The intellect of one of the best managers and greatest players in baseball history short-circuited at the worst possible times for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series, but Monday night's match-up wasn't won or lost on brain farts by Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols.
In a game the Texas Rangers had to win to avoid needing victories in Games 6 and 7 on the road to claim their first championship in franchise history, the guts of C.J. Wilson and Ron Washington and bat of Mike Napoli prevailed.
Wilson was hardly efficient or dominating in what I expect to be his last start in a Rangers uniform, but his ability to minimize the damage in the second inning and wiggle out of third- and fifth-inning jams kept Texas alive.
As I watched the top of the second inning unfold from the third deck in right field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, I couldn't have imagined myself giving Wilson credit for much of anything upon his eventual exit from the game.
It sure looked like the beginning of yet another postseason meltdown by the team's supposed ace, as Wilson walked Matt Holliday (hitting only .167 in the series) and Lance Berkman after retiring the Cards in order to begin the game.
With NLCS MVP David Freese at the plate, Wilson threw a 91-mph fastball on the inside part of the plate that Freese turned into a harmless fly ball to Nelson Cruz. But a single to left field by Yadier Molina brought Holliday home to give St. Louis an early 1-0 lead, and then the Rangers defense started looking like it was falling apart too.
Molina's slow roller to David Murphy slipped past his glove, and he dropped the ball after retrieving it. The error enabled Berkman to take third base, but Molina, who's never been mistaken for Elvis Andrus on the base paths, didn't advance to second.
The once frenzied crowd became silent as everyone braced for the worst.
Light-hitting Skip Schumaker followed with an easy grounder down the first-base line to Mitch Moreland, but the ball deflected off the top of his glove and fell in front of him. Had Moreland fielded the ball cleanly and thrown to second, there's no question it would have been a double play to end the inning. At the very least, he would have nailed Berkman heading home, but the error (although technically not ruled one) allowed Berkman to score and extended the lead to 2-0.
Murphy stopped the bleeding and began his path to redemption by making a diving catch on a liner by Nick Punto to end the inning, but Wilson was at it again in the top of the third.
Rafael Furcal bunted to Wilson, who could have had the out at first with a good throw, but his toss bounced in front of Moreland, and Furcal advanced to second on the error (although the bunt itself was ruled a base hit). A sacrifice bunt by Allen Craig moved Furcal to third, and then Pujols was intentionally walked for the first of three times, putting runners at the corners with one out for the cleanup hitter.
Wash, who has been hesitant in the postseason to be proactive with his bullpen, wisely had Scott Feldman warming up, but he wouldn't be needed, at least not at this point in the game. After Wilson threw nine pitches to Holliday, he grounded a 3-2 Wilson offering into a double play to Adrian Beltre.
I took a really deep breath, and it felt like most of the stadium did too. Whew. Tragedy avoided -- for now.
Moreland neutralized his early gaffe with a 446-foot blast -- the longest World Series homer since MLB began tracking them in 2006 -- in the bottom half of the third to cut the lead to 2-1, but Wilson found himself right back into trouble in the top of the fifth.
This is when I was absolutely convinced Wilson's wheels were about to fly off.
He began by allowing a single to Schumaker -- a career .210 hitter against left-handers. Not a good way to start an inning. Then he issued a four-pitch walk to the ninth-place hitter, Punto. Really not a good way to start an inning. Furcal predictably sacrificed them to second and third base, and Pujols headed to the dish. Using more smarts than guts this time, Wash walked him intentionally again.
Wilson got ahead of Holliday 1-2, but he threw two out of the strike zone to make the count full. Holliday undoubtedly had the upper hand, yet somehow, someway Wilson induced another double play to end the threat.
Unbelievable. Two DPs on full counts from a five-time All-Star and .315 hitter with runners on first and third. That's some ballsy pitching right there to get outta both of those situations without allowing a run.
Had I known before the game that Wilson would allow nine base runners (four hits and five walks) and throw 108 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, I would have guessed the Cardinals would put at least four runs on the board, if not more. But Wilson made pitches when he had to, and Wash refused to let Pujols beat him. Wilson managed to give up just one earned run, with an unearned run resulting from miscues by Murphy and Moreland. No Rangers fan could have reasonably asked for much more from Wilson given his postseason history.
Beltre would tie the score at 2-2 in the sixth with his patented homer from one knee, but when Alexi Ogando took the mound in relief of Scott Feldman, who worked a bit of magic himself by striking out Punto with runners at second and third in the sixth, it looked as though St. Louis was ready to get the better of him for the fourth time in as many tries in the series. But Pujols shockingly ended up taking the bat outta his own hands.
After Craig walked with one out, Wash decided to give Ogando the chance to retire Pujols, who had last swung his bat in the first inning. However, Pujols called a hit-and-run on his own down in the count 0-1. Craig ran, but Pujols didn't swing, taking a high fastball for ball one. Napoli gunned down Craig at second, and then Wash changed his mind and had Ogando issue a free pass to Pujols.
It's hard to imagine exactly what Pujols was thinking in a 2-2 game and a chance to give the Cards the lead with a home run or long double.
Holliday followed with a single to center field, and Pujols, who was running on the play, rounded third base aggressively despite a stop sign from coach Jose Oquendo but then scampered back to the bag. Had Josh Hamilton thrown to third, they would have had Pujols in a rundown, but he threw the ball instead to the cutoff man, Andrus, who threw the ball home.
With runners at second and third and two outs, Wash called for another intentional walk -- this time to Berkman -- to load the bases for Freese.
The crowd collectively rose to their feet, knowing full well the game was on the line. Ogando squeaked out of the jam after Freese hit an easy fly ball to center, and another sigh of relief emanated from the ballpark.
That marked 10 runners left on base by the Cards after some pretty gutsy pitching and good instincts by Wash, but Texas still had to push another run across the plate to break the tie.
Fortunately, St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter exited the game in the bottom of the eighth after pitching seven strong innings and making only two mistakes (the Moreland and Beltre homers). If Texas was gonna get the ball to Neftali Feliz in the ninth with a chance to close the door on a win, it would be against an array of Cards relievers.
After Octavio Dotel surrendered a double to Michael Young to lead off the inning, he struck out Beltre on three pitches and then intentionally walked Cruz.
That's when the game completely fell apart for St. Louis.
As La Russa headed to the mound to yank Dotel, it was clear he was summoning southpaw Marc "Scrabble" Rzepczynski to face Murphy, a left-handed hitter.
Then Wash went against conventional wisdom and relied on his gut again by allowing Murphy to stay in the game.
I was flabbergasted. Was Wash really going to give this potential game-changing at-bat to Murphy, who had just one hit in 10 tries in the World Series and hit just .215 against left-handers in the regular season? The smart move there -- and the one La Russa and the majority of other managers would have no doubt made -- would have been to pinch-hit right-hander Yorvit Torrealba or Craig Gentry. As I've wondered before: What is the point of having Matt Treanor on the roster if Wash has no plans to use Torrealba in such a situation?
Scrabble also dominated left-handed hitters in the regular season to the tune of a .163 batting average and .478 OPS compared to .275 and .748 to righties. What in the world could Wash have been thinking?
It turned out to be a fantastic gut call, as Murphy completed his redemption from his second-inning error and lined a pitch up the middle, which deflected off Scrabble's knee and loaded the bases.
Then things got really confusing.
With the game in the balance, La Russa kept Scrabble out there to face Napoli, who has a career .955 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
The crowd roared: "NA-PO-LI, NA-PO-LI, NA-PO-LI!"
Where was closer Jason Motte? After all, he was well rested having last pitched on Thursday.
Nappy ripped the third pitch from Scrabble deep into right-center field, and the crowd went absolutely bonkers. Two runs scored, giving Texas a 4-2 lead. Victory was in sight, and there were still runners at second and third and just one out.
The chant continued: "NA-PO-LI, NA-PO-LI, NA-PO-LI!"
After Moreland struck out and Kinsler headed to the plate, surely it was time for Motte now, wasn't it?
Nope. Lance Lynn, who was thought to be unavailable after throwing 48 pitches in Game 3, was running onto the field.
Lance Lynn, seriously?
Lynn proceeded to intentionally walk Kinsler, which wasn't a bad move given Andrus' struggles at the plate, but La Russa was headed back to the mound.
It was time for Motte. Finally.
He blew away Andrus, striking him out on three pitches, but his appearance was far too late, and there was one more mistake ahead for La Russa.
After getting ahead of Craig in the count 1-2, Feliz beaned him to begin the ninth inning. Pujols stepped into the batters' box as the tying run and ran the count full. But he whiffed on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, and then Craig was easily thrown out for a second time by Napoli, as La Russa had called a run-and-hit on the play. A walk to Holliday would have made Berkman the winning run with Freese on deck had Craig not been running, but instead Berkman struck out swinging to end the game.
Just what the heck had just happened? Had La Russa gone with his gut instead of his head in the final innings?
After the loss, La Russa tried to explain the madness.
"Well, what happened was that twice the bullpen didn't hear Motte's name. They heard Rzepczynski, and they didn't get Motte. I looked up there and Motte wasn't going, so I called back for Motte, and they got Lynn up. That's why -- he wasn't supposed to pitch today -- so I wasn't going to let him throw to that hitter. He just threw the warm-ups and walked him and Motte was ready. I don't know if it was noisy, probably real noisy. They just didn't hear the second time."
Of course, there are a lot of conspiracies out there about what really happened, including speculation that La Russa was covering for longtime friend and pitching coach Dave Duncan, whose wife is recovering from a surgery to remove a brain tumor.
But no matter where the truth lies regarding bullpen-gate, phone-gate or whatever you want to call it, it's not the reason why the Cards lost Game 5.
The Rangers pitchers -- Wilson, Feldman, Ogando, Darren Oliver and Feliz -- made pitches when they had to, as St. Louis failed to capitalize on nine walks, a hit batter, two errors and a total of 17 runners on base. The Cards also finished just 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
If that was, in fact, Wilson's last start with Texas, it was certainly a fond farewell. The Rangers needed him to keep the National League's best offense at bay, and he battled hard to put his team in a position to win the game and take a 3-2 series lead. What more can you ask for?
One more win. Just one more win.
-- Even after his Game 5 performance, Wilson's postseason ERA remains the highest by any pitcher in a single postseason with a minimum of 25 innings pitched. And his 19 walks in the playoffs are tied with Jaret Wright (1997) for the most by any pitcher in a single postseason.
-- Ogando's line from Monday night is incredible for someone who didn't surrender a run: 1 inning, 2 hits, 3 walks and 16 of his 30 pitches were balls. I hope we don't see him tonight. He looks plum outta gas.
-- Initially, I thought yesterday's rainout gave Texas an advantage because Derek Holland would be available to pitch on regular rest (four days) in a possible Game 7, but Wash found a way to hand it over to St. Louis. Instead of pitching Holland, he's already committed to Matt Harrison for a potential Game 7.
"I am not changing the things that I've been doing all year," he said when asked for his reasoning.
Like I've said before, this is stubbornness of the highest order. Holland pitched the best game in franchise history in Game 4, and Harrison in 3 2/3 innings gave up five runs (three earned) in Game 3.
Does not compute. At all.
Same with the lineup. Hamilton (.158 BA in the WS) in the three hole? Young at cleanup? Nappy hitting eighth? Effin' eighth? (Sure, he's been bumped back to seventh tonight, but c'mon.)
-- Speaking of Napoli, ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon asked Angels manager Mike Scioscia about why Nappy was dealt to Toronto. Essentially, he dismissed reports that there was a rift between them and that he didn't view Napoli as an asset.
Nappy's fourth multi-RBI game of the series Monday night tied him with Mickey Mantle for the most multi-RBI games in the same World Series, and he's now just one RBI from tying Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997) and Yogi Berra (1956) for the most RBI by a catcher in a single World Series.
And now's probably a good time to remember this tidbit from my series preview: "... if I had to put dough on someone to be the series MVP, I'd put it on Napoli."
-- A lot of folks got their undies in a twist about Holland's impressions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harry Caray in the top of the third inning with Wilson in trouble on the mound. Because I was at the game, I had to watch that half inning on DVR to get the full effect, and it didn't bother me one bit. I love that he's so relaxed. That laid-back attitude has made him a better pitcher. Plus, Joe Buck kinda put him in a tight spot by asking in the first place.
--While Wash refuses to pitch Holland on full rest in a possible Game 7, Tony La Russa is considering giving the start to Chris Carpenter, who's 6-0 with a 2.03 ERA in home postseason starts in his career and would be pitching on three days rest.
-- I hear a lot of folks bitch about the lack of parity in baseball, but the Rangers are attempting to become 10th different team in last 11 years to win the Fall Classic.
-- With the DH disappearing and a lefty on the mound tonight, Young is back at first base, Gentry's in center and Hamilton's in left.
-- The Cards are switching Holliday's and Berkman's slots in the lineup, and Craig heads back to the bench.
-- I said it when he started Game 2, and I'll say it again: There's no Texas starter I'd rather have pitching tonight than Colby Lewis.
-- You'll hear a lot tonight about this game perhaps being Pujols's last one in a Cards uniform, but there's a chance (although it's based on pure speculation on my behalf) that it could be Hamilton's last in a Rangers uniform as well.
If Texas attempts to sign Pujols or (more likely) Prince Fielder to solve their woes at first base, Hamilton and Moreland could be packaged to improve the pitching staff. As I've mentioned before, Hamilton, who's set to earn $15 million in 2012, will be a free agent at the end of next season. He'll be looking for a raise and a long-term deal, and if Texas doesn't want to take a big gamble on Hamilton staying healthy, getting something in return this offseason makes sense, especially if the Rangers choose to invest in a more durable slugger to play first. The Rangers could also consider moving Young to first full time and sign David Ortiz to DH.
No matter what path is taken, I still expect Hamilton to be a goner next year at the latest, since the money he'll be asking for would be much better invested in the likes of Matt Kemp, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Zach Greinke and Nappy, who join him as free agents next year barring extensions signed between now and then.
As for Pujols, I expect him to stay in St. Louis.
-- The Cards excerised their 2012 ($9 million) and 2013 ($12 million) contract options for ace Adam Wainwright, who missed the entire year recovering from Tommy John surgery.
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-- St. Louis for a sixth time finds itself down 3-2 in the World Series, and they've amazingly come back to win Games 6 and 7 four of the previous five times.
--When a best-of-seven World Series has been tied 2-2, the Game 5 winner has won the series 26 of 39 times
All right, ladies and gents, this is it. Your Rangers actually have a chance to be world champions at the end of the night. Let's end this sucker!
*Follow me on Twitter @SamMerten