ST. LOUIS -- With the best starting pitchers on the best teams in baseball squaring off, it was the tense pitching duel that everyone anticipated.
The question was: Which ace would blink first -- St. Louis' Adam Wainwright or Boston's Jon Lester?
It didn't happen until the seventh inning, but Wainwright surprisingly blinked against hitters who had been missing in action throughout the World Series. The result was a huge 3-1 victory for the Red Sox in Game 5 at Busch Stadium on Monday night, leaving them one win away from the big trophy as they headed home.
By capturing the last two games in a ballpark in which the Cardinals had dominated opponents all year, Boston assumed control of the Series with a chance to win the crown at home for the first time since 1918. It was the second time in five games that Lester out-pitched Wainwright, and that could end up being the difference.
"This was a big game," said Boston manager John Farrell. "For Jon to go out and pitch like he did, up against a top-flight starter like Wainwright, we felt this was going to be a classic pitching duel. Jon Lester was outstanding tonight."
Lester, who shackled the Cardinals on four hits over 72/3 innings, has allowed just one run in three career World Series starts covering 21 frames. Your handy pocket calculator will reveal that to be a 0.43 earned run average on the game's biggest stage.
"The biggest thing is the team played well, top to bottom," said Lester, who issued no walks and struck out seven. "I just tried not to screw it up for the rest of the guys. I tried to keep us in the ball game as best I can and hope we scored some runs."
"He was the same pitcher we saw the last time," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, whose club has scored only 13 runs in the five games. "He threw the ball extremely well. He kept us down. It came down to the big hit. They got the big hit and we couldn't put anything together."
As for the challenge of having to win two games at Fenway Park to win it all, Matheny said, "Our guys have been backed against the wall before. It isn't foreign to them. They know what they have to do -- go out and play the game and try not to make too much of it. Don't get too far ahead of ourselves."
After allowing a quick first-inning run, Wainwright settled into dominant form and cruised through six innings with the score tied, 1-1. There was no real reason for alarm when Xander Bogaerts singled with one down in the seventh because the next two hitters were Stephen Drew and David Ross. Drew was mired in a dreadful 4-for-49 postseason skid (.082) and Ross was 2 for 10 in the Series while sharing catching duties with Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
But Wainwright walked Drew, and did so in curious manner. With the count 1-2, he missed with three straight curveballs -- a pitch he often carves up hitters with -- but why wouldn't you challenge a hitter doing nothing at the plate? It made little sense.
That walk moved Bogaerts into scoring position, and Ross delivered him with a ground-rule double into the left-field corner. Taking the lead made it easier to stick with Lester, who never has collected a hit in the majors. After he grounded back to Wainwright, another slumping hitter, Jacob Ellsbury (.158 at the time in the Series) singled to center, scoring Drew before Ross was out at the plate on a throw from Shane Robinson.
"I never thought I'd be here," said Ross, who feared his career was done earlier in the season while suffering post-concussion syndrome after taking foul tips off his catcher's mask. "It was fun to get a big hit. These have been great ball games, right down to the wire."
There was reason to wonder if Wainwright was going to suffer a repeat of his poor first inning in Game 1 when Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz doubled with one down to put a quick run on the board. Wainwright recovered to catch Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava looking at called third strikes, then whiffed three in a row in the second inning to total six strikeouts.
Ortiz simply has been otherworldly in this World Series, amplifying his well-earned reputation as a postseason stalwart. By going 3 for 4, he raised his average just a tad to .733 in the five games against the Cardinals.
"I was born for this," was all Ortiz had to say about his ridiculous performance, and it was difficult to argue with that assessment.
With Wainwright settled in, the expected pitching duel between the two staff aces soon became a reality. It took a big swing from Matt Holliday, one of the few St. Louis hitters having a good Series, to draw the Cardinals even. With one down in the fourth, Holliday launched a 1-0 fastball far over the wall in left-center for his second homer of the Series -- the only two the Cards have.
But that would be the only damage against Lester, who proceeded to retire the next 12 hitters before David Freese doubled with one down in the eighth.
"He's our backbone; he's our horse," said Ross. "We expect a lot from him. He pitched like the ace he is. He doesn't take any pitches off. He puts the same emphasis on the first pitch he throws as he does the last pitch. That's the sign of a good pitcher."
Unflappable Boston closer Koji Uehara cleaned up for Lester by retiring the last four hitters in order. Just like that, a team that went 86 years without winning a World Series needs just one victory to collect the big trophy for the third time in 10 seasons.
"The fact is we're going home, back to a place our guys love to play in, in front of our fans," said Farrell. "We won't get too far ahead of ourselves, but we're excited about going home in the position we're in."
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