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World Series: The Six Keys for Game 6

Michael Wacha

If you’re ranking the wildest Game 6s in baseball history, you could argue that the Cardinals and Red Sox should claim three of the top spots.

St. Louis will be playing in its first World Series Game 6 since the David Freese miracle of 2011, the alternately terrible and thrilling game that made you ask, How Did This Happen? Meanwhile, Boston’s last two World Series Game 6s have been classics. One ended with one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history. The other … oy.

With the possibility of another momentous Game 6 in play, it’s time to lock in on a few scenarios that could swing the game and, by extension, the series. Here are six keys for Game 6:

1. Will Mike Matheny leave his starter in too long?

Very likely, yes. If you think that sounds cynical, consider what Matheny has done with his starters in the World Series.

For Game 3, the Cardinals manager sent Joe Kelly to the mound. In 15 starts this year, Kelly had thrown more than six innings just twice. He was a swingman thrust into a starting job because of injuries, someone who served as a viable back-of-the-rotation option who would do just enough to keep his team in the game and give the Cardinals’ potent offense a chance to deliver a win. Kelly weaved his way through four scoreless innings, punctuated by a big strikeout of Daniel Nava after putting two runners on with two outs. Given Kelly’s track record as a master of short starts and the potency of Boston’s lineup, there were very few realistic scenarios that would’ve seen Kelly make it to the seventh inning with a lead. He was probably good for three or four more outs before the meaty part of the order would come again. And that was fine! With an absolutely stacked bullpen, the Cardinals really didn’t need more than five effective innings from Kelly; bringing in a fresh arm earlier than that might have even made sense, depending on how circumstances played out.

The Cardinals loaded the bases with nobody out, watched the poor man’s Ray Oyler (Pete Kozma) strike out helplessly, then decided that scoring more runs was a dumb idea, sending Kelly up to bat with a chance to break the game open. St. Louis predictably didn’t score that inning. Then just as predictably, the Sox finally got to Kelly, scoring one run in the fifth, then banking a leadoff walk from Shane Victorino (and a Dustin Pedroia lineout) before finally pulling the plug. St. Louis won the game on a walkoff obstruction play, taking Matheny off the hook for his first leave-the-starter-in-too-long mistake of the series.

Matheny doubled down in Game 4, and this time it cost him. Again, the Cardinals took an early lead. Again, they had a serviceable pitcher (Lance Lynn) on the mound, but not someone you’d expect to ride deep into the game. Again, the Cards put multiple runners on base in the fourth, then allowed their pitcher to hit (and fail) for himself … though at least this time it wasn’t as juicy an offensive opportunity, with runners on first and second and two outs. Again, the Red Sox scored a run the very next inning, this time tying the game. Again, Matheny figured he’d press his luck for one more inning. Again, the Sox made him pay, this time with Lynn putting runners on first and second with two outs. Again, Matheny called on Seth Maness in a huge-leverage situation, because Maness is his sixth-inning guy. This time, Jonny Gomes blasted a three-run homer on a total cookie of a pitch and the Sox evened the series.

Of course, to establish a dynasty of incompetence, you really need the three-peat. And Matheny got it done. Adam Wainwright did an excellent job for six innings in Game 5, shepherding the Cardinals to a 1-1 tie. His spot in the order was due up to start the bottom of the sixth. This was another strong performance by a Cardinals starter, but one that had no reason to last much longer, given the strength of Boston’s lineup and that of the Cards’ bullpen. Wainwright batted anyway, and struck out. You’ll never guess what happened the next time the Red Sox came to bat. They scored multiple runs, and took a lead they would never relinquish while grabbing a 3-2 series lead. Letting Wainwright stay in to face light-hitting catcher David Ross was perfectly acceptable; Ross just won the at-bat with an RBI double. When the Sox opted to leave Jon Lester in the game to hit for himself with runners on second and third and one out, that was a gift, so no problem letting Wainwright mow down his mound opponent either. But at the tail end of a long inning, with Wainwright’s pitch count and effort count climbing, Jacoby Ellsbury coming up, and that loaded bullpen — including lefty Kevin Siegrist and his record-setting 0.45 ERA available — it made no sense at all to leave Wainwright in the game. Again, the Cards paid the price.

Those who follow Matheny and the Cardinals most closely say that Matheny is committed to routine, believing that players fare better when thrust into the same role night in and night out, with the same expectations from the manager. All that sounds great in theory. In practice, this is the World Series, and these are the Red Sox. It’s a lot more taxing and less logical for a pitcher to go deep into a game when it’s late October, it’s 47 degrees out, there’s an armada of excellent relievers behind him who are fresh thanks to extra days off, and the highest-scoring team in baseball (and one of the most patient) is the opponent. And all of that says nothing about the possibility that pitching in the World Series brings more pressure and can thus wear down a pitcher mentally and/or physically. Maybe Matheny wanted to ensure five- or six- or seven-plus innings from his starters during the regular season (so that they’d become eligible for wins) and set up the bullpen just the way he wanted it, with his sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning guys all teed up to come in exactly as expected.

It’s too late for any of that now. If David Ortiz is due up six batters from now, Matheny needs to be thinking ahead to that point and planning accordingly, rather than letting a game-changing inning collapse on his head. If the Red Sox again put multiple runners on base in a tight game in the sixth inning, Maness should be the fourth or fifth pitcher on Matheny’s mind, because he’s the fourth- or fifth-best reliever on the team, and managing blindly by inning will bite you in the ass during the World Series.

2. Will Shelby Miller ever pitch in a game?

Miller has thrown just one inning during the entire postseason. You can understand the Cardinals’ reluctance to use him, in some ways. First, Miller cooled off this season after a torrid start, posting a fairly pedestrian 3.76 ERA and an opponents’ line of .254/.322/.407 in his final 23 starts of the season. There were whispers that he had worn down over the course of the season, which makes sense when he ended up tossing 173⅓ innings in his rookie year — 33⅔ more innings than he’d ever thrown in a season during his professional career, and this time at the highest level. Also, the Cardinals have, at the very least, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Siegrist, Maness, John Axford, and Randy Choate ahead of him on the relief pitcher depth chart. One presumes that Miller is on the roster in the event of a marathon extra-inning game or a game that sees the starter knocked out early, requiring someone used to throwing multiple innings at a time. Neither team has any control over whether a long extra-inning game might happen, of course. But Matheny has shown zero willingness to be aggressive in pulling his starting pitchers early. Some of that is because, other than in Game 1 of this series, they’ve pitched well. But as we mentioned earlier, a lot of that is due to routine, with Matheny believing that conservative managing beats, say, jumping on a big pinch-hitting opportunity. This late in the playoffs, having Miller on the roster creates something of a catch-22 situation, where the longer you refuse to use him, the more likely he is to be rusty, making it even less likely that you’ll use him.

All this makes you wonder if the Cardinals could’ve built their roster a little differently down the stretch this year. Though it’s tough to get that peeved when your team leads the NL in wins, you wonder where the Cards might be if management had acquired a couple of useful part-time bats to use as potential platoons for the weak bottom of the order, or even as pinch hitters more viable than the group of inanimate carbon rods currently on the roster. That would have in turn allowed the Cards to make better use of their playoff roster spots, including the one given to Miller, a.k.a. one of the most pointless wastes of a playoff roster spot we’ve ever seen.

3. Will the Cardinals try to play more small ball?

It has been said (and written) many times this season: The Cardinals had a good offense, but not necessarily a great one, owing much of their success to off-the-charts results with runners in scoring position. That high-leverage success obscured multiple offensive weaknesses, especially at the bottom of the order: Jon Jay didn’t hit lefties, Freese didn’t hit righties, and Kozma and Daniel Descalso didn’t hit anything or anybody. That flawed offense now looks even worse, given that Allen Craig and Carlos Beltran are both playing hurt; Craig can’t move at all, while Beltran has continued to rope line drives, but without getting the kind of extension you would expect from a power hitter, resulting in a lack of extra-base hits. Both of the Cardinals’ homers in this series have come from Matt Holliday, and after Holliday and Matt Adams, it’s hard to envision many (any?) bombs from other St. Louis hitters. Acknowledging the small sample in play (and the Red Sox being only very slightly better), the Cards boast a .577 OPS for the series as they head into Game 6.

One alternative could be to try more small-ball tactics to beat the Sox. One of the Cardinals’ signature moments this series was their double steal in the seventh inning of Game 2, the one that helped fuel a three-run rally that allowed St. Louis to snag a much-needed win. There are a couple of problems with pushing too far on the small-ball front. This team simply isn’t well equipped to do so, with the Cards ranking 29th in stolen bases and 17th in Baserunning Runs this season. Add the Beltran and Craig injuries and you have a team with more Molina brothers than viable baserunning threats. At this point, the best bet for the Cardinals’ offense might be a swing in luck and a return to those gaudy numbers with runners in scoring position. Otherwise, there’s not much left to go on for a team with little power and even less speed.

4. Can the Red Sox get to Michael Wacha?

They’ve already done a better job of it than anyone else in these playoffs, anyway. Sox hitters showed great patience against the Cardinals’ rookie righty in Game 2, drawing four walks and working Wacha for 114 pitches over six innings, falling short partly because of wasted opportunities. (Boston had two on and none out in the fourth and the leadoff man on in the fifth, with no runs in those two innings.) Scoring two runs in those six innings still trounced what the Pirates and Dodgers did earlier in the playoffs against Wacha: one run, eight hits, and four walks (against 22 strikeouts) over three starts and 21 innings.

For the Sox to build on their Game 2 performance, they might be tempted to stack the lineup with right-handed hitters. Righty swingers hit .242/.293/.417 against Wacha this year, versus a feeble .197/.254/.239 for left-handed hitters. Moreover, Wacha is basically a two-pitch pitcher at this stage of his career, relying heavily on a changeup to complement his mid-90s fastball … and changeups are typically used as a weapon against opposite-handed hitters. But there are three reasons not to overreact here. First, those big splits come in a small sample of games, with Wacha throwing just 64⅔ innings in his debut season. Second, it was actually Wacha’s fastball and not his changeup that showed a big reverse platoon split (.266/.307/.481 against right-handed hitters, .159/.221/.238 against lefties), reinforcing the notion that this is probably just statistical noise from a small sample size. Third, getting too caught up in Wacha’s reverse split might prompt John Farrell to play Gomes over Nava and his vastly superior numbers against right-handed pitchers, assuming Victorino is back and healthy for Game 6.

Wait, what? Oh, I guess that’s already happening.

5. What can the Sox expect from Victorino?

This is a tougher one to answer, since even Victorino himself probably can’t be entirely sure how he’ll fare after sitting out two games with a back injury. What we do know is that Victorino had already been fighting a thumb injury for a while, and had shown just about no pop, with that perfectly timed, just-over-the-Monster ALCS grand slam and a double his only extra-base hits in 48 playoff at-bats. For the postseason, Victorino has hit just .188 with a .271 slugging average. His one saving grace has been the home-plate umpire’s refusal to move his body off the inside corner of the plate, which has helped Victorino get hit by seven pitches in October, boosting his on-base percentage to … a still disappointing .304.

All that might be the product of small sample size, of course. But if Victorino is still well below 100 percent, the Sox should consider moving someone else up to the no. 2 spot in the order, milking Victorino more for his excellent defense. Nava would be a great no. 2 hitter normally, but Farrell prefers that the man with a .411 OBP against righties gathers splinters. One alternative to consider for a move up in the order: Xander Bogaerts. Here again, we don’t have a ton of data to work with, since he made his major league debut on August 20 and got only 50 regular-season plate appearances. But in 30 more times up during the playoffs, Bogaerts has shown good patience and put together some solid at-bats, hitting .348/.467/.565. You probably want a top-flight hitter like Pedroia hitting second, all else being equal. But moving Bogaerts above Gomes and Victorino — say, to fifth in the order behind Mike Napoli — could net some intriguing results.

6. What defensive alignment will the Red Sox roll out in Game 6?

With Victorino back in the lineup, Ross wresting the starting catcher’s job from Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Napoli mercifully replacing Ortiz at first base as the series shifts back to Fenway, the Sox will field their best defensive lineup tonight. It’s yet another advantage for Boston as the Sox try to close out the series.