BOSTON (CBS) — Just minutes after his team secured its spot in the World Series, with hardly a second to collect his thoughts, Red Sox manager John Farrell was asked about his next opponent, the St. Louis Cardinals.
“You’re way ahead of the gun, here. We’re probably going to take 12 or 24 hours to let this one sink in,” Farrell responded after midnight Saturday. “By the time Wednesday rolls around we’ll be prepared, but not right now.”
At that time, Farrell had just completed a difficult series in which he had to make some tough decisions with his lineup, but he probably had already begun to experience some stress, knowing that those calls will only get more difficult in the World Series.
Farrell’s job shouldn’t change too much for Games 1 and 2 of the series, which will be in Boston, though the presence of Stephen Drew in the lineup will remain a point of contention among fans and analysts alike. The switch-hitter is batting just .086 in the postseason after going 1-for-20 (.050) in the ALCS, and his inability to get a sacrifice bunt down in Game 6 highlighted the struggle he’s had at the plate for some time now.
Yet, Drew’s defense at shortstop was reason enough for Farrell to continue to keep Drew in the lineup, and it paid off in that same Game 6. Drew made a leaping catch to take a hit away from Victor Martinez in the fourth inning, and he made a diving stab and throw to retire Miguel Cabrera to end the top of the seventh, preventing the Tigers to build on their 2-1 lead and setting up the Shane Victorino grand slam in the bottom of the frame. Drew made the play appear to be effortless, but the quick hop to get to his feet to deliver a strike to first shouldn’t go unnoticed. It certainly wasn’t by the manager, who made sure to point to that play as a key moment. And if anyone might believe that the importance of defense is being overvalued when it comes to Drew, the key errors by Miguel Cabrera in Game 5 and Jose Iglesias in Game 6 can quickly be referenced as series-shifting moments.
There’s also the fact that Drew was hardly the only Red Sox player to struggle in the ALCS. David Ortiz and Victorino came through with unforgettable home runs, but they batted .091 and .125, respectively, in the series. And Will Middlebrooks, the man who would stand to benefit by a Drew benching, went just 1-for-10 in the ALCS with five strikeouts and is hitting .174 in the playoffs, so there would be no guarantee that the potential upgrade offensively would offset the defensive drop-off at shortstop that would happen from Drew to Xander Bogaerts.
And that issue is just for the games in Boston. For Games 3, 4 and 5 in St. Louis, Farrell’s job of drawing up a lineup becomes all the more complicated.
Without the designated hitter, Farrell will have to use Ortiz at first base, thus removing Mike Napoli from the starting lineup. While Napoli goes on some long cold streaks, one of which got him benched as recently as Game 2 of the ALCS, there should be no doubt that the Red Sox would not have beaten the Tigers if not for Napoli’s mammoth home runs. The first scored the lone run of Game 3, a 1-0 Boston victory, and the second — a 450-plus-foot blast to straightaway center field — scored the first run of Game 5, breaking a scoreless tie and kicking off a three-run second inning in what would end up being a 4-3 Boston win.
With Napoli out of the lineup — and it seems safe to assume Ortiz will be getting the starts — the lineup instantly loses its second-most dangerous home run threat, replaced by a pitcher. And who’s the man who finished third on the team in home runs despite playing in just 94 games? That would be Middlebrooks, of course.
Napoli will be available as a pinch hitter, but he and Ortiz are unable to play any other position on the field, so they simply cannot be in the lineup at the same time. It was evident in the Red Sox’ four ALCS victories how important the long ball can be to the Boston offense, and with Napoli out of the lineup, the addition of Middlebrooks may indeed be necessary to maintain a home run threat outside of Ortiz.
No matter what happens, Bogaerts absolutely has to play. He hasn’t had a ton of plate appearances, but he’s made the most of his 11, posting a .727 on-base percentage, .500 batting average and 1.667 OPS while scoring seven runs. Despite the limited playing time, he’s tied for the most doubles on the team this postseason with three, which is more than Dustin Pedroia, Victorino, Ortiz and Drew. The rookie may not be an above-average defensive shortstop like Drew, but he’s no slouch either, and he could play the position if Farrell wants to think offense.
If Middlebrooks does not play, the struggles of Drew will fall under the microscope even more in the World Series, with one fewer out at the Red Sox’ disposal the first two or three times through the order.
Of course, the dilemmas facing Farrell mean that he and the Red Sox have reached the World Series, which is the goal. But with each and every out carrying that much more importance, all of the manager’s decisions are sure to be examined and critiqued throughout the next week — and with good reason. For as dominant as Detroit’s starters have been this postseason (2.39 ERA), the Cardinals’ starting staff has been nearly as good (2.57). One decision, one hit, one run absolutely will make the difference between winning and losing in several games this series.
Farrell’s done an almost unbelievable job of righting the Red Sox’ ship from the first day of spring training all the way through the ALCS. His reward? A path which promises to be nearly impossible to perfectly navigate in the World Series.