As the Red Sox have proceeded through this postseason, much attention has been paid to the elite caliber of starting pitching on the other side, no matter who the opponent. In the Division Series, with the Rays, it was Matt Moore and David Price. In the American League Championship Series, with the Tigers, it was Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Now in the World Series, it's Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha - completing a collection that includes five hurlers who are likely to receive Cy Young votes this season, one who has finished first or second in balloting for that award the past two years, and a super-rookie who has taken the game by storm this fall.
But what's been underplayed amidst the anxiety over how the Sox could overcome such a challenge is the idea that, as far as the postseason is concerned, Boston might actually have a pitcher better than any in that group. And, in fact, better than almost every pitcher in the history of the game.
Such a claim might seem like hyperbole in the wake of 7 2/3 scoreless Game 1 innings that helped Jon Lester become the third pitcher ever to not allow a run in either of his first two World Series starts, and the first Red Sox starter to go unscored upon in any two consecutive Fall Classic appearances - though it's supported by statistics that show how his 2.22 career earned run average in the playoffs compares favorably with the best big-game hurlers of this era or any since baseball expanded its playoffs.
It's better than those of Curt Schilling (2.23), Cliff Lee (2.52) or Josh Beckett (3.07). It's better than John Smoltz (2.67) or any of his old Braves teammates. Better than Andy Pettitte (3.81) or any of those grizzled Yankee starters. Better than Dave Stewart (2.77), Randy Johnson (3.50) or Steve Carlton (3.26).
All-timers like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were better, but among the 60 pitchers who've made at least 10 postseason starts, Lester's 2.07 ERA as a starter ranks behind only Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson (0.97) and Waite Hoyt (1.85).
So as Lester takes the ball for playoff start No. 11 on Monday night, in a crucial Game 5, the Sox have confidence in the pitching matchup - even if it's Wainwright going again for the Cardinals.
"It's tough be a No. 1, because you have to be that good," said Boston outfielder Jonny Gomes. "You've got to go against their No. 1; there's not a lot of margin for error. He toes that rubber like a true champ, and he's a beast out there."
Only once has Lester allowed more than three runs in a postseason start, and this year he has yet to allow more than two during an October that has been an extension of an outstanding second half - and the combination could change some things about how the lefty fits into the Red Sox' plans moving forward.
The team is expected to exercise the one-year, $13 million option it holds on him for next season, though he turns 30 in January and is eligible to become a free agent after the 2014 campaign, so the club could be forced to make some difficult decisions this winter on a player who it drafted, developed and has seen as a cornerstone for much of a decade.
One option is to sign him to an extension, though the price on that has certainly risen with Lester's level of performance over the past couple months, and given the premium cost of even average pitching, he could probably command close to $20 million per year. Given that he'll play out that contract in his 30s, and with more than 1,500 big-league innings on his arm, that's risky business. A safer option is to let him play out his deal, then see where things stand next offseason. And the final option is to pick up the option, then trade him. The Sox have five other starters under contract who made at least 10 starts for them this season, and talent waiting to emerge from the minors, so they might be able to use the appeal of Lester pitching on a one-year deal to make a swap that would fill a need elsewhere.
But, then, there's no need bigger in baseball than the presence of an ace. And it looks like the Red Sox have one of those again. They have a guy who's talented, who's reliable, who relishes the challenge, who at this time of year becomes one of the best in the game - this year or another. And that's not something they will be eager to give away.
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This year's occurrence marked the 19th time since the playoffs were expanded in 1969 that the World Series has been tied after two games - and the team that has won Game 3 has gone on to win the title in 16 of the previous 18 instances. That suggests Saturday night was a huge tipping point in the tussle between the Red Sox and Cardinals, though momentum is always subject to change on this stage.
"That's the World Series for you right there," Gomes said. "Momentum is pitch to pitch. No lead is safe, no momentum is safe - the only time you can safe is on that 27th out."
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There's a heavy New Hampshire influence on this World Series, the Granite State connections highlighted by Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, of Meriden, as well as Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, of Bedford. They also include Concord's Bob Tewksbury, who pitched six seasons for the Cards and now works as the Sox' mental skills coach, and Rochester's Allard Baird, who is the Sox' vice president of player personnel.
"We've got some quality guys in this league that have come from New Hampshire, from top to bottom," Carpenter said. "I think it's pretty good."
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The Red Sox have had limited success against Cardinals' scheduled Game 4 starter Lance Lynn, going 3-for-15 collectively - though no St. Louis hitter has ever faced Boston starter Clay Buchholz at the big-league level. That could benefit the Sox as they try to get survive the shoulder stiffness Buchholz takes into today's outing.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.