The bearded ones are almost there. A Boston baseball season that began beneath the tragic cloud of the deadly bombings of the city's annual marathon is poised to end in triumph, with the bewhiskered Red Sox on the verge of winning their third World Series title in a decade.
On Monday night, led by their talismanic veteran slugger David Ortiz and the overpowering pitching of ace Jon Lester, the Sox handed out a 3-1 defeat to the St Louis Cardinals. That victory gave them a three-to-two lead in the best-of-seven Series, which returns to Boston on Wednesday for the final two games.
If history is any guide, the ultimate outcome is scarcely in doubt – even if it must wait for a decisive Hallowe'en night Game Seven at Fenway Park on Thursday. During the regular season, home advantage counts in baseball less than almost any sport. In the World Series, however, it is crucial.
Not since 1979 has a team behind by three games to two, as the Cardinals are now, won the last two games and the Series on enemy territory. One reason is the intensity of home support, willing their favourites to victory. Another, and more important, are the different rules between the two leagues, National and American, whose respective pennant winners contest the Series.
Each of the seven games is played by the rules of the league to which the home team belongs, "and that always puts the other team at a disadvantage," Tom Boswell wrote in The Washington Post. Thus Wednesday and Thursday (if required) those of the American League apply: pitchers do not bat, replaced by a designated hitter. For Boston, it's back to normal.
But that's not the Cardinals' only problem. They may not have to face Lester again, after he outduelled for the second time in succession their own ace, Adam Wainwright, in Monday's Game Five. But they still must somehow contain Ortiz. The man called "Big Papi" is rising 38. But he's turned a World Series, where pitchers tend to dominate, into a one-man batting spectacular.
Thus far he's hitting (reaching first base) a scarcely believable 11 out of 15, or .733, including three out of four on Monday when he tied a World Series record by reaching base nine straight times. The Cardinals simply don't know how to pitch to him. "I've been playing this game too long," Ortiz said after the game, half-teasing, half-reflective. "I was born for this." Team-mate David Ross was blunter: "What planet's this guy from?"
Of course, it could be the beards. In recent years, Red Sox teams have made a point of zaniness as a bonding tool. The 2004 group that ended Boston's 86-year world championship drought used to clown around, referring to themselves as "The Idiots".
This time around the beards first popped up in spring training among a small group of players, perhaps as a way of getting the dismal 2012 season, when the Sox finished bottom of the American League East, out of their system. Then the team started winning for real and the others joined in – baseball being nothing if not a superstitious sport. The appendages are of varying quality, from the magnificently bushy to the wispy and scrawny. Unarguably, though, the formula works.
As for the Cardinals, it's win or bust. Maybe their hitting, mostly anaemic thus far, will finally come to life. But their best shot of giving themselves a Game Seven probably lies with Michael Wacha, the pitching revelation of this (and maybe any) post-season.
Just 22 and only called up to the majors in mid-season, Wacha has been a perfect 4-0 in the play-offs, including two shut-outs.Reuse content