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.

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