Final Gut Check: Rangers-Cardinals World Series Game 7 Preview and Open Thread

As I've written before, I fell in love with the game of baseball in 1986 -- the first year I watched every inning of the World Series.

Although I had no rooting interest in the match-up between Boston and New York, I couldn't help but feel absolutely heartbroken for Red Sox fans when a slow roller hit by Mookie Wilson skipped past first baseman Bill Buckner's glove into right field, scoring a dumbfounded Ray Knight as the winning run for the Mets in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 6.

I didn't fully comprehend the ramifications of that historic game as a 9-year-old, but I knew I'd just seen something that couldn't possibly have happened before. And that's one of the reasons I grew to love baseball so much -- the chance to see the seemingly impossible become possible.

After last night's epic implosion by the Texas Rangers in Game 6 this year, a lot of folks are already making comparisons between the two games, and I'd be lying if I said that wasn't my first reaction as well, especially with its 25th anniversary having just passed by on Tuesday. But there's one key distinction between them: We already know Boston failed in its second attempt to win the championship in Game 7, while the Rangers' fate remains undetermined.

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has already proclaimed Nelson Cruz "the Bill Buckner of Texas" if the Rangers lose again tonight, but much like Game 6 in '86, the blame extends far beyond any individual's miscue.

Sure, Cruz made a critical mistake when he slowed down for no apparent reason instead of accelerating to a long fly ball off David Freese's bat that turned a potential series-ending out into a game-tying triple. But, c'mon, does anyone really want to crucify the guy who had just two innings earlier tied a record for postseason homers with his eighth?

What about Neftali Feliz? He gave up a double to Albert Pujols and then walked Lance Berkman on four pitches before Freese stepped to the plate.

Even though he had been 7-for-7 saving games in his postseason career before Freese's triple, it's expecting a lot from him to shut the door every time. As I mentioned before Feliz took the mound last night, it's important to remember that he's only 23 years old.

What about Michael Young? He struck out with no outs and runners on the corners in the first inning and added inexcusable errors in the fourth and sixth innings that directly resulted in two Cardinals' runs and his removal from the game.

The errors -- dropping the ball with his bare hand after it had already bounced off the heel of his glove and dropping it again two innings later while transferring the ball from his glove to his hand -- were particularly painful, but it's hard to argue Young was singularly at fault for last night's debacle.

What about Ron Washington? He allowed Colby Lewis to hit in the top of the fifth inning with the bases loaded and Derek Holland warming up in the bullpen. He brought in Alexi Ogando -- the team's least reliable reliever -- with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, and Ogando subsequently walked in the tying run. He chose Darren Oliver -- Darren Oliver -- as the one to attempt to close out the game for the second time. And he pinch-hit Esteban German for Scott Feldman in the top of the 11th with Feldman having thrown just 16 pitches.

OK, we're getting warmer here with Wash, but as much as I've been critical of his moves lately, I can't manage to point the finger directly at him ... yet.

Because last night was undoubtedly the most heartbreaking loss in the history of North Texas sports, it's hard to compare it to anything else, but I have the same attitude about today's game as I did following the 16-7 embarrassment in Game 3. The Rangers can rebound, but only if they're able to forget about Game 6.

That's where Wash comes in. After that brutal ass-kicking in Game 3, the Rangers and starter Derek Holland acted like it hadn't happened with a 4-0 shutout the next night, securing what I and most others had dubbed a must-win game for Texas.

But even more than being able to erase last night from their thoughts, tonight's the final chance for Wash to prove his gut's worth listening to, as the ultimate test of his gut takes the mound tonight for Texas.

If this was the regular season, we'd see Derek Holland out there after a normal four days' rest. Yet, in the most significant game in franchise history, Wash instead announced Matt Harrison as the starter, even before Game 6 had begun, and pitched Holland last night.

Wash has no rational explanation for this, mind you. Just goin' with his gut, as he does.

Well, that gut's either gonna put up or blow up tonight.

Holland's Game 4 outing just so happened to be the best pitching performance in the team's half-century in existence, while Harrison allowed five runs (three earned) and six hits in 3 2/3 innings in Game 3.

If Harrison can't get the job done, Rangers fans will be left to wonder what could have been with Holland on the bump, just like Red Sox fans have suffered for 25 years wondering what could have been if Buckner's loose glove wouldn't have prematurely closed shut.

One more win. Just one more effin' win.

Quick Hits

-- Gotta feel bad for Mike Napoli (2-for-3 with three walks and an RBI) and Josh Hamilton (3-for-6 with a homer and three RBI), whose impressive performances last night were overshadowed by the incompetence of others. Nappy, in particular, was The Man after shaking off that nasty ankle twist.

-- Ogando, Feliz and Feldman were all credited with blown saves in Game 6 after the Cardinals made five separate comebacks, marking the first time in World Series history that a team has had three blown saves in a single game.

-- Freese's walk-off homer was just the fifth in a Game 6 or 7 in World Series history, joining Bill Mazeroski (1960), Carlton Fisk (1975), Kirby Puckett (1991) and Joe Carter (1993).

And with that home run, Freese has 19 RBI in the playoffs this year, tying Sandy Alomar, Jr. (1997) and David Ortiz (2004) for the most in a single postseason.

-- Wash called his first team meeting in four months after last night's game and also spoke to the team this afternoon before batting practice. Whatever he said, let's hope it lights a fire under everyone's asses.

--David Murphy is in tonight for Gentry and playing left, with Hamilton moving back to center field. Nappy and Cruz are also in the lineup after suffering injuries last night. And, yes, Young is back at first.

-- Matt Holliday has been removed from the roster and replaced by backup outfielder Adron Chambers. Allen Craig replaces Holliday in left field.

-- Tonight's starter for St. Louis, Chris Carpenter, is pitching on three days' rest for just the second time in his 14-year career. The first time was Game 2 of the NLDS this season against Philadelphia, and he gave up four runs and five hits in three innings.

-- I expect to see Holland (only 23 pitches thrown yesterday) and Wilson as the initial relief options for Texas if Harrison struggles early, followed by Feldman, Adams and Feliz.

-- That's 46-consecutive games now for Texas without losing two in a row. Forty-seven sounds awful nice.

-- Former reliever and Arizona Diamondbacks senior VP of scouting and player development Jerry Dipoto has been named as the new general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, which is good news because Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine had been among the potential candidates for the gig.

-- ESPN's Buster Olney speculates that the Rangers "are going to be major players for one of the big-time free agents" and named Pujols, and he also claims Texas is "considered to be the favorite" to win the potential offseason bidding war for young Japanese hurler Yu Darvish.

-- If the Rangers lose, it's gonna hurt. Bad. But keep one thing in mind if they do: This team is likely to get better next year. C.J. Wilson and Mike Gonzalez are the only free agents, and a lot of these young players (Feliz, Andrus, Holland, Harrison, Ogando, etc.) will improve with age.

I didn't sleep much last night and feel sick to my stomach as the tension from the late innings last night hasn't subsided. Join me in the comments, and we'll suffer and hopefully celebrate together.

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