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So the Red Sox are in the World Series: A primer on the St. Louis Cardinals

10.20.13 at 10:19 am ET
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The Cardinals finished tied with the Red Sox for the best record in the majors this year. (AP)

The Cardinals finished tied with the Red Sox for the best record in the majors this year. (AP)

Four more wins. That’s all that separates the Red Sox from their third World Series title in a decade.

But in order to do it, they are going to have to go through the same team they beat for that first recent championship in 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals, who are also looking for their third title in that span.

Of course, the ’13 Cardinals differ spectacularly from the ’04 squad. Long gone are Albert Pujols’ bat, Jim Edmonds’ glove and Chris Carpenter’s arm, paving the way for a new crop of young talent.

In fact, only one player — then-backup catcher Yadier Molina — has been on both teams, while another, Mike Matheny, was the starting backstop then and is the team’s second-year manager now.

Here is a primer on what else Sox fans should know about the team they will see a lot of over the next week or so.

THE CARDINALS AND HOMEGROWN TALENT

You’re probably pretty impressed with the Red Sox’ ability to sign and develop young talent, right? The value of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can’t be overstated, and this season alone has seen the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Workman and Drake Britton make a major league impact.

St. Louis, though, blows that out of the water. The Cardinals boast 18 homegrown players on their 25-man roster, by far the most of the eight teams that made it into the divisional round. The Red Sox were tied with the Dodgers for third with nine.

Among those who have come up through the Cardinals system: four of the five starters, perennial All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, second baseman Matt Carpenter, first baseman Matt Adams, outfielder Jon Jay and closer Trevor Rosenthal. If you don’t know those names yet, chances are you will soon.

BEWARE OF THE WACHA

Rookie right-hander Michael Wacha has garnered many of the headlines for the Cardinals of late, and with good reason. In the last 16 months he has transformed from a college kid with a high ceiling to the Most Valuable Player of the National League Championship Series.

Here’s a quick timeline of that ascent:

June 4, 2012: Drafted in the first round (19th overall) by the Cardinals out of Texas A&M

May 30: Major league debut, one run in seven innings against the Royals

June 11: First major league win, two runs in six innings against the Mets

Sept. 24: Near no-hitter, 8 2/3 scoreless innings against the Nationals

Oct. 7: Postseason debut, one run in 7 1/3 innings against the Pirates

Friday: Named NLCS MVP, seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers to beat ace Clayton Kershaw for the second time

Wacha’s regular season was no joke either. He pitched in 15 games (nine starts) and posted a 2.78 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out a batter per inning. His four-seam fastball sits at 94 mph, and his changeup and curveball serve as his top secondary offerings.

As Carlos Beltran put it after the Cardinals clinched their Series bid Friday: “You guys are going to hear a lot from that kid, because that kid is very special. Being able to actually shut down an offense like the Dodgers and being able to shut down an offense like the Pirates, he is unbelievable. The kid is a horse. He wants to be there. He loves the moment. It’s great to watch a young kid be able to come through like that.”

TOP-NOTCH PITCHING CORPS

Here’s the thing about St. Louis hurlers: Wacha, for as talented as he is and impressive as he has been, is listed as the No. 5 starter on the Cardinals’ depth chart.

Right-hander Adam Wainwright (2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP) is the team’s ace and, at just 32 years old, the resident elder statesmen, while righties Lance Lynn (26), Joe Kelly (23), Shelby Miller (23) and Wacha (22) round out the rotation. Wainwright and Wacha are considered pitchers with dominant top-of-the-rotation stuff. Lynn (15-10, 3.97) and Kelly (10-5, 2.69), however, fall into a separate class, with arsenals that cannot line up with what the Tigers featured in the form of their Nos. 3 and 4 starting pitchers (Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister).

(In the postseason, Miller — who faced the minimum 27 batters during a one-hitter in May — has been relegated to the bullpen, from which he has given up three runs in 4 1/3 innings.)

All but two of the Cardinals’ relievers are right-handed, too. Kevin Siegrist, the owner of a 0.45 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in the regular season, and longtime major leaguer Randy Choate (2.29 ERA, 1.05 WHIP) are the lone lefties. They hold left-handed hitters to .118 and .176 averages, respectively, but neither has a problem attacking hitters batting from either side of the plate.

Rosenthal recorded three regular-season saves but has already matched that total in the playoffs. In 14 2/3 postseason innings spanning last October and this one, Rosenthal has allowed no runs and struck out 23. Five batters have reached via hit, and just four via walk.

St. Louis’ collective ERA was 3.42, good for fifth best in the majors, while its 1.24 WHIP was eighth lowest.

AN OFFENSE WITH WHICH TO BE RECKONED

The Cardinals don’t steal, and they don’t hit a ton of homers, but, man, do they score. They averaged 4.83 runs per game — third best in all of baseball and tops in the National League — thanks in part to their .269 team average (fourth best) and .332 on-base mark (third).

Right fielder Beltran, the 16-year major league veteran headed to his first World Series, is one of the most potent power threats with 24 home runs and a .491 slugging mark. Matt Holliday, who lost to the Red Sox in ’07 when he was with the Rockies, was right behind his corner outfield cohort with 22 long balls.

Second baseman Matt Carpenter — who stands at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — enjoyed a breakout year with a .318/.392/.481 slash line. He led the NL in runs (126), hits (199) and doubles (55) as the regular leadoff man and earned his first All-Star bid.

First baseman Matt Adams has a similar story. He had a 27-game cup of coffee in 2012 as a warmup to his 107-game slate this season. A 3.48 strikeout-to-walk rate isn’t pretty, but he did hit .284 and slug .503 as a 24-year-old most of the season. He is even bigger than Carpenter, too, with a 6-foot-3, 260-pound frame.

Molina (.319) led the team in hitting.

If those numbers are worrisome, consider this: The Red Sox have them beat in average (.277), runs per game (5.27) and OBP (.349).

THE PATH      

St. Louis, back four games in the division as late as Aug. 10, took over the NL Central lead for good Sept. 7, then ended up winning it by three games over the Pirates. The Cardinals also had the league’s best record, 97-65, one game better than the Braves and matching the Sox for the best record in the majors.

The Pirates took the Cardinals to five games in the NLDS, with Wainwright (nine innings, one run) outpitching Pittsburgh rookie sensation Gerrit Cole (five innings, two runs) to lift his team.

The NLCS similarly looked to come down to a winner-take-all, but Wacha’s Game 6 performance put an end to that possibility. The Cardinals won the series, 4-2, behind Beltran’s 6-for-21, six-RBI, five-walk effort.

OCTOBER TESTED, SORT OF

The Cardinals won it all in 2011. They made it back to the NLCS in 2012. They are in the World Series this year.

It’s fair to say the organization has bred a culture of success. Although only eight players remain from the 2011 title-winning team, the youngsters that have joined since — a handful of whom are products of the 2009 draft — seem to have acclimated to that culture well.

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