October 2011

What if.

     Starting and then stopping

     Taking off and landing

     The emptiest of feelings

—    “Let Down,” Radiohead

What if he caught it?

What would Thursday night and Friday and this weekend and the rest of our lives have been like if Nelson Cruz had broken on the ball properly, as Ron Washington said he should have, and didn’t freeze, as Wash put it, and had gotten to the wall and caught the ball?

How different would we feel?

What if, on the 23rd pitch David Freese saw Thursday night, he saw his first breaking ball, or another Neftali Feliz four-seamer at 98 that was located in such a way that he couldn’t get his arms extended on it?

Freese got what he got, and did what he needed to do with it, and Cruz didn’t.  But what if he did?

Would we still be talking about Mike Napoli hitting eighth, or Michael Young’s defense, or Elvis Andrus’s lazy play on Daniel Descalso not affecting the eighth but ensuring that Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman would hit in the ninth, or the decision not to bring Feliz back out for the 10th?

Would we be thinking about the staff’s record-breaking 41 walks in the Series or the fatefulness of the Game Six rainout or the intentional walks and the pickoffs and the bunts and the hit batsmen or the curiosity that the only pitchers in the World Series who saw less action than Mike Adams were Mark Lowe and Arthur Rhodes?

Would we be obsessing over Jerry Layne’s terrible officiating or the stupid, silly, gimmicky foolishness that is the league’s tricking up of the All-Star Game into a key component in how the World Series is played out?

No.

None of it.

One or two strides with more conviction from Cruz, and we’re talking about none of that.

Instead we’re celebrating the Year and the Month and the World Series of the Napoli, and the post-season prowess of Saint (Colby) Lewis and Cruz himself, and Andrus’s and Ian Kinsler’s genius on defense, and the world championship title that the great Adrian Beltre deserves, and Feliz the Lockdown Closer, and the coming of age of Derek Holland, and parades, and the undeniable station of the Texas Rangers as baseball’s newest powerhouse, a behemoth built by Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels into an exemplary franchise in all phases, backed by a hungry and impressive ownership group and positioned to make American League noise for a long time.

A couple strides.

A couple strides and we’d be lionizing Cruz’s running catch at the wall and preserving it in video and stills with the force of Feliz’s slider to Alex Rodriguez a year and a series earlier, and then some.

But it happened the way it happened, and we’ll still be confronted with images of that moment forever, only instead of chills they will elicit that type of sports pain that is so much more acute and profound when it’s playoff pain.

*          *          *

     It was like coming this close to your dreams . . . and then watching them brush past you like strangers in a crowd.

—    Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, Field of Dreams

     I waited 14 years for this, and I was just one strike away twice.  And it didn’t happen.  To let it get away, after being so close . . . .

—    Adrian Beltre

I can’t swear I’m not worried about Cruz and Feliz more than a little bit.

We’ll see that count and that pitch and that swing and that path and that result a thousand times, and those two will, too.  The highlights will be meant to honor Freese, but of course the other two key figures played key roles – a tremendous baseball player whose big league career got started abnormally late, the other’s remarkably early.  For Cruz you hope it doesn’t label his career.  For Feliz you hope he doesn’t let that happen.

He’s going to wear the memory of that two-strike pitch to Freese for a long time.  Scott Feldman will relive the 2-2 fastball he threw to Lance Berkman an inning later, too, also a strike away from a team pile-up on the mound.

But not like Feliz, who according to several accounts was despondent after failing to get the final out of the World Series (which may help explain why he wasn’t brought back out for the 10th by his manager, who reminded us after the Series that “I know my team better than anyone in this room”).

Baseball’s a game of failure, a game in which mistakes and the ability to exploit them are key every night.  Credit Freese, who told reporters afterwards he was sitting fastball “all the way.”  The pitch Feliz made and the play Cruz made don’t change who they are as players.

At least we hope not.

I do feel awful for Beltre, who at some point this summer cemented himself as my favorite Texas Ranger (ever) and who had played for lots of good teams but had never won a playoff series, let alone had the opportunity to play in a World Series.  He hit .300/.323/.567 against the Cardinals, played virtuoso defense, and the only complaint I can come up with about his Series and Mike Napoli’s (.350/.464/.700) was that they injured Matt Holliday’s finger in Game Six, and Holliday’s absence from the lineup and the outfield in Game Seven turned out to hurt Texas.

The additions of Beltre and Napoli were among the big stories for Texas all season, as was the tremendous work its starting rotation turned in.  No American League team had more quality starts than the Rangers during the regular season.  With a bullpen that was undermanned for four of six months, the rotation absolutely carried the staff, but as for the intense workload – for a starting five that needed almost no help over 162 and included two very young pitchers and two older ones who were relatively new at starting and the rigors that go along with it – maybe it caught up to them in October.

As a result, the bullpen was asked to return the favor, to carry the load in the post-season, and it worked out beautifully against Tampa Bay and Detroit.

But then, against St. Louis, the bullpen seemed gassed by all the short starts in the ALDS and ALCS, no more evident than in the case of Alexi Ogando (0.00 ERA and .111 opponents’ average in 2.2 ALDS innings, 1.17 and .115 in 7.2 ALCS innings, 10.13 and .500 in the World Series).

Against Detroit, the Texas bullpen went 4-0, 1.32 collectively, holding the Tigers to an anemic .161/.220/.312 slash and issuing six walks in 27.1 innings.

Against St. Louis, the Texas bullpen went 2-1, 7.43, getting tuned up by the Cardinals’ offense at an absurd .311/.447/.533 clip and issuing 20 walks in 23 innings.

The inability of the Rangers’ starting pitchers to get deep into games against the Rays and Tigers helped make the club’s bullpen the inferior one in the World Series.

I hate it that Arthur Rhodes was right.

*          *          *

 

     It’s difficult for me to gather up a whole lot of hate for the St. Louis Cardinals, which isn’t to say that Allen Craig won’t go from virtually anonymous to a key figure in Rangers history, or that Rafael Furcal won’t have a couple Edgar Renteria moments, or that Jaime Garcia won’t turn in a Madison Bumgarner performance.  Or that Albert Pujols might not go all Miguel Cabrera on the Rangers, and then some.

—    Oct. 18, 2011 Newberg Report

Craig did.  Furcal didn’t.  Garcia did, but in a game Texas ultimately won.

And Pujols did, but really on only one night.

I have a ton of respect for the Cardinals.  The way that club battled was extraordinary.  We talk about how Texas, before dropping Games Six and Seven, had not lost consecutive games since August 25.  On that same date, St. Louis was a massive 10.5 games out in the Wild Card race, which it would eventually prevail in by going 22-9 thereafter.

Tony LaRussa and his mystique are easy to dislike.  Berkman’s comments, like C.J. Wilson’s, are the type that rouse up fans of the opponent.  Chris Carpenter’s mound demeanor, same thing.

But I have a hard time hatin’ on the Cards, aside from the fact that they got in the way.

(And that they’re a lot more awesome than Texas, coincidentally, when Layne is calling balls and strikes.)

But I respect the Cardinals a lot.  They battled a fantastic baseball team, and came out on top.

It was a spectacular World Series, something I couldn’t let myself think about in the midst of the battle but that’s impossible not to admit now, result notwithstanding.  Ask me in five years to name the 20 most memorable moments in the Rangers’ first two World Series appearances, and there would be, what, 18 or 19 from the clash with the Cardinals?

Texas-St. Louis was an extraordinary, compelling display of baseball theater, of reality TV, a Fall Classic in every sense, and I’m proud my team was there to make it what it was, right up to the minute when Bud Selig carefully recited his Congrats-to-the-Car-di-nals script (could have sworn I saw him shed a tear as he realized the speech didn’t include the words “Red Sox” or “Yankees”) and even more so in the aftermath of what was a riveting heavyweight fight in which momentum, up until Game Seven, had no place.

I happened to flip to a Glastonbury concert on Palladia last night, and it included a Tinie Tempah set that included the “Written in the Stars” song that so many of us had grown really, really tired of throughout the playoffs.

As I thought I might, removed from it for just a few days, I loved it.

The entire last month of baseball, starting with a historically great final night of the regular season, was majestic.  A baseball post-season in which every series gets maxed out results in 41 playoff games.  Remarkably, the league played 38 of those games this year.  The only three made unnecessary were a fifth Texas game against Tampa Bay, a seventh Texas game against Detroit, and a seventh St. Louis game against Milwaukee.

Thirteen of the playoffs’ 38 games were decided by one run.  Of those, six involved the Rangers.  After a season in which the club won 96 games, a .593 win percentage, Texas won 10 playoff games and lost seven, basically an identical win rate.

Yes, Texas was the final out.  But that playoff pain is coupled with a pride in these players, this team, this organization.  It was the best Texas Rangers season ever, and every part of it – the great moments, the (far less frequent) brutally bad ones, the intensity and the dramatics and the endless supply of adrenaline it took to get through 162 and another 17 after that – was worth investing as much of myself in as I did.

In beating St. Louis three times and lining up at the goal line for a decisive fourth win, the Rangers recorded 107 outs, some in ways I’ll never forget, and put themselves in great position to get that 107th and final win of 2011, to finish off the 107th World Series.  The inability to get that final strike, that final out, that final win, will unfortunately be what sticks, because the whole point of this game is to win championships.  But that doesn’t diminish the greatness of the season.  And I’ve never been more excited for Pitchers & Catchers to Report, which is just about 107 sleeps away.

I won’t back off my disgust that an exhibition game in July played by players from all 30 teams put Games One and Two and Six and Seven in Busch Stadium.  I can get over the home field advantage from the standpoint of crowd energy and which team gets to bat last, factors that come into play in the DS and CS, but in a sport in which the rules differ significantly between the two leagues, to allow a Wild Card team the advantage of home field against a club that won its division and more baseball games – on the basis of which exhibition squad beat the other in July – is just stupid.

And I wish St. Louis had traded Berkman in August.

But we can’t go back and trade Berkman away, or execute Neftali Feliz’s 1-2 pitch to David Freese differently, or alter the manner in which Nelson Cruz went back on the ball.

We can’t change those things, and as painful as Thursday was and as empty as Friday was, I can’t sit here and complain too much about a season that twice was one strike away from something different – admittedly, something very different – just because the way that the scales tilted on the mistakes and on the moments of great baseball ended up favoring the other team, by the most narrow of margins.  Late October pain beats late September fumes.  By a lot.

What if he caught it?

Our team would be World Champions.

That’s a difficult what-if to accept, but sometimes, as we’ve come to learn, that’s just going to be how baseball go.  The wins and losses are more clearly defined in sports than they are in most other places, even though sometimes the difference between one and the other, the turning point, the pivotal moment that puts you in one category in the record books and in our sports memories and not the other, can be a pitch located an inch away from where it was intended, or a split-second hesitation in the path to a ball hit in the air and towards a fence.

This season might be the hardest I’ve ever had to say goodbye to, and may always be that, largely because of how it ended, which I don’t plan on getting used to, but also because I’ve never been more fulfilled as a sports fan as I was by the 2011 Texas Rangers.

*          *          *

 

     If the Rangers suffer from any curse at all, it has been the curse of irrelevance.

—    Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, following Game 5

Not any more.

Far, far from it.

Not any more.

*          *          *

And so ends a baseball season, and a book, leaving us with the shortest possible amount of time to wait for spring training.  There will be huge free agency decisions in the meantime, and probably an impact trade or two, if not a dramatic posting contest engaged in.  A lot of it will play out in North Texas, where the Winter Meetings will be held December 5-8.

“We’ve got to find ways to get better,” says Jon Daniels, whose team so many others now chase, but whose mindset (shared by the people who lead every department and every facet of this franchise) would never allow a hint of complacency or a sense of artificial accomplishment or half-baked satisfaction.

Much will happen between now and spring training, but given where this team is right now, this may be one of those rare off-seasons for the Texas Rangers in which the winter work to be done, while important and energizing in its own right, feels like a bridge to a much more important time on the baseball calendar, a time when those buckets of baseballs, stitched 108 times each, are once again pitched and hit and caught and thrown, as the effort to build off of a season that fell one strike, one out, one win short gets underway, and the train that carried us for the last eight months starts moving down the track once again, starting and then stopping, taking off and landing, headed relentlessly toward the greatest of feelings that baseball has to offer.

And maybe next time Nellie catches it.

World Series Game Seven: St. Louis 6, Texas 2

One thing:

1.  I’m at peace.  Not really.  But sorta.

I’m gonna get some sleep before I write a little bit about the second of the two most painful days of baseball I may ever experience, two days that close the book on the best season of my life as a sports fan.

Lots on my mind, but rather than make an effort tonight to put it all into a bunch of slapdash words, I’m gonna quietly sports-grieve a little more.  I was really looking forward to “No Things,” but alas, we never got there – though we couldn’t have gotten any closer – and this thing ends with one extra, empty hanger.

Brokenhearted, but far from inconsolable, I am at peace.  And there’s no organization I’d rather care this much about.

Back in the morning.

Seven.

I woke up this morning to the dismal realization that, in fact, that happened.

Baseball is still the greatest game, but on some nights it’s the hardest to take.

But this is mentally the strongest team I’ve ever seen, at any level in any sport.  Tonight the Rangers will need to be stronger mentally than they’ve ever had to be.

And better tactically, and a lot better defensively, and better at throwing strikes, and, I’m afraid, better at capitalizing offensively, even on a night when they absolutely do enough at the plate to win.

Because on some nights, it turns out it may not be enough.

Maybe the Rangers just need to be better at one or two of those things.  Last night, if they were better on just one pitch, more than once, there is no more baseball to be played.

The Rangers need to be just as good at not losing consecutive games as they’ve been for more than two months.

I know there’s a strong sense, probably just about everywhere outside the visitors’ clubhouse, that you’d rather be the Cardinals than the Rangers going into Game Seven tonight.

But you’d much rather be the Rangers than at least 28 other teams.

Thirty teams dreamed of this opportunity, some with more conviction than others, the moment that Pitchers & Catchers Reported eight and a half months ago.

All but two of them are left watching this epic battle play out to its decisive end, just like you and me.

Texas can win the World Series tonight.

And as difficult as last night was to take, a great and terrible baseball game that I will never make any effort to watch again, I don’t know how an opportunity to do that can be anything other than awesome.

I need the Rangers to put me on their back tonight.  They’ve more than earned my faith.

They never quit.  Never.

Don’t.

World Series Game Six: St. Louis 10, Texas 9

One thing:

1.         I have nothing to say.

I’m gonna need the Texas Rangers to rescue me tomorrow night from how I feel right now.

Glad they’re more resilient than I am.

Shutting it down.

I’m a big believer in acting like you’ve been there before.  But I haven’t been here.

At the end of the night tonight, most of us will be either somewhere on the continuum within reach of frustrated, drained, and uneasy, or somewhere entirely different.  Somewhere we haven’t been before.

(Quick aside: For those of you who will be in St. Louis today and interested in getting together with other Rangers fans, you can click here and here.)

The Cowboys and Mavs and Stars and Horns titles were awesome for me – but they weren’t what this would be.

After every year of the part of my life when I cared about sports, including 29 spring training games and 162 regular season games and 15 playoff games this year, I sit here at my desk, half a day away if weather permits, from Game 207, a game the likes of which I’ve never been able to get ready for, and I have no idea what to say.

So I’m not writing today.  Because I’m not able to draw on anything.

I don’t have any idea what it’s going to feel like if Texas manages to win tonight, or tomorrow (or Friday), and I’m not going to sit here and dump out a bunch of words, acting like I’ve been there before.

I wrote this last year, hours before Game Six of the Rangers-Yankees ALCS:

You know that scene in one of the Star Wars movies where Luke shuts his cockpit controls off and fires the kill shot to destroy the Death Star, relying just on instincts?

These two teams have played each other for a week now.  Forty-four innings, 386 pitcher-hitter faceoffs, 1621 pitches.  The front offices have done everything they can, and so have the advance scouts.  There shouldn’t be any tricks left, no alarms and no surprises.

Tonight, and maybe tomorrow, come down to two really good baseball teams, very familiar with each other, going at it in hand-to-hand combat, each looking for the kill shot.  The next series that one of these two teams will get to play will have some novelty to it, but not this one, not anymore.  This is raw, primal baseball, and I can’t stand that Game Six doesn’t start right this second.

It’s funny as I look back on that.  That was the moment last year, the penultimate match point, that I didn’t know how to handle.  A place I’d never been.

Texas has won four more post-season games this year than it had won at that time last year.  Which puts us all in a new place.

This morning, I hope with your understanding, I’m not going to try and manufacture something that’s not there.

I’m just going to shut the controls off for now, visualizing Ian Kinsler stepping into the box for the 867th time in 2011, as Jaime Garcia gets ready to throw his 3,492nd pitch of the year, and as I settle in for the first moment like it of my life.

World Series Game Five: Texas 4, St. Louis 2

One thing:

1.         Win:  Darren Oliver  Mike Napoli.

Save:  Neftali Feliz  Mike Napoli.

Two games to win one.

To win One.

World Series Game Four: Texas 4, St. Louis 0

Two things:

1.         “OK, kids, when we finish eating give Mom and me a hand cleaning the kitchen up, so we can be done in time to settle in and watch the greatest pitching performance in Texas Rangers history.”

I wish that thought crossed my mind yesterday.

There have been times, in 2008 (Clinton/Bakersfield/Frisco) and on July 30, 2009 (against Seattle) and on August 9, 2009 (against the Angels) and in that impossible stretch between July 7 and July 30 this year and again on September 2, when we all knew Derek Holland was at least capable of such a thing, but as we talk about here all the time, a big part of what goes into to making a pitcher with great tools a great pitcher is reliability.  The stuff has to be there, but without consistency, without dependability, you have Bobby Witt at best, Edwin Correa and Juan Dominguez otherwise.

There were several moments that brought chills last night, the first of which happened before Holland threw the first pitch of the game.  There were a dozen shots I wish we got from the Fox producers that we didn’t during Game Four, but before gametime they nailed the shot of the night, showing Ron Washington face-to-face with his young starter in the dugout, eye-to-eye, a manager’s hands resting on the shoulders on which a World Series team would stand Sunday night, delivering some sort of message that was short of demonstrative but unmistakably direct, even though I have no idea what was said.  It was a father-son type of moment that you just don’t get to see very often in professional sports, and even without sound or captions, you could tell it was an injection of confidence, in a 25-year-old starting pitcher and, I’d bet, every Texas Rangers fan who watched it happening.

I could get into Holland specifics (two Lance Berkman hits, Cards otherwise 0 for 24 off him . . . exquisite command of all four pitches . . . only one of 25 outs leaving the infield . . . in a dozen 1-1 counts, firing a strike 10 times . . . coaxing a groundout to shortstop, a foulout to first, and a comebacker from Albert Pujols, who saw seven Holland strikes in 11 pitches), but it would be a waste of time to drill down too deep in all that, since you saw it for yourself, and since his effort was less about individual highlight moments than about a three-hour tapestry of awesome.  The tightest spot Holland was in all night came with one out in the ninth, when he tried vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to talk Washington out of taking the ball.

The only thing that moment was missing was Wash putting his hands back on Holland’s shoulders.

Just 24 hours before, the St. Louis lineup dug in against a young, hard-throwing Rangers lefthander and worked the Texas staff over for 16 runs.  Last night, it was Holland, in Tony LaRussa’s own words, who worked the Cards over.

Holland’s Game Four effort was reminiscent of last year’s World Series Game Four start turned in by Giants lefthander Madison Bumgarner in Rangers Ballpark (eight scoreless innings, three hits, two walks, six strikeouts), but Holland’s was more extraordinary, in part because of what the St. Louis offense had just gotten done in Game Three, not to mention that the game was just about as must-win as a non-match-point contest could be.

The last American League starter to turn in as many as Holland’s 8.1 scoreless innings in the World Series was Holland’s hero, Andy Pettitte.  Whether Wendy and Rick let a 10-year-old Derek stay up to see that whole Yankees-Braves game – a 1-0 affair played 15 years ago today – is unknown, but I remember that game, and if Holland watched any of it, it was the type of effort that probably made Pettitte the pitcher he wanted to pattern himself after.

Holland’s work last night now sits rightfully on the same baseball pedestal that Pettitte’s 1996 gem occupies.

He pounded the inner third with his fastball.  He relied on the curve and the slider more than usual, locating both.  He threw strike one, and retired the leadoff hitter in every inning save the fifth – but two pitches after Berkman singled up the middle, Holland erased him from the bases by inducing a David Freese double play ground ball to second.

Knowing that Alexi Ogando was not going to be available to bail him out, and that Scott Feldman might not have been either, Holland was dialed in, all night.  One Texas pitcher (Colby Lewis on Thursday) had managed to pitch into the seventh inning in the Rangers’ 13 post-season games going into last night.  Holland was going strong in the ninth.

He wasn’t offered to Toronto for Roy Halladay in 2009.  He might have been offered to Tampa Bay, according to Peter Gammons, in a package for Matt Garza nine months ago.  There have probably been dozens of other trade discussions in which Holland’s name has come up, virtually all of which were efforts by someone else to pry him from Texas.

But instead, Holland remained a Ranger, won 16 regular season games in 2011, shutting the opponent out an American League-leading four times and (like he did last night) starting two other combined shutouts.   But none of those starts carried the weight of last night’s – he11, no start in 40 years of Texas Rangers history has been as important as last night’s, right? – and he killed it, earning the win that officially makes this the most successful team in franchise history.  Not that the Rangers are finished.

And maybe Holland isn’t, either.  It’s not likely that he could be counted on to start a Game 7 on Thursday, which would be on three days’ rest (but get this – there’s a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms in St. Louis on Wednesday), but he told reporters last night that he’s going to do everything he can to be ready to help out of the bullpen in Game Six (a Lewis start) or Game Seven (which would presumably pit Matt Harrison against Kyle Lohse in a rematch of Game Three’s 16-7 loss, this time in St. Louis).

But man, if rain were to bang Game Six on Wednesday, you’d absolutely push Lewis to Thursday and come back with Holland on regular rest on Friday.  If this team were going to draw up a perfect scenario right now, it would be to entrust a Game Seven to the 748th player chosen in the 2006 draft, a man who was pitching five years ago for Wallace State Community College but spent the weekend game-planning how to pitch to Albert Pujols, and executing the plan Sunday night with deadly precision.

Otherwise, last night was Holland’s final start of 2011, the most important, and all things considered the greatest, pitching performance in Texas Rangers history.

2.         The man who caught Holland’s masterpiece was also the man who, as he’d done a couple other times in the last month, virtually carried the club offensively.  Mike Napoli had one of his only goat moments as a Ranger in Game Three.  But he planted his flag further into the ground in Game Four, catching Holland and driving Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs’s first pitch, 95 and letter-high, sky-high and deep into the left field seats to transform the game, turning 1-0 into 4-0 in the bottom of the sixth and electrifying an already powered-up crowd for the remainder of the game.

It’s not all Napoli did at the plate.  Dropped to the eighth slot (despite having baseball’s second-highest OPS in 2011, next to Jose Bautista, among players with at least Napoli’s number of plate appearances) in order to break up lefties David Murphy and Mitch Moreland, he masterfully worked pitch counts as usual, flying out deep to center in the second inning on a full count, drawing a fourth-inning walk (with a man on) on a full count, taking Boggs deep in the sixth, and drawing another walk (again with a man on) in the eighth on a full count.

All that, plus what Wash chose to single out about his catcher after the game: “It was about Holland and Napoli tonight,” said Wash.  “They worked so outstanding together.  They mixed it up good.  Nap has done that for us all year.  He did a good job of making Holland use and establish all of his pitches.  He’s a good receiver and he has a good feel for his pitchers and what they need to do out there on any given night.

“What Mike Napoli did tonight is what we’ve seen all year from him.  Derek never got out of control and you can lay that on Mike.”

What an off-season pickup.  What a baseball player.

Napoli Ever After.

So, powered by the Rangers’ battery in Game Four, we’re now down to a Best-of-Three, in what’s the first World Series tied at two games apiece since 2003.

Tonight’s Game Five will be the final baseball game played in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington this year.  But thanks to Derek Holland, and Mike Napoli, it won’t be the final game played by the Texas Rangers this year.

C.J. Wilson isn’t the same type of pitcher that his fellow southpaw is, but you can bet that the veteran will try to take a page out of the gameplan executed by last night’s hero, hoping to turn around his own post-season and give his club a chance to go back to Busch Stadium, needing one win in two games in order to claim this franchise’s first World Series title.

World Series Game Three: St. Louis 16, Texas 7

Three things:

1.         After managing to score only four runs in Games One and Two combined, Texas busted out with seven runs on 13 hits in Game Three, hitting .361/.405/.583 as a team.

And got punched in the mouth.

The Rangers, down 5-0 at the time, scored three runs in the bottom of the fourth.  St. Louis answered with three of their own in the top of the fifth.

The Rangers scored three more runs in the bottom of the fifth.  St. Louis answered with four in the top of the sixth.

The Rangers scored their final run in the bottom of the seventh.  St. Louis answered with one in the top of the eighth.

After seven innings, St. Louis had 12 hits.  So did Texas.

Yet the score was 14-7.

None of the Rangers’ six pitchers got the job done.  Matt Harrison couldn’t complete the fourth, having to overcome a bad Ian Kinsler throw and a badly blown Ron Kulpa call and, later in the inning, a bad Mike Napoli throw, but he wasn’t especially sharp.  Alexi Ogando needed 35 pitches to get one out — strangely enough, his nemesis Allen Craig — and presumably won’t be available today.  And I don’t want to talk about the pitching anymore.

Or the defense.

The pitching and defense Saturday night looked like past Texas teams that the last few years of Rangers baseball had helped us forget.  Not cool.

2.         A request of the St. Louis scribes who were hissed off at Albert Pujols and a couple of his teammates after Game Two: Please work up some sort of manufactured tirade against Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler and a couple Rangers pitchers this afternoon.

Speaking of Game Two: Thank goodness that ninth inning happened.

3.         Reminder: Texas hasn’t lost back-to-back games in two months.

Another reminder: A slam dunk still counts as only two points.

Even a posterizing slam dunk that shatters the backboard.

I think.

And a final reminder, while sort of on the topic, on a night when Dirk Nowitzki threw out the first pitch:

The Mavericks opened the 2011 NBA Finals on the road, losing Game One to Miami and stealing Game Two with an impossible comeback in the final minutes.  Sound familiar?

The series then shifted to Dallas for three games.  The Mavs lost the first of those three at home, ceding series momentum and home court advantage right back to the Heat.

Yep.

You know what happened next.

No matter how you feel right now, it’s not nearly time to start talking about Yu Darvish or what Albert Pujols might look like for 81+ (times 10) in Rangers Ballpark or whether Texas will be able to hang onto Thad Levine and A.J. Preller.

St. Louis still has to win twice, while the Rangers have to win three times, and the odometer rolls back to 0-0 tonight before George W. Bush throws out the first pitch and Derek Holland fires the First Pitch, three outs after which the offense will get the chance to do against Edwin Jackson what it did against Kyle Lohse, something it tends to do on nights Holland pitches, while Holland gets the chance to help his club and all of us forget Game Three, the way Pujols and his teammates were able last night to bury Game Two.

World Series Game Two: Texas 2, St. Louis 1

Three things:

1.         As the first eight innings wore on, maybe the most difficult eight innings I’ve ever watched in person, all the things I was thinking about writing this morning were starting to erode, and the only thing I planned on putting in this report was not four things, but four words:

“Sorry about baseball, Colby.”

It was a familiar plot, Texas facing a left-handed junker for the first time and doing absolutely no damage.  Jaime Garcia was special, limiting the Rangers to three singles and one walk over seven innings, fanning seven with a dazzling mix of cutters, sliders, and changeups to complement an average fastball.

Colby Lewis was virtually his equal, allowing one run (when Allen Craig got Alexi Ogando once again) on four hits and two walks in 6.2 innings, fanning four.  Lewis is now 4-1, 2.22 in seven post-season starts for the Rangers the last two years, holding the opposition to a .182 batting average.  The extra gear he kicks into in October has just been remarkable.

Still, in the seventh inning, St. Louis claimed a 1-0 lead, and things looked bleak for Texas.

But in the ninth, as he’s done for seven months, Ian Kinsler made things happen.  Ducksnorting a 2-2 Jason Motte cutter for a leadoff single that fell between Rafael Furcal and Matt Holliday (playing very deep) despite a lot of hang time, he then narrowly stole second off Motte despite an extraordinary catch-and-throw from Yadier Molina.

Elvis Andrus’s inability to get a bunt down in that sequence turned out to be massive, as he fell behind Motte, 1-2, and proceeded to foul off a 98-mph fastball and a 95-mph fastball, watching a 97-mph heater miss inside in between to run the count to 2-2.  Andrus saw his first breaking ball in the seventh pitch of the at-bat, stayed inside the ball, and rocketed a single to center.

Kinsler made a wide turn around third and was a sitting duck once Dave Anderson threw up the stop sign, but Albert Pujols (who remains hitless in the series, by the way) failed to cut off John Jay’s weak plateward throw.  You could tell Jay got his hand on the side of the ball, as it had some curve action to Pujols’s glove side, ducking down and away and ultimately under Pujols.  As the ball dribbled to Molina, Kinsler was able to scamper back to third base, while a heady Andrus took second on the miscue.

If Jay makes a better throw and Pujols cuts that ball off, Kinsler is very likely out and Andrus remains at first base, and everything’s different.

Thank goodness Andrus failed to execute the bunt.

Tony LaRussa, possibly outsmarting himself, didn’t leave Motte in to pitch to the ailing Hamilton (who told reporters Thursday afternoon that he’d be on the disabled list with the groin strain if this were the regular season), or to put him on first with Michael Young on deck, instead calling on lefthander Arthur Rhodes to pitch to Hamilton.   One pitch, sac fly, tie game — and Andrus moved up to third.

In came righthander Lance Lynn to face Young.  Another sac fly, and a Texas lead in a game that felt out of reach for eight innings despite it being tied for six frames.

After all the struggles that the Rangers have been getting from the 2-3-4 spots, those three guys did their job in Game Two — if only in the ninth inning — and in doing so the allowed the club to take advantage of the work Kinsler continues to do almost every night on offense.

2.         It was an unusually subpar night on defense for Kinsler, who muffed one Lance Berkman grounder to his right and let another Berkman grounder that he’d normally smother get under him to his left.  But he was on the receiving end of two crazy-great plays by Andrus ranging to his left, one that followed Kinsler’s error in the fourth and resulted in a great-looking 6-4-3 double play to erase Berkman and hitter Matt Holliday to end the inning, and the other with two runners on in the fifth and Rafael Furcal at the plate.

Furcal smoked a ball just wide of the mound on the shortstop side and Andrus laid out to snare the missile on a short hop, propping himself up just enough to free up his arm and shovel the ball with his glove 25 feet, not so much to Kinsler as to the bag, where a sprinting Kinsler grabbed the ball on the dead run as he crossed the bag with his foot a split-second before Garcia slid in safely.

It was a play that, if Derek Jeter had made it, especially in that context, would be featured in his next Gatorade commercial.

Extraordinary isn’t the right word.  Not sure what is.

3.         So Texas nails down its first-ever World Series road win, and in doing so turns this into a Best-of-Five, with home field advantage.  Kyle Lohse (Saturday, against Matt Harrison) and Edwin Jackson (Sunday, against Derek Holland) start Games Three and Four for the Cardinals, and Texas has seen both former American Leaguers a bunch (the current roster has 72 plate appearances against Lohse, 130 against Jackson), making the prospect of facing them in Rangers Ballpark much healthier than the prescription of a finesse lefty like Garcia on the road.

Texas still hasn’t lost two straight games in nearly two months, and now it has three straight at home (Game Five will pit C.J. Wilson against Chris Carpenter), and if a Game Six is needed, there will be a Busch Stadium encore between Lewis and Garcia, with one team poised that night to win the World Series.

Stakes like that are about the only thing that could possibly make Game Six more harrowing — by which I mean sports-awesome — an experience than Game Two was.

Happy Flight.

World Series Game One: St. Louis 3, Texas 2

Four things:

1.         Said C.J. Wilson after St. Louis 3, Texas 2: “I don’t care how many guys I walk.  It’s about how many runs I give up.”

Ultimately, should we feel the same?  Runs are the bottom line; everything else above the line just factors in to one degree or another.  Holding an offense like St. Louis’s to three runs in nearly six innings may not be a dominating effort, but it gives your own offense a very good chance to win the game, and that’s what you need out of a starting pitcher, no matter where in the rotation he slots.

The problem that I think Wilson’s detractors have is that, as the lead starter in a playoff rotation, more often than not he’s going to draw the opponent’s lead starter, and accordingly he has an implicit responsibility to step things up in October and be even better.  And he hasn’t done that.

In the 2011 regular season, Wilson walked 2.98 batters per nine innings.  In this year’s playoffs, he’s issued 5.91 walks per nine.

In the regular season, he surrendered 0.64 home runs for every nine innings pitched.  In the playoffs: 2.53 homers per nine.

Getting away from the drill-down numbers, the fact is that Wilson lost his one start against Tampa Bay in the playoffs (ALDS Game One, opposite rookie Matt Moore), no-decisioned once against Detroit (ALCS Game One/Justin Verlander) and lost once (ALCS Game Five/Verlander), and lost his first start against St. Louis (World Series Game One/Chris Carpenter).

Last night’s Game One loss was in Busch Stadium rather than Rangers Ballpark because of the stupid All-Star Game rule — and in fact it was Wilson who was tagged with the loss in that game, after giving up a three-run Prince Fielder home run in what would be a 5-1 National League win.

I love having Wilson on this team.  He doesn’t belong in the True Number One category, but he’s a very good pitcher on a very good team, and Texas probably wouldn’t be playing games right now without the tremendous season he had.  And again, it’s hard to complain about holding the Cardinals to three scores in a Busch Stadium start that was an out short of six innings.

But looking at the line score isn’t enough, particularly in the post-season, when every pitch, every pitching change, and every decision from the bench and on the bases and in the field gets dissected.  Wilson kept Texas in the game last night, but created stress in too many innings.

He issued a walk to start the bottom of the first.  Got a groundout to start the second.  Yielded a single to start the third, hit Albert Pujols with a bouncing breaking ball to start the fourth, issued a walk to start the fifth, and induced a pop-up to second to start the sixth.

From that bunch only Pujols would score, but starting innings off with baserunners drives pitch counts up, creates extra scoring opportunities and narrows the margin of error, and can lead to premature pitching changes.  Wilson threw only 53 percent of his pitches for strikes, issued an ugly six walks (yes, two were intentional and one other was unintentionally intentional, but those were dictated by baserunner situations that he had created), and got only six swing-and-misses out of 94 pitches.  Fortunately he was generally missing low, and wasn’t hurt by the long ball, but it wasn’t a very crisp start, even if the run count was a manageable one.

Wilson is now 0-3, 7.17 in his four playoff starts this year, with 14 walks and a .298 opponents’ batting average in 21.1 innings, and while the sample size is small, there’s at least a trend if not a tendency, and that clearly has lots of Rangers fans bristling.  There’s no mention of the blister resurfacing, no talk of his 2010-2011 workload catching up with him, no accusations of fatigue.  But for whatever reason, he’s been a different pitcher in October than he was in the six months leading up to it, and that’s hard to dispute.

Whether it should or shouldn’t, Wilson’s work this month is probably going to factor into his winter marketability, but that’s not worth discussing now.  The burden is now on the Rangers’ other 24 players to get to a Game Five in Texas on Monday, which will put Wilson back on the mound, once again facing the Cardinals’ best in Carpenter, and I think even Wilson will tell you he needs to be better on that night than he was in Game One.

2.         The long-term questions on Wilson are closer to the front of the burner than those regarding Josh Hamilton, but they’re there.  Do you pay Wilson like a Number One to keep him?  Do you extend Hamilton before he can be a free agent a year from now, and if so, for how long at what will obviously be monster dollars?

Hamilton’s 10 times the player Nick Johnson is, but he’s closer than that to Johnson in terms of his durability.  Now it’s a groin strain, and it’s clearly affecting his ability to do the things Texas needs him to do.  He’s not using his legs at bat, robbing him of his power and approach and affecting him even on check swings.  He’s not right in the outfield, evidenced last night when he couldn’t get under a deep David Freese fly ball in the fourth, instead having to catch it on the run, and couldn’t put the brakes on once he hauled the ball in, allowing Lance Berkman to tag up from first base and take second easily.

Ian Kinsler has been getting on base all month (.295/.404/.455), but Elvis Andrus (.190/.306/.190) hasn’t been effective, Hamilton (.267/.286/.378) has been relatively anemic (his last home run was longer ago than Esteban German’s last plate appearance), and Michael Young (.191/.224/.319) grounded out all four times on his birthday last night, extending what has been a disappointing post-season at the plate.

Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz haven’t done a great job of getting on base this month but they’ve slugged well, and Mike Napoli (.325/.400/.475) has had a terrific post-season.  But they hit 5-6-7, separated on both the front and back ends from Kinsler, and as a result the offense is sputtering.  Carpenter (reportedly nursing a sore elbow) wasn’t at his best last night, but he was good enough, and the St. Louis bullpen was tremendous, and as a result Texas got only eight runners on base and two across the plate.  That’s not enough, and the 2-3-4 hitters just haven’t gotten the job done.

Texas ended its Game Five loss against Detroit with a white-hot Cruz left on deck, and last night Napoli would have been the next hitter had Cruz not flied out to end the one-run loss.  I don’t hold my breath expecting Ron Washington to shuffle things and move Cruz and Napoli up in the lineup, at Hamilton’s and Young’s expense, but it seems like the lineup isn’t constructed as efficiently or put in as strong a position to succeed as it could be.

All that could change tonight, but in Hamilton’s case in particular, the thought of him getting right against a left-handed changeup artist isn’t one I’m finding all that easy to get behind.

3.         I suppose I need to address the managing questions.  Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested that Cardinals opponents rarely figure out that the best way to combat Tony LaRussa may be to let him overmanage without being drawn into a war of player substitutions.  Texas didn’t do that last night.

But I was absolutely fine with Craig Gentry hitting for David Murphy in the seventh (with runners on first and second and one out) against lefthander Marc Rzepczynski, whom LaRussa would have had to leave in to face at least that one batter.  Rzepczynski kills left-handed hitters, Murphy isn’t very good against left-handed pitchers, and Gentry improves the defense, something that could have come into play over the final three innings in what was a one-run game.  Gentry singled twice and drew a walk against southpaw David Price in Game Three of the ALDS.  That move made total sense to me.

After Gentry fanned, Esteban German in the pitcher’s spot?  Like most everyone else, I thought Yorvit Torrealba made more sense there — Matt Treanor was added to the World Series roster for a reason — but Torrealba has one hit in 28 career pinch-hitting appearances, and maybe Octavio Dotel enters in that spot if Wash went that way, leading Texas to pull Torrealba back in favor of Mitch Moreland or Endy Chavez.  (Rzepczynski’s work in the seventh, Dotel’s work in the eighth, and Jason Motte’s work in the ninth were just sensational.  Motte has now pitched nine innings in the playoffs — 28 batters, one hit, zero walks, seven strikeouts.  That’s Ogando-plus.)

(And by the way, I love National League baseball.)

The German decision was strange, but I’m not sure it would have made a huge difference.  Still, it goes back to the point above — every moment in a playoff game gets picked apart relentlessly because of the stakes, and that decision has clearly generated a narrative of its own.

4.         And that’s the thing.  Game One was a tremendous baseball game, and because of the final score we’re going to debate things like whether you send the 24th man or the 23rd man up to face a middle reliever in the seventh inning.

But Torrealba or Moreland might have struck out, too.

And Murphy might have fanned, just as Gentry did.

And if one of the six umpires got it right and ruled that Beltre fouled the grounder to third off his front foot (and wasn’t brilliantly faking shoe contact the instant that the ball shot out from the batter’s box) in the ninth, he might have rolled over to the third baseman one pitch later.

Maybe none of those bookmark moments would have mattered had they gone differently.  None of the six batters Wilson walked came around to score, or even pushed forward another runner would who come around to score.

But we’re going to put those things under the microscope, something I’m apologetically guilty of doing here myself, just as we’re going to talk about the Game One winner prevailing in seven of the last eight World Series, and 19 of the last 23, because we can’t help it.  And that the team with home field has won 20 of 25 World Series, and that this year a Wild Card team gets that benefit because players from other teams in the National League contributed to an All-Star Game victory over three months ago.

The microscope will be out again tonight, for fans of both teams, but what’s most important is that Colby Lewis has a job to do, a responsibility to take charge and keep his team in the game, and the offense needs to be better against Jaime Garcia than it was against Chris Carpenter, so that Texas can even this series up and steal home field advantage back from the team that simply played better baseball last night.

 

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