BOSTON — John Axford had been with the St. Louis Cardinals only a few weeks before they clinched a playoff spot. Axford, a veteran reliever, decided then that it was time to learn more about his new team. He searched YouTube and found old World Series clips, including Bob Gibson closing out the Boston Red Sox here in 1967.
“I wanted to take in all those moments, sort of engulf myself in the lore of Cardinal history,” Axford said Tuesday. “That’s one of the biggest things, that there’s something bigger than yourself. There’s a history here.”
Axford was referring to the Cardinals, whose 11 championships trail only the New York Yankees among major-league teams. But he could have just as easily meant Fenway Park, or the larger context of the rivalry between the Cardinals and the Red Sox.
This World Series, which starts Wednesday with St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright facing Boston’s Jon Lester, is just the latest chapter.
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“The fact that the Cardinals and the Red Sox have faced off four times now, there’s a reason for it,” said David Freese, the Cardinals’ third baseman. “Two great organizations going at it. Nothing better.”
The Cardinals won in seven games in 1946 and 1967. The Red Sox blitzed the Cardinals in four straight in 2004, riding an emotional high from their stirring playoff comeback against the Yankees. Only two players from that World Series — the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and the Red Sox’s David Ortiz — will take part in this one.
Mike Matheny, the St. Louis manager, was the Cardinals’ starting catcher then. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated during the World Series, sliding under a gliding Mark Bellhorn, the victim of a double play. The Cardinals never held a lead in the series.
“We just couldn’t stop them,” Matheny said. “It was a lesson learned. 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.
“What that translates into now is a lot like we talked about last year, standing in San Francisco in Game 7 and watching those guys celebrate, realizing how quickly it can get away from you.” Matheny was referring to the 3-1 lead that the Cardinals squandered in the 2012 National League Championship Series. “I think that’s the message we have again this year: just the urgency, first pitch.”
Matheny and his players took a lot of questions Tuesday about the so-called Cardinal Way, the operating instructions for an organization that has reached four World Series, with two championships, in the last 10 years. The Red Sox, though, have now won three pennants in that span, also with two titles.
“We look to be relentless in every aspect of the game,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “And that’s a mindset, an attitude we’ve worked hard at creating. I think that attitude has allowed us to come back from so many deficits this year and never give an at-bat away.”
This is the first World Series since 1999 in which each team had the best record in its league. Both teams wrapped up their league championship series in six games, so the long-layoff factor, which has stifled some teams’ momentum in recent World Series, will not apply.
Both teams have a longtime, dynamic October run producer in the middle of their order — Ortiz for the Red Sox and Carlos Beltran, who had never escaped the National League playoffs, for the Cardinals. Both teams have lockdown bullpens and starters with swing-and-miss stuff, an element the Cardinals lacked in 2004.
The Cardinals welcome Allen Craig back to their lineup as the designated hitter, after having been without him since his foot injury in early September. They will introduce their star rookie, Michael Wacha, to the World Series stage in Game 2 against John Lackey.
Wacha was the most valuable player of the NLCS, beating the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw twice without allowing a run. The Red Sox’s MVP against Detroit was closer Koji Uehara, who had a win and three saves.
“I can’t tell you what Uehara’s split looks like,” said St. Louis’ Matt Holliday. “I can watch it on TV and tell you it looks nasty. But you’ve got to get out there and see it for yourself.”
Now they are ready to do so, and with so many championships lately, the winner will face a tough decision: a new theme for its ring. The Red Sox designed their 2004 ring with a B logo on the face, and their next ring with the hanging-socks logo. The Cardinals put their cap logo on their 2006 ring, and used a bird-on-bat logo for 2011.
“Initially I was just excited to be in the World Series,” said St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. “When you learn we’re playing the Red Sox, it’s kind of what we’ve been dreaming of. Getting to play a World Series at Fenway — I don’t think there is much I can compare to that in the baseball world.”