This World Series is turning into a hard-fought, competitive and exciting one. It is a nice contrast to last year's World Series, which was fantastic only if you happened to be fan of the San Francisco Giants. The two teams are evenly matched with solid-to-excellent starting pitching, deep bullpens, good hitting and famous October heroes like David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran.
This World Series has also been surprisingly sloppily played. The most memorable play of the World Series so far was the obstruction call on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks which allowed the winning run to score in game three. The play was initially debated, but it is now clear that the umpire got it right. However, the more striking aspect of that play was the decision by Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to throw down to third base when he had almost no chance at getting Allan Craig out. Making that throw with a weak hitter, Pete Kozma, coming up and Red Sox closer Koji Uehara on the mound was a poor percentage play.
Game four ended with a play that, while not as unusual as the one that ended game three, also reflected poor fundamental baseball. Pinch runner Kolten Wong was picked off of first base by Uehara for the last out of the game with the tying run at the plate. The play was not just a mental lapse by Wong, but a great pickoff by Uehara. Down by two, Wong should have been taking no chances. His run did not mean much, as it was not a one-run game. Moreover, the player who was left standing at the plate was none other than Carlos Beltran, one of the best Cardinal hitters, and one of the most accomplished post-season hitters in baseball history.
These two plays may obscure the poor defense that has characterized the World Series to date. The Cardinals and Red Sox have committed a total of 11 errors while allowing six unearned runs so far in this World Series. This World Series has shown that even two very strong teams can sometimes play relatively poor fundamental baseball. Nonetheless, one of these teams will win the World Series and, inevitably, be described as playing the game the right way, and making the fundamental plays when it counted most.
Clearly the team that wins the World Series plays the game the right way, but the meaning of this phrase in not always what it might seem. The right way to play baseball at the big league level is to score more runs than the other team. That is all. However, when an announcer or writer describes a team as playing the game the right way, this usually means the team fields well, doesn't hit too many home runs, probably bunts too much and does things like move the runners by hitting to the right side of the infield.
Any team that wins the World Series will be very good and will do a lot of the things the right way, but this year we have two teams that rely on a successful formula of home runs, outstanding bullpens, relentless offenses and good starting pitching. Defense and small ball have played relatively supporting roles for both the Cardinals and the Red Sox in 2013. This seems to be lost on too many people who observe these games and write about them.
The paradox is interesting. Everybody who watched game four knows that the big hit was Johnny Gomes' three run home run. That was the play that turned the game around. It was not a stolen base or bunt, but a big home run by a power hitter. However, when we tune in to game five tonight the analysts will likely still be talking about things like hitting behind the runner.
In general, World Series are won by the big things. Last year, it was Pablo Sandoval's three home runs in the World Series, as much as anything else that put the Giants in front of the Detroit Tigers. The Giants played more solid defense than either team this year, but it was mostly home runs and great pitching that won it for them.
As Earl Weaver knew, a big three-run home run or an inning of great relief pitching can make up for a lot of botched small things or failures to move runners over, but for some reason this explanation becomes less popular the further we go into the playoffs. The teams that win the World Series this year will have done so in spite of a spate of mistakes that demonstrate an inability to do the little things and suggest that the real way to play the game right is to strike out a lot of guys on the other team and hit the ball out of the ballpark a few times a day.