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CLASSIC SHOWDOWN <br> WORLD SERIES PREVIEW: TWO STORIED FRANCHISES MEET FOR THE THIRD TIME, IN WHAT SHOULD BE A HITTER-FRIENDLY MATCHUP

Welcome to Red October. And get ready for some fence-pounding action.

Offense might run amok when the 100th World Series opens tonight in Fenway Park between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. That's provided the teams can recharge their batteries after emotional victories in their respective League Championship Series.

"Refocusing will not be a problem for this group," said Boston General Manager Theo Epstein, whose club became the first team in history to wipe out a 3-0 deficit when they stunned the Yankees Wednesday night in the Bronx in Game Seven of the ALCS.

"For all their colorful personalities, these guys have always been focused on the World Series. Beating the Yankees, making history. that just happened. That wasn't the goal. The goal was always to win the World Series and now we're here."

Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will start for Boston tonight against St. Louis' Woody Williams while Curt Schilling and his sutured ankle are scheduled for Game Two (the Cardinals' rotation is undetermined). But it will be the big bats that will likely decide this series.

The Red Sox led the majors in runs during the regular season (949) while the Cardinals were second (855). Boston tied with Anaheim for the AL lead in batting at .282. St. Louis topped the National League at .278.

Boston's Manny Ramirez led the AL in home runs (43) and was third in RBIs (130). Teammate David Ortiz was second in RBIs (139) and third in homers (41). On the other side, St. Louis' Albert Pujols was second in the NL in homers (46) and third in RBIs (123) while third baseman Scott Rolen was second in RBIs (124) and hit the home run that proved decisive Thursday in Game Seven of the NLCS against Houston.

"We're up against the wall against them and I'm not trying to be funny," Williams said in reference to Fenway's famed Green Monster. "I have to be on top of my game to make sure I keep our team in it."

"Our strength is that we have eight guys that take really good at-bats," said St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa. "In this park (with the designated hitter being used), we'll have nine."

Boston is playing its first World Series since 1986 and, of course, trying to wipe out 86 years of frustration since its last title in 1918. The Cardinals last got here in 1987 and last won in 1982, when they beat Milwaukee in seven games.

The Red Sox held a light workout in a cold mist here early Friday afternoon. The Cardinals didn't take the field until four hours later, as they didn't get to the park until nearly 5 p.m. after flying in from St. Louis.

"We're not moving as quickly as we were a couple of nights ago," said Boston outfielder Johnny Damon. "We have to recharge for sure but we know we're not done and this is the ultimate goal."

"We're still getting over Game Seven a little bit," admitted Rolen. "But by (tonight) we'll be stoked right back up and ready to go. It's the chance of a lifetime, what you dream about as a little kid."

While Ramirez and Ortiz are a fearsome duo, the Cardinals' lineup is generally considered the best in baseball. In addition to Pujols and Rolen, there's veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds (.301-42-111) and Larry Walker and on-base pests in Tony Womack and Edgar Renteria, who own World Series rings as part of walkoff wins by the 2001 Diamondbacks and 1997 Marlins, respectively.

"I like our lineup a lot and they have a very potent lineup," said Boston manager Terry Francona, who is in the Fall Classic in his first year at the Sox helm. "When you start hitting Larry Walker second, you've got some sock . . . and Pujols might be the best hitter in the game."

"These two lineups are awesome," Schilling said. "We're talking about four legitimate MVP candidates or past winners in the middle of their lineup. They're stacked -- but they can be pitched to."

It will be interesting to take the emotional pulse of the Red Sox tonight. The Yankees were not ready to play Game One against the Marlins last year and neither were their fans, as pitcher David Wells complained the atmosphere at Florida's 3-2 win in Yankee Stadium was akin to that of your average June game.

"It's great what we did but we're not satisfied," Damon said. "I want that World Series ring and to bring that championship here is the only reason why I came to Boston, to win it and help erase The Curse. We're that much closer now. we're a step closer to erasing all the chants we hear, all the myths. We're very excited about that."

The fans are also going to be a big story. The lunatics who pack Fenway every night have been waiting a lifetime for this chance. At Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the masses have less attitude but no less knowledge.

"St. Louis is an unbelievable baseball town," Schilling said. "It's New York and Boston with out the F-bombs. Those people really understand and respect the game."

It won't be easy for the Sox. Of course, Sox fans will point out it never is. The Cardinals had baseball's best record in the regular season (105-57), and it's the fourth straight time Boston has hit the Series and been forced to play the team with the game's best record.
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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