BOSTON — The fantasy lived in the Red Sox’s minds for all of a half-inning, a beautiful albeit short-lived notion that they could leave Fenway with a 2-0 lead in the World Series and perhaps not have to come home to clinch a world championship.
All the accessories were in place, notably David Ortiz’s monster two-run HR off Michael Wacha in the sixth inning, giving Boston a 2-1 lead against the National League’s best pitcher over the last month. The crowd practically shook with excitement, as if everyone had been fed a psychedelic drug. Another win over the National League champs? Was it really going to be this easy?
The answer, of course, was a resounding no. There was no such romp over the Cardinals, who never had any intention of getting swept on Yawkey Way. A 4-2 win over the Red Sox on Thursday night restored order and stability to this World Series, making sure America is reminded of a fundamental truth about this matchup: These are two evenly matched teams heading for a protracted war.
Sox manager John Farrell put it best when he said, “We expected a hard-fought series. We’re not surprised to be in the situation we’re in.”
He was talking about heading to Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals won 54 games, second-most at home in the majors this year. They also have the home-field advantage in what’s now a best-of-five affair, reason enough for the American League champions to be concerned.
That’s why the Sox couldn’t let go of their disastrous seventh inning, when they flushed away the dividend of Ortiz’s HR a half-inning earlier. They were leading 2-1, just nine outs away from realizing that crazy, too-good-to-be true dream.
But that was before the meltdown by reliever Craig Breslow, who personally nuked whatever chance the Sox had of winning. Let’s start backward; Ortiz’s home run off Wacha was a reminder of why the Sox won 97 games this year, and a personal calling card that Boston’s cleanup hitter left with Wacha.
Talk about terrific matchups; until Thursday night, Wacha had allowed just 12 baserunners in 21 innings in October, and his 3.43 hits per nine innings was the best of any starting pitcher in this postseason - nearly half a hit better than Justin Verlander.
Wacha had thrown four consecutive masterpieces since joining the Cardinals’ rotation in September, but clearly this was his greatest challenge. It wasn’t just having to face the Red Sox, but coping with the Series’ atmosphere, the buzz, the noise, the media crush. And yes, the ballpark itself and the barbarian horde in the stands.
As Carlos Beltran said, “It’s hard to play here; you’re’ playing against the (other) teams, the fans, everyone.”
Wacha held his own, although he quickly learned how fast the Red Sox chew up elite pitching. “They don’t swing at bad pitches; they didn’t chase a lot of pitches down in the zone that I normally get swings at,” he said. And when Wacha made a mistake to Ortiz, hanging a 3-2 change-up, he paid dearly.
The big man hit a beast of a home run over the Wall in left, an opposite-field show of power that was nothing short of breathtaking. All the Sox needed was help from their bullpen, but the Cardinals had other ideas. Wacha said, “We had all the confidence in the world” that a rally was just around the corner, and he was right.