Forget the ‘one great player’ structure for this World Series

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BOSTON — There seems to be quite a bit of talk about continuity going into this year’s World Series. Well, hey, it’s the Cardinals and the Red Sox again. Fourth time. That was the matchup in ’46, with Stan Musial and Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter and Johnny Pesky, Red Schoendienst and Bobby Doerr and that whole cast of characters.

That was the matchup again in ’67, the Impossible Dream Red Sox and the awesome Cardinals. Nobody could get out Lou Brock. Nobody could get out Carl Yastrzemski. Jim Lonborg proved almost unhittable. It was a last hurrah for Roger Maris. In the end, an indomitable Bob Gibson decided who was better.

And then, one more time, 2004, the Cardinals won 105 games, most for the franchise since the end of World War II. They were a dominant team. But the Red Sox had 86 years to make up for, and they had just vanquished the Yankees in the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history, and they rolled to a four-game World Series sweep.

Yes, there’s a lot of talk about the history — Red Sox and Cardinals all over again.

Except, if you think about it in a different way, this series is more about how much baseball changes than how much it stays the same. Think about the last time we saw these two teams in the World Series. For the Red Sox, that was 2007 when they swept the Rockies. For the Cardinals, that was 2011 when they beat the Rangers in a stirring and disjointed series.

If you asked at the time, who would have been the key player on each team?

For the Cardinals, clearly, it was first baseman Albert Pujols. He was still widely regarded as the best player in baseball.

For the Red Sox I think, it was general manager Theo Epstein, who had found a way to marry Moneyball tactics with big market resources to build what many thought would be the baseball superpower of the 21st Century.

If you had told fans at the time that, soon after, Pujols and Epstein would leave — people could see it coming with Pujols — they would have panicked. They would have expected a great fall. After all, both men seemed utterly irreplaceable. Who could do what Pujols did? They called him The Machine because year after year after year he hit .330, and he walked 90 or 100 times, and he scored 120 runs and he hit 40 doubles and he hit 40 home runs and he played great defense. He was the heart of the team, he was the soul of the team, he was the engine of the team.

And two years after he left, the Cardinals are back in the World Series.

Theo’s excellence was more subtle, but nobody missed it. Epstein built an organization around advanced thinking (with one of baseball’s great revolutionaries, Bill James, working for the team) AND around their advantages as one of baseball’s richest teams. One of the 2007 team’s best players was a little second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, who the Red Sox had taken in the second round of the 2004 amateur draft because they didn’t fall for the conventional wisdom that he was too small. Their best hitter, David Ortiz, had been discarded by the Minnesota Twins — they had not seen him clearly. Meanwhile, they were also spending a fortune on established superstars like Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling. All together, it seemed like Epstein and the Red Sox had beaten the system — they were smarter AND they were richer.

And two years after he left, the Red Sox are in the World Series.

In baseball, more than any other sport, teams win championships. Not individuals, I don’t mean that baseball is more about teamwork than football or basketball or hockey or soccer— that isn’t true. Those sports rely more on teamwork than baseball does. Football in many ways is the ultimate team sport because everybody plays a different role.

No, I’m saying that in football one player — especially if he’s a quarterback — can define a team. A team with a great quarterback will win more games than a team with a lousy quarterback no matter how good the rest of the team might be. Obviously that’s true in other sports. LeBron James or Sidney Crosby or Messi, almost single-handedly, can turn a a bad team into a good one and a good team into a great one.

But in baseball, it really doesn’t work that way. The game’s structure prevents any one person from being too important. The world’s best hitter will still only come up one out of nine times. The world’s best starting pitcher will only pitch one out of every five days. The world’s best closer will (likely) pitch in the ninth inning. The manager cannot really design plays. The general manager cannot just go out and sign a couple of big free agents and win championships the way the Miami Heat did. The Angels tried that when they signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in back-to-back years. They went from 86 wins in 2011 to 78 wins in 2013.

The Cardinals are in the World Series because they combined some good veterans (Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday) with some excellent homegrown hitters (Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams) and built the best offense in the National League. Their rehab program with starter Adam Wainwright obviously worked wonders; he missed all of 2011 and two years later was again one of the two or three best starters in the National League. Their spectacular minor league system helped them build a spectacular bullpen with pitcher after pitcher throwing 100 mph darts. And the emergence of 21-year-old pitcher Michael Wacha, the Cardinals first round pick in last year’s draft, certainly has helped this postseason.

The Red Sox are in the World Series because a few of their mainstays — Pedroia, Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz — all had fantastic seasons. They made some very shrewd free-agent signings, picking up outfielder Shane Victorino and first baseman Mike Napoli and reliever Koji Uehara. All three of them had huge seasons. A big-money free agent who had looked like an all-time bust, John Lackey, finally got healthy and pitched well. A guy they plucked out of the Independent League a few years ago, Daniel Nava, had a superb year as did the well-traveled Jonny Gomes.

Which team will win? It’s so close. And it’s only seven games. It could come down to the Cardinals amazing bullpen, especially with the colder weather likely to dampen offense. It could come down to Fenway Park, where the Red had a .654 winning percentage during the season and have won three out of four in the postseason. It could come down to how well the Cardinals starters deal with a Red Sox lineup that, all the way through, works and frustrates and spoils pitches.

And it could come down to something entirely unforseen. That’s actually a pretty good bet. Both the Red Sox and Cardinals just dispatched teams with higher profile stars. The Red Sox beat the Tigers who will probably have this year’s American League MVP (Miguel Cabrera) and Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer) not to mention superstars Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder. The Cardinals sent home the absurdly-talented Dodgers with baseball’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and a cavalcade of stars like Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and so on.

People will say that this is a great feat, beating the team that is “more talented,” but I think the return of the Cardinals and Red Sox to the World Series tells a larger story: A talented baseball team is not a team that has a few talented players. It is the team that has talent everywhere, even in places you do not see. It’s the team with talented scouts, talented coaches, talented medical people, talented analysts, talented management, talented players top to bottom.

You will often hear that the Miguel Cabrera has to be the league MVP because the Tigers would not have made the playoffs without him. But I wonder if that’s true. Miguel Cabrera is to Detroit what Albert Pujols was to St. Louis. One player, no matter how great, can only do so much. That, to me, is what this World Series is about.

And That Happened: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Friday’s scores and highlights:

Reds 5, Phillies 2: Tim Adleman tapped into some kind of magic on Friday, redeeming his 6.19 ERA with eight innings of one-hit ball against the Phillies. Any hint of a no-hitter was erased in the first inning, when the right-hander served up a 1-2 base hit to Andres Blanco and plunked Aaron Altherr in the next at-bat. He undid the Phillies’ damage with an inning-ending double play and proceeded to retire the next 16 consecutive batters, finally breaking his streak on a pair of walks in the seventh and eighth.

Granted, Adleman’s breakout came against the fifth-worst offense in the National League — but a win is a win, and the Reds will take any leg up in the standings they can get.

Athletics 4, Yankees 1: After seven fierce innings of a pitcher’s duel, including Masahiro Tanaka‘s career-high 13 strikeouts and Sean Manaea‘s first seven-inning outing since 2016, the Yankees’ bullpen proved to be their undoing. Tyler Clippard advanced Adam Rosales to third base on an errant pickoff throw, then allowed a stolen base, walk, and back-to-back singles to give the A’s a two-run lead in the eighth inning. Jonathan Holder fared little better, losing a 2-0 battle with Stephen Vogt in the ninth and giving up the two-run homer that would seal the A’s 22nd win of the season.

Nationals 5, Padres 1: The Nationals still have a comfortable lead atop the NL East division, and they appear to have made a full recovery from their slump last week, going 4-1 on the road against the Braves and Mariners. There’s no bad time for a Max Scherzer shutdown performance, however, and that’s just what they got during Friday’s win. Scherzer laid out 13 strikeouts in a season-best performance, holding the Padres to three hits and extending his all-time record to 53 double-strikeout appearances.

Mets 8, Pirates 1: Jacob deGrom is finally getting his groove back. Following a seven-inning shutout against the Angels last week, the right-hander delivered 8 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Pirates, whiffing 10 of 32 batters for his fifth double-strikeout performance of the year.

Unsurprisingly, deGrom’s near-complete game was the longest outing by a Mets’ starter in 2017.

Blue Jays 7, Rangers 6: Only two weeks ago, Devon Travis had yet to crest the Mendoza line. Now, he appears to be making steady progress toward another .300 average after hitting his second career grand slam in the Blue Jay’s 7-6 win on Friday night.

The knock preceded Travis’ one-out double in the fourth inning, his 15th of the month and the most by any Blue Jays hitter in the month of May. That might not be enough to dig the Blue Jays out of last place in the AL East, but they’ve now won four consecutive games and have started to close in on the fourth-place Rays.

Royals 6, Indians 4: The Royals technically edged out the Indians on Friday, but the Indians were treated to a repeat visit from the Rally Squirrel, so who’s to say who the real winner is here?

Marlins 8, Angels 5: Giancarlo Stanton is made of the stuff superheroes dreamed of. Who else would hit a leadoff home run and manage, through no extraordinary effort, to physically damage the wall in center field?

The Angels, meanwhile, have now taken three losses in a row. Albert Pujols went 2-for-4 with a single and a double, but is still stuck at No. 597 in his quest for 600 career home runs.

Red Sox 3, Mariners 0: The Red Sox are fast closing in on first place in the AL East, and nothing is going to stand in their way now — not Dustin Pedroia‘s temporary absence, not the last-place Mariners, and certainly not a couple hours of rain. Eduardo Rodriguez dominated in his fourth start of the year, holding the Mariners at arm’s length through six scoreless innings and striking out four of 24 batters. Not a single run was scored via a hit, from Josh Rutledge‘s RBI groundout in the second inning to a run-scoring wild pitch by Yovani Gallardo and a passed ball by Mike Zunino in the sixth.

Diamondbacks 4, Brewers 2 (10 innings): There’s never a good time for a blown save, but snapping a scoreless streak of 13 1/3 innings with a blown save in the ninth inning, with two outs and a 404-foot game-tying home run by the .235-average Chris Iannetta is far from ideal.

The Brewers couldn’t get back on track after Corey Knebel‘s mistake, and lost in the 10th after Wily Peralta allowed a run on a wild pitch and Jake Lamb clobbered an RBI double to secure the win.

Astros 2, Orioles 0: Don’t worry, the Astros are still the best team in baseball. They padded an impressive nine-game lead on Friday night, taking their fourth win of the week with seven sterling innings from Joe MusgroveKen Giles‘ 14th save of the season and a modest two home runs from Jake Marisnick and Carlos Beltran.

White Sox 8, Tigers 2: It was a long and rainy night for the Tigers, who were rained out during Game 1 of a doubleheader, sat through a one-hour, 25-minute rain delay in Game 2, and still lost poorly to the White Sox. Matt Boyd continued to look shaky on the mound, delivering nine hits and three runs over 4 2/3 innings, and striking out just three of 23 batters. Alex Avila pulled the Tigers within a run of tying the game, smashing a 419-foot home run to center field in the fifth inning, but the Tigers were left clueless at the plate against the White Sox’ ever-revolving carousel of relievers.

Rays 5, Twins 2: The best part of the Rays’ win wasn’t the way they extended their win streak to three games, nor was it Logan Morrison‘s home run, Kevin Kiermaier‘s blast or Steven Souza Jr.’s eighth-inning homer. It was the reminder that sometimes, baseball is little more than pure, glorious entertainment:

Souza Jr. took to Twitter following the game to find out just how far off the mark he was:

Rockies 10, Cardinals 0: The Diamondbacks and Dodgers are going to have a difficult time catching the Rockies in the NL West if Colorado keeps turning out wins like this one. They were dominant in every aspect of Friday’s game, flummoxing the Cardinals at the plate with eight scoreless frames from Antonio Senzatela and returning in the ninth with a flawless 12-pitch inning by Jordan Lyles.

The Rockies’ offense was no less formidable at the plate, putting up an eight-spot in the eighth inning that featured, among other things, two home runs from Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds and Nolan Arenado‘s 17th double of the season. Blackmon went 4-for-4 for the first time since 2016, recording an RBI triple, home run and single to come one double shy of hitting for the cycle.

Dodgers 4, Cubs 0: All the hope that Jake Arrieta gave the Cubs during his last start was erased on Friday. Instead of building on the six-inning shutout he delivered against the Brewers, Arrieta found himself mired in a nine-hit, four-run performance against the Dodgers, striking out nine of 23 batters and allowing two home runs for the fourth time this season. The Cubs’ offense couldn’t catch a break against Alex Wood, or Pedro Baez, or Chris Hatcher, failing to produce a single run and eventually taking their third shutout of the month.

Braves 2, Giants 0: It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Cain was a workhorse, consistently turning in 200+ innings and 3.0+ fWAR from season to season. While his glory days are well behind him now, Cain flashed a little of that dominance on Friday, going seven innings with two runs, a walk and three strikeouts against the Braves. Alas, it wasn’t enough to carry the Giants to a much-needed win: opposing starter Jaime Garcia‘s two-run single was all the team needed to edge out the Giants for their 21st win of the year.

Giancarlo Stanton dented the outfield wall in Marlins Park

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If we haven’t said it before, it bears repeating: When it comes to pure muscle mass and power, no major league player rivals the sheer force of Giancarlo Stanton. His record-setting 504-foot home run in 2016 has yet to be bested in the Statcast era (though it narrowly beat out Jake Arrieta‘s 503-foot blast in 2015, because baseball is weird), he broke the Dodgers’ outfield fence on an attempted catch at the wall last Sunday, and he carries 25 home runs that have each exceeded 460 feet.

It should come as little surprise, then, that when Stanton muscled his 12th home run of the season against the Angels on Friday night, it not only hit the batter’s eye, but left a visible dent in the wall:

Stanton’s mammoth shot put the Marlins on the board in the first inning, setting the stage for a four-run effort that gave the club an early lead. The home run measured a cool 462 feet, the slugger’s longest of the season. He still has a little ways to go to catch up to the 2017 season leader, Jake Lamb, whose 481-foot home run against the Rockies currently leads the pack.

The next item on Stanton’s bucket list? If we’re lucky, maybe something a little like this: