deep left-center to put the Red Sox up in the first inning.

His bases-clearing rocket came after a controversial -- at least from the Cardinals' perspective -- reversal of a blown call. With one out, Shane Victorino on second, and Dustin Pedroia on first, David Ortiz hit a sharp grounder to Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter. Carpenter flipped to shortstop Pete Kozma for what looked like a surefire inning-ending double play.

One problem: Kozma never caught the ball. Umpire Dana DeMuth called Pedroia out at second anyway. Red Sox manager John Farrell, showing a surprisingly quick first step, bolted out of the dugout to argue. The umpires conferred, and the call was reversed.

"From the dugout view I thought it was pretty clear that ball tipped off the fingertips of his glove," said Farrell. "We're fully accepting the neighborhood play, but my view is it wasn't even that. There was no entry into the glove with the ball. And to their credit they did confer."

"Sometimes that doesn't happen,'' crew chief John Hirschbeck said, "but the ultimate thing is you want to get the play right."

An inning later, and the Red Sox had built that lead that felt insurmountable -- and actually could have been larger if not for an exceptional play by Carlos Beltran. With one out, one run already across the plate, and the bases loaded, Ortiz hit a long drive to right field.

It appeared ticketed for the Red Sox bullpen, but Beltran turned what could have been Ortiz's second grand slam of the postseason into a sacrifice fly, bracing himself against the wall and reaching over to make the catch.

The cruel irony for the Cardinals is that it may have been less damaging had the ball eluded Beltran and landed in the bullpen. In making the fantastic play, Beltran, one of the great postseason performers of all-time (16 homers, 1.173 OPS entering last night), injured his ribs and had to go to Mass General. His status for Thursday's Game 2 is uncertain.

Adding insult to injury, Ortiz did eventually get his home run, the 16th of his postseason career, with a two-run blast off hard-throwing lefty Kevin Siegrist in the seventh. It was the first home run to a lefthanded hitter Siegrist, who had a 0.45 ERA in the regular season, allowed this year.

"I just made sure I hit it a little farther," said Ortiz, "where nobody could jump over and catch it."

The Cardinals only true threat came in the fourth inning, when they loaded the bases against Jon Lester, but a David Freese comebacker and a 1-2-3 double-play thwarted the threat. It was a cap-doffer of a performance for Lester, who allowed no runs on five hits in 7.2 innings and received a rousing ovation upon departing for Junichi Tazawa in the eighth. He struck out a career playoff-high eight batters and, working again with take-charge catcher David Ross, improved to 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA this postseason.

"The last probably six times Jon has gone to the mound, David has caught him," said Farrell. "They've really developed, I think, a really good rapport. They have an ability to read swings and make some adjustments from at-bat to at-bat or each time through the lineup."

One game into the series, it's time for the Cardinals to make adjustments, and not just to their lineup. In Game 1, perhaps they weren't quite as hapless as their predecessors from a century ago, but the puzzling mess of a performance was awfully reminiscent of 2004. I trust neither Mike Matheny nor the ghost of Possum Whitted requires a reminder of how quickly that Red Sox fairy tale became reality.

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About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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