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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Red Sox poised to prevail in tight series

The formulas they used against Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t work against St. Louis, and the Cardinals present a tougher all-around challenge than either of those teams. But the Red Sox will do in the World Series what they’ve done all year – they’ll find a way to win, even if it takes until their last out to do it.

Boston hammered Tampa’s two best pitchers, Matt Moore and David Price, to take a 2-0 stranglehold lead on its way to a 3-1 win in the Division Series. The Sox put up seven earned runs against both Moore and Price, dropping the Rays in a hole that was too deep, and too demoralizing, to escape.

It’s hard to picture the Boston offense producing at that level in tonight’s World Series Game 1 against St. Louis’s Adam Wainwright, or tomorrow against expected starter Michael Wacha. Neither Moore or Price had their best stuff during those two playoff games at Fenway, but Wainwright and Wacha have been razor sharp this postseason, combining for a 5-1 record with 42 strikeouts and five walks over 44 innings and a 1.02 ERA.

If the Sox could scratch out a pair of wins against those two, Boston can start making parade plans. A more realistic goal would be finding a way to split the first two games, but the Red Sox should also have a plan in place if they’re down 0-2 and boarding a plane for Games 3, 4 and 5 in St. Louis.

Facing elite starting pitchers who are firing on all cylinders won’t be anything new for Boston. Detroit sent not one, not two, not three, but four dealing starters to the mound in the American League Championship Series. The Red Sox didn’t have much luck against those Tigers, but Boston beat Detroit by getting into its shaky bullpen. The Tigers relievers took two of the four losses in the series as the Sox scored seven of their 18 total runs off the bullpen and outscored Detroit 12-1 after the sixth inning.

Don’t expect the Cardinals bullpen to be so generous. Closer Trevor Rosenthal has given up just three hits, two walks and zero runs during his seven innings of postseason work. Lefty specialist Randy Choate and sinkerballer Seth Maness have each pitched 2 2∕3 innings in the playoffs without allowing a run, and set-up man Carlos Martinez, whose fastball reaches 100 mph on a regular basis, has surrendered just two runs on two hits in his 6 2∕3 innings of postseason work.

So, if they’re going to struggle against Wainwright and Wacha, and they won’t have a bullpen to kick around, how will the Sox win? Let’s start with the back end of the rotation, where Boston has the potential for a decided advantage.

At their best, St. Louis’s No. 3 and 4, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn, are slightly above average pitchers who will keep the Cardinals in the game. If either Clay Buchholz or Jake Peavy (the presumed Game 3 and 4 starters for the Red Sox) pitches to their full potential, however, they can decide a contest all on their own. Of course neither has pitched up to their full potential in these playoffs, so it may be a lot to ask for both of them to find that groove. But even if they are just mediocre, Buccholz and Peavy are less likely to get blown out than a mediocre Kelly or Lynn would be, which leads us to the next point – lineup depth.

Boston’s pitchers will have more margin for error than their St. Louis counterparts because the Cardinals have more holes in their order. Shortstop Pete Kozma (.548 regular season OPS) and third baseman David Freese (.721 OPS) are, in essence, easy outs, and centerfielder John Jay (.721 OPS) isn’t scaring anyone. Second baseman Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals top offensive player in the regular season, is hitting just .167/.250/.262 in the postseason, and Allen Craig, St. Louis’s RBI leader, is trying to come back from a serious foot injury that has kept him out since Sept. 4. And even the two Cardinals who seem the most dangerous, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, are both hitting .256 in the playoffs, although Beltran does have a .921 postseason OPS.

The Sox lineup has shown a few holes in October, but they seem more likely to be plugged than the ones in the St. Louis order. David Ortiz went just 2-for-22 against the Tigers, although one of those hits was the game-tying grand slam in Game 2, and Stephen Drew is hitting a disgraceful .086/.11/.143 in the playoffs. But it would surprise no one if Big Papi has a Big Series, and the lefty swinging Drew will at least get to see four right-handed St. Louis starters.

What Boston does have are the two hottest hitters in the series at the top and bottom of their order in Jacoby Ellsbury (.400/.467/.525 this postseason) and Xander Bogaerts (.500/.727/1.000 in six playoff games), and a whole bunch of grinders with power in between. Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli have both shown the ability to find game-changing swings, Dustin Pedroia (.256/.311/.308 this postseason) seems poised for a break out series, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia should also benefit from hitting against all the St. Louis right handers (.294/.350/.523 against righties this year).

And finally, here’s the detailed prediction. These two teams, which led their leagues in wins and run differential, will be fittingly tied 2-2 after the first four games. They’ll also split the next two as Boston’s grinding, pitch-taking approach will get to either Wainwright or Wacha after seeing them twice in a week, setting up a Game 7 on Halloween. It will be a one-run affair, Koji Uehara will record the final four outs, and after last year’s season of nasty tricks, the Red Sox will complete the costume change and deliver the ultimate treat.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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