BOSTON - As the clock ticks toward Wednesday night's first pitch of the World Series, there's a sense around Fenway Park that justice is being served.
In this day of wild card play-in games and short five-game Division Series which can be won as often by the team that's hot as by the team that's truly better, it's rare for the two teams with their respective league's best records to meet in the Fall Classic.
That's what will happen this year when the Boston Red Sox (regular season: 97-65; playoffs: 7-3) meet the St. Louis Cardinals (regular season: 97-65; playoffs: 7-4.)
Identical regular season records, nearly the same postseason marks and two organizations considered amongst the best in baseball at drafting and developing talent and molding young men into bona fide major leaguers.
It should come as no surprise that since these two teams met in the 2004 World Series, each has returned more than once. The Red Sox swept the Cardinals in 2004. Boston swept the Rockies in 2007. The Cardinals beat Detroit in five games in 2006 and edged Texas in seven in 2011.
Both have managers - Boston's John Farrell and St. Louis' Mike Matheny - who will skip in the World Series for the first time. Heck, Matheny's so young he played on that 2004 Cardinals team that lost to Boston quickly.
"It was a lesson learned," said Matheny of the World Series nine years ago. "Not that our team at that point was half-stepping or we weren't prepared but we just hadn't been hit like that all season long. So it was a little bit of a shocker."
"There's probably a little more sense of urgency to the decisions you make, particularly with matchups on the mound," said Farrell of the biggest difference he's noticed while managing playoff baseball. "And sometimes you kind of go a little bit more with your gut with the way guys are currently playing, as opposed to the approach you might take during the regular season."
Those who dig great pitching will get a marquee matchup right away. Red Sox ace left-hander Jon Lester will pitch Game 1, up against Cardinals' ace right-hander Adam Wainwright.
Lester got the ball the last time Boston played in a World Series game. He got the win and the Sox clinched their last title in Game 4 of the 2007 series.
"I remember just the anxiety of trying to just get to the field and calm down a little bit," said Lester. "Different point in my career, I think, too. Obviously (Wednesday) there will still be nerves, there will still be all that to be expected, but I think I know who I am a little bit more as a pitcher and what to expect from myself."
"This year I felt strong from the get-go," said Wainwright, who won 19 games, with a sub-3.00 ERA, just two years removed from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. "I felt strong throughout Spring Training. Usually I get a dead-arm phase in Spring Training. I never once had a dead-arm phase this entire year."
The Cardinals lost left-hander Jaime Garcia early in the season but have been buoyed by the emergence of Michael Wacha, who will pitch Game 2. Drafted just last year with the 19th overall pick - a compensatory pick for the loss of Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels - Wacha has taken the Cardinals by storm. After only 15 regular season appearances (nine starts,) Wacha has allowed only one earned run in 21 innings (0.43 ERA) over three postseason starts. His 0.571 WHIP is off the charts.
Following Wacha will be a combination of Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn. Boston will start John Lackey in Game 2. Farrell will go with Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy for the first two games in St. Louis, although he hasn't yet determined the order in which he'll use them.
St. Louis' pitching hasn't seen a lineup the quality of Boston's and so it will be intriguing to see how it handles the Red Sox's potent mix of power (David Ortiz, Mike Napoli) and speed at the top of the order (Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino.)
Ellsbury and Victorino combined to steal 73 bases in the regular season. They were caught a combined seven times. That said, there aren't many catchers the quality of Yadier Molina, who threw out a whopping 43-percent of would-be base stealers. As impressive a percentage as that is it's actually below his career average of 45 per cent and his career high of 64 per cent, set in 2005.
"We all understand and I played against Yadi for many years and I tip my hat," said Victorino. "To me, he's arguably the best catcher in the game both offensively and defensively … Does it shut down your running game a little bit? Absolutely but you have to stay aggressive and capitalize on every mistake and every dirt ball you can possibly do."
The Cardinals will get first baseman Allen Craig back. He hasn't played since spraining his left foot in a September 4 game against the Reds. Craig will serve as the designated hitter in the first two games at Fenway Park. If his foot responds, expect to see him at first base when the series shifts to Busch Stadium.
As for the challenges of playing in Fenway Park, with the Green Monster and it's strange dimensions in centre and right fields, Craig says he and his mates won't be psyched out.
"I think we just need to stay really focused and narrow-minded on just playing the game," said Craig. "We're going to go out and play our game and not worry about the Green Monster and all the nooks and crannies in the outfield. Obviously we're aware of the field and how we need to attack it defensively and offensively but we're just going to focus on playing the game, doing what we do, doing what got us here."
Canadian Ryan Dempster, with the Red Sox, is looking for his first World Series ring. So is St. Louis' Carlos Beltran, whose career .337/.449/.724 postseason slash line makes him one of the game's great playoff performers.
This Fall Classic appears poised to live up to the billing.
The two best teams will go at it. Bring it on.