During the regular season, the Red Sox were successful in almost 87 percent of their stolen base attempts, swiping 123 in 142 tries. At one point, from August through the Division Series, the Red Sox stole an astounding 45 bases in a row without being caught. Even then, it took a botched hit-and-run for Daniel Nava to be thrown out in Game 4 against Tampa Bay, ending the streak. The Sox have been nearly as efficient in the playoffs, too, with 11 steals in 13 attempts in the Division Series and American League Championship Series. It's routine enough for Boston base stealers to be safe that it seemed oddly out of character when Jacoby Ellsbury was gunned down by Alex Avila in Game 6 Saturday night.
But with the start of the World Series, things are about to get really interesting. The Red Sox may have been fourth in the majors in steals during the season and first in success rate, but until now, they've never had to run against St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who threw out 43 percent of would-be base stealers. (For the sake of context, even 30 percent is considered excellent for catchers). "We haven't gone up against him," said John Farrell of Molina, "so as we become familiar with him, become familiar with individual pitchers and opportunities that might present themselves . . . that's where our efficiency has (come from): understanding our opponent and where we might be able to take advantage of our situations.
"That won't deter our aggressiveness to go first-to-third. But if it means a different approach with straight steals in the running game, or if we look to put guys in motion with some hit-and-run protection . . . the game will dictate what we'll be able to do." Surely, though, the Red Sox cannot afford to run on Molina the way they ran on the Tampa Bay duo of Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton, or with Detroit and Avila.
Yadier Molina is the standard-bearer for his position, having established himself as the game's best defensive receiver. And his presence is such that in the post-seaosn, when outs become even more precious, teams this fall have effectively given up on trying to run: the Pittsburgh Pirates tried twice - once successfully, once not.
It was more of the same in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Second baseman Mark Ellis swiped a base in the only try.
In 11 post-season games to date, then, opponents have tried to steal exactly three times on Molina.
"I know how important it is to get a good jump when he's behind the plate," said designated pinch runner Quintin Berry, who has never been thrown out trying to steal in his career. "If I get (the chance), I'll look for a window and take it. If you're acknowledged as the best (in the game at throwing runners out), you make a huge impact.
"It's tough, but we have to stay aggressive and keep playing our game. For (Ellsbury) and everybody else, you've got to steal off the pitcher; you can't try to steal off the catcher. If we do our job and get good reads and get good jumps, we'll be alright."
Bench coach Torey Lovullo helps direct the Red Sox' running game, studying video to measure pitchers' times to the plate and catchers' release times. The Sox will be prepared before Game 1 to know when they can run, and just as important, when not to.
"All the information is available to us," said Berry. "Our coaching staff does a real good job preparing us and giving us the rundown on everybody they have, so whatever you need, it's available to you. If we see something we can pick up and take advantage of, we'll do it."
"For me," said catcher David Ross, "(Molina) is the best catcher in the game. He's the epitome of what a catcher should be."
But Ross isn't sure the Sox will challenge Molina much.
"We didn't get to run a lot against the Tigers (six attempts in six games), noted Ross. "Their pitchers recognized that they were going to have to slide-step and we knew if they did that, it would present some opportunities for our hitters, too, when they're adjusting to us on the bases. But when you have guys like Ellsbury and (Shane) Victorino, it's one of those things where you're going to have to be precise."
In all likelihood, as Farrell hinted, the Sox may channel their usual aggressiveness on the bases in other ways -- by putting runners in motion, utilizing the hit-and-run and taking extra bases when the ball is in the outfield gaps.
This much is certain: running at will against Molina is a prescription for failure. As the post-seaosn progresses, it's more and more important for teams to be smart and not hurt themselves with over-aggressiveness.
"It's going to be everything," agreed Ross. "Every detail is highlighted. Baserunning is highlighted. If you get thrown out, it's going to be a big deal. You have to pick your spots and maybe run on some off-speed stuff. We're really going to have to do our homework and study and pick good times to run. We're not just going to run into out just because we feel like we need to run."
- Sean McAdam, CSN New England