The Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals are tied for the best record in baseball in the regular season and they will battle it out tonight in the question for a World Series victory.
Each team led its league in runs, with solid starting pitching and a dominant closer emerging midway through the season.
But if you're looking for a favorite in the World Series that begins at Fenway Park on Wednesday, it's got to be the Red Sox -- by a whisker.
Boston's dugout is overflowing with facial hair these days, part of a bonding ritual that began when Jonny Gomes showed up scruffy at spring training.
"It just sort of grew," catcher David Ross said.
Gomes is Patient Zero in Boston's beard brigade, allowing his to grow out over the course of the season into an ear-to-ear wedge of fuzz. As his teammates joined in, the beards became a way for them to bond and a symbol of the improved clubhouse chemistry that helped erase the memory of a last-place finish in 2012. Anticipating a potential victory parade like the ones in 2004 and `07, when the team rode amphibious vehicles through the city, the Boston Herald dubbed the team "Duck Boat Dynasty."
The Boston beards, like the players they are attached to, all have nicknames. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is known as "Salty" to teammates who don't want to pronounce (or spell) his surname, and his beard is "The Saltine."
Canadian Ryan Dempster's is "The Canuck." David Ross' whiskers, with their streak of gray down the middle, are known as "The Wolf," but the rest of him is known by the pedestrian and predictable nickname "Rossie." How does he feel knowing his beard has a better nickname than he does? "You can call me anything you want," Ross said, "as long as you're my teammate."
David Ortiz has grown out the close-cropped, well-groomed stubble he's had since he arrived in Boston in 2003, but it's still more like the fairway than the rough. That might have saved him some trouble after his game-tying grand slam in Game 2 of the AL championship series: The hairs on his chinny chin chin aren't long enough for his teammates to tug on in what has become a traditional dugout celebration. "It hurts a lot," said Mike Carp, a.k.a. "The Freshwater." "But usually if you're yanked on, your adrenaline is so full you don't care."
Measured by volume, Mike Napoli's beard is the leader in the clubhouse.
"He's got a full caveman thing going there," reliever Brandon Workman said. "Napoli: Everybody's got to respect that."
One of the first to swear off shaving, Napoli has developed a full orchestra of chin music known as "The Siesta." "There's probably stuff hidden in there," Carp said. "He's probably got money and all kinds of stuff in there."
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was successful on 52 of 56 stolen base attempts during the season. Quintin Berry was added to the playoff roster solely to pinch-run for slower teammates. But diminutive Dustin Pedroia has them both beat in sheer beard-growing speed.
"Pedroia, he went from looking like a 12-year-old to a caveman in three days," Ross said.
Pedroia tried to talk Ross into bailing on their band of bearded brothers earlier in the season before Napoli intervened.
"I said, `No. You can't cut it off."' Napoli said. "I got mad at (Ross) and he ended up keeping it."
To Ross, the beards are more than just the face of the franchise. "We find fun stuff to take up our time," he said. "We all buy into what each other's doing. It says a lot about our team."
The beards are a bonding exercise for a couple of dozen guys who spend half of the six-month season traveling together, and the other half sitting around the clubhouse for hours, talking baseball.
"It's really a big love affair of teammates pulling for each other," Carp said.
Pity poor Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and is struggling to fit in. Not on the diamond, where he worked his way into the lineup in the middle of the AL championship series, but in the beard department.
"I am trying to, but it's not coming," said the Red Sox infielder, who has a peach fuzz mustache and a low-grade scruff only on his chin. "He hasn't even reached puberty yet," Napoli said. "When he gets there, I think he'll be able to grow one."
Workman had more luck. Called up in August from the minor leagues, where the organization has a clean-shaven policy, he took one look around the clubhouse and knew what he had to do. "Everyone had one," Workman said. "I could tell I needed to have one, too." Two months later, his effort is still in progress. "This is the best I can do," he said, "but I'm working on it."
The Cardinals have more than their share of unused razors, with the best beard on the NL champions belonging to injured pitcher Jason Motte.
"I'm lazy. I don't feel like shaving," said Motte, who has had one since he was called up to the big leagues in 2008.
Only slightly scruffy on the sides, it descends from his chin in two wide curls, like a waterfall going over a rock. More than half of the St. Louis players sport some sort of facial hair, but most of the beards are neatly trimmed. In this race, they concede defeat.
“Luckily for us," Cardinals pitcher Tyler Lyons said, "it doesn't really matter what kind of beard you've got on."