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Two-strike situation: Cardinals are in a hole and headed to Fenway

ST. LOUIS -- It was so quiet in the Cardinals clubhouse you could hear a team drop.

Not quite as quiet as the Cardinals' bats perhaps, but pretty darned quiet.

On the plus side, the Cardinals have very likely seen the last of Red Sox ace Jon Lester, a lefty too tough for them. On the minus side of the ledger is plenty, probably a lot more than most teams could handle.

The Cardinals go to Fenway with a shot, though realistically, not a great one, after the Red Sox parted this sea of red here, taking two of three to go up three games to two in the World Series.

David Ortiz is impossibly hot. He went 3 for 4 in the 3-1 Red Sox victory in Game 5, and saw his Series batting average rise only six points, to .733. When Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, a great big-game pitcher but a loser twice in this Series, finally retired Ortiz, on a liner to center field, you could make out that Wainwright mouthed, "Wow."

Wow, indeed.

Ortiz has been devastating to the Cardinals, a one-vet wrecking crew. And he seems to have just enough aid now. Rookie Xander Bogaerts is doing things a 21-year-old shouldn't be doing. And Red Sox manager John Farrell, for all the hits he has been taking, has found the charmed lineup, the one with clubhouse king Jonny Gomes in it, even if some of it came by accident.

The Red Sox look like the team with the karma now.

They have not one, but two deserving MVPs -- Ortiz and Lester -- ready to get up on that podium in Boston. Ortiz will probably win it, because his is the more amazing story, but Lester, with or without his funny Game 1 goop, has been vital, too.

As for the Cardinals, well, they need some serious magic now, at the very time they aren't playing particularly well. They haven't hit very much, their fielding has been spotty and ace Wainwright wasn't quite good enough in Game 5.

"No one said it was going to be easy," Cardinals star Carlos Beltran said. "We knew Boston was going to play hard. But at the same time, we're going back to Boston and we feel we can win there."

The Cardinals can win anywhere, even if Fenway is mostly foreign to many of the fresh-faced Cardinals. But it is obvious St. Louis is going to have to step up its game. If not for the rare game-ending obstruction call that delivered victory to them in Game 3 here, this World Series could already be over.

Except for some brilliant pitching, the expected fine play of Yadier Molina and Beltran plus Matt Holliday's powerful hitting, the Cardinals have not performed particularly well. Their rookies, 170-plus games in, are finally showing their inexperience.

As a team, the Cardinals have really only distinguished themselves with their admirable sportsmanship.

Except for one Cardinals minor-leaguer, who will receive a talking to in spring training, they didn't say a peep when Lester was caught by cameras in Game 1 with what looked like green goo on his glove. Farrell explained back in Boston that Lester sweats "like a pig" and needs rosin on cold days. (This wasn't an issue for Game 5, with the temperatures and unseasonably warm 60-something.)

The Cardinals didn't make Lester sweat it out, calling it a non-issue and saying they just had to play better. They have done that, though so far not well enough.

That was the prime example of the Cardinal way. Other than that, there's not much. The way Game 4 ended, with rookie Kolten Wong getting picked off first base as a meaningless run, is not the way they normally do things around here.

Wainwright said they'd be "legendary" if they pulled this off. But what are the chances now?

Things have gotten better from their Game 1 debacle, though not completely. For instance, the Cardinals still aren't hitting much as a team (.205).

Fortunately, they won't draw a lefty in either Game 6 or 7 (it's John Lackey, then Jake Peavy for Boston) as there's a rare weakness there. The Cardinals' .672 OPS vs. lefties this season was better than only four teams in baseball, surprising in that the heart of their batting order is almost all right-handed.

So all is not lost, it might only seem that way.

Inside that Cardinals clubhouse, there's still enough moxie and history on their side to think they can do the difficult, and go into Fenway, steal two games, and carry the pennant back to the uncommonly polite and pleasant fans of Missouri, Illinois and all around Cardinals Nation.

"It starts with the mentality that it's a great challenge," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of the tall task that lies ahead. "It's a great opportunity for us to go in and prove the kind of team we are as far as how tough we are mentally."

There's no issue with their toughness. It's merely a question of whether they have enough bullets left.

It's a wonder how well they draft and develop, and they keep bringing up kids who help them. But maybe at some point, the novelty wears off, and the errors start to show up.

Wong certainly played it like a rookie, and even afterward, he gave out a quote or two about how he wanted to get a good jump. No, he needed to tether himself to the bag. His run didn't matter! Someone tell him before it happens again.

Michael Wacha, the most important Cardinals rookie of them all, will get the ball for a Game 6 start, and to have a chance, they'll need him to deliver a fourth great outing out of four this October.

"He's been amazing for us in the postseason," Wainwright said. "We don't expect anything less."

Wainwright gave the Cardinals a lot closer to what they expect from him this time, but he allowed two runs in the seventh as the Red Sox broke a 1-1 tie in a pitchers duel between aces. "I pitched like I wanted to until the seventh inning," Wainwright said.

Even then, he didn't think he had pitched all that bad. He's tough on himself, but he didn't hate the pitch fill-in catcher David Ross (whom Farrell inserted for a slumping Jarrod Saltalamacchia) lined into leftfield for the go-ahead run. "I thought I had him set up for that pitch, and he made a good swing," Wainwright said.

It was curveball, down and in, just like many he threw throughout the year. Except right now, the Red Sox are on their game, and Ross smoked it into the corner.

As good an October pitcher as Wainwright has been, Wacha has yet to have one single clinker when it counts. The enormity might not have hit the 2012 draftee, another big plus. He got by in Game 2 without his best stuff, so that's something, too. "I'll just try to make pitches, and not let the crowd control the game," Wacha said about his Fenway game plan.

That's what he did last time. The crowd chanted "Wacha, Wacha," and he said he didn't even notice.

That's the kind of concentration they'll need to have a chance to pull this off. Even then, it won't be easy.

 
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