I expected Derek Holland to finally realize his potential as a top-of-the-rotation arm in the American League Championship Series. That, of course, didn't happen. But it turned out the Rangers didn't need him to be great to win his Game 2 and Game 6 starts, as the Texas offense racked up 22 runs in those two match-ups against the Detroit Tigers.
With their entire season at stake last night in Arlington, the Rangers needed Holland to give them at least five or six innings on the mound while holding the game's greatest player and NL's best offense to no more than a run or two in Game 4 of the World Series. No small task, especially after Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals spanked Texas with 15 hits and 16 runs the night before.
Even hoping for that much felt like a lot to ask from Holland, whose lackluster outings in the ALCS bumped him down two slots in the rotation. But instead of channeling a more effective Derek Holland, the 25-year-old decided it was time to do his best Whitey Ford impersonation.
And he couldn't have picked a better time to do so in his entire life.
Known as one of the best postseason hurlers in baseball history, Ford has a record 10 World Series wins. He earned World Series MVP honors in 1960 after tossing two complete-game shutouts against Cincinnati, but his best single-game performance was a shutout the following year against Pittsburgh: nine innings, two hits, no runs, one walk and six strikeouts.
Holland was a Rafael Furcal walk in the ninth away from matching Ford's dominance, with 8 1/3 innings, two hits, no runs, two walks and seven strikeouts.
Game 4 could have easily slipped away had Holland not been so spectacular.
There were the runs left on base in the first inning when Adrian Beltre struck out with runners on first and second, and then David Murphy flied out with the bases loaded. There was Ian Kinsler getting caught asleep on the basepaths by Yadier Molina in the second. And there was Mitch Moreland's awful display at the plate with runners on first and second in the fourth.
But Holland set the tone early, striking out Allen Craig and inducing an easy groundout by Pujols to Elvis Andrus after Beltre made a great play on a screaming line drive down the third base line by Furcal. The deer-in-headlights look wasn't there, and eight of his 11 pitches in the first inning were strikes.
Holland proceeded to nail his targeted locations with a mid-90s tailing fastball, throw his slider inside and on the hands of tough right-handers like Pujols and keep his mid-70s sharp-breaking curveball dancing on the fringes of the strike zone.
At times, Holland dialed up his heater into the upper 90s, and he threw 30 of his 44 off-speed pitches for strikes. And not one of his 11 first-pitch breaking balls was put into play.
It was the greatest pitching performance in the organization's 51-year history that includes two no-hitters from Hall-of-Famer and Rangers president Nolan Ryan.
Yup, Holland was that good last night. He hoisted the franchise on his back and accomplished what Cliff Lee had failed in two attempts last year.
"The hair on my arms -- it's not like I have a whole lot -- was standing up, and it was all tingly," Holland said about walking off the mound to a standing ovation as closer Neftali Feliz made his way onto the field in the ninth.
Starter C.J. Wilson and the Rangers look to do the same thing tonight -- go out with a bang. For Texas, it's the last home game of the season, and a win puts them in the driver's seat needing to win just one of two games in St. Louis to become world champions. For Wilson, it could very well be his last start in a Rangers uniform.
To say he's got a lot to prove this evening is an understatement. Texas is just 2-6 in his eight career playoff starts, and Wilson's 1-5 with a 5.32 ERA in those games. In fact, the only time he resembled anything like an ace in the postseason was his first October start in Game 2 of the 2010 ALDS when he threw 6 1/3 shutout innings. It's been downhill since then, with Wilson surrendering at least six runs in Game 5 of the 2010 ALCS, Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS and Game 5 of the ALCS.
But no matter how well or poorly he throws the ball tonight, it's hard to imagine Wilson returning next season because he's gonna get a boatload of cash as a free agent this offseason either way.
I estimate he'll get at least five years and $85 million ($17 million average per year), with a club possibly willing to commit as much as six years and $111 million ($18.5 million avg.).
Think I'm crazy?
Let's examine the cases of A.J. Burnett and John Lackey. Both pitchers were free agents when they were 31 years old (Wilson turns 31 next month), and both received five-year, $80 million contracts ($16.5 million avg.).
In two years as a starting pitcher, Wilson has posted a 31-15 record, 3.14 ERA, 376 strikeouts and 1.22 WHIP. Pretty nifty stats, especially for a guy who pitches half his games in a hitters' paradise.
Prior to signing with the New York Yankees in December 2008, Burnett had a 28-18 record, 3.93 ERA, 407 K and 1.28 WHIP in his last two years with the Toronto Blue Jays. And, in the two years before signing with the Boston Red Sox in December 2009, Lackey went 23-13 with a 3.79 ERA, 269 K and 1.25 WHIP with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
And not only are Wilson's numbers better, he'll likely be viewed more favorably in the marketplace because he doesn't have as many innings on his arm as most starters his age after spending most of his career in the bullpen, and he's left-handed.
As the best free-agent pitcher this offseason (aside from CC Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract with the Yankees), Wilson will be paid too much money by someone, and it's highly unlikely that someone will be Texas, which can roll out a rotation next year featuring Holland, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando and Scott Feldman and be just fine. (Although trading for James Shields wouldn't hurt my feelings.)
Sure, the Rangers have money to spend, but the key to their success so far has been spending wisely. And given the performances of Burnett (34-35, 4.79 ERA and 1.45 WHIP) and Lackey (26-23, 5.26 ERA and 1.50 WHIP) following their big deals, inking Wilson to a big-money, long-term deal poses a significant risk.
Plus, Texas has arbitration cases ahead this offseason for Napoli, Cruz, Murphy, Andrus and Harrison, and Holland and Feliz will be arbitration eligible for the first time next year. And each one of those guys is due for a big-time raise.
Sure feels like the last time he'll start a game for the Rangers. Let's end this relationship on a high note, Ceej.
Two more wins. Just two more wins.
-- Topping my list of keys to victory last night was the players' ability to declare Game 3's loss a total fuck-up in all phases of the game and not let their frustration linger, and the Rangers didn't disappoint.
While I've been tough on Ron Washington this series, this is where he shines. I'm convinced his attitude and clubhouse presence was the biggest reason why Texas was able to put that disastrous loss completely out of their minds. He's not the best strategic manager in the game, but he certainly has the intangibles to make up for it. (I still think he might have been canned if St. Louis destroyed Texas last night and then won again tonight, but, thankfully, we'll never know.)
-- Although Holland was the story of the game, the turning point was a bad move by skipper Tony La Russa, who surprisingly let starter Edwin Jackson pitch into the sixth with 94 pitches and five walks already on his résumé. A Beltre flyout and two more walks to Cruz and Murphy set up Nappy's 395-foot blast off Mitchell Boggs to put the game out of reach.
Holland followed up in the top of the seventh with his most impressive inning of the game: two groundouts by Pujols and Holliday right at him and a strikeout by Berkman looking on a slider.
-- Holland's just the fourth pitcher in the last 40 years (Tom Glavine in 1995, Roger Clemens in 2000 and Kenny Rogers in 2006) with at least eight shutout innings and no more than two hits allowed in a World Series game.
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Holland, incidentally, is under club control for four more seasons. Gonna be really exciting to see his progress during that time and hopefully beyond.
-- I was really impressed with Mike Napoli behind the plate last night. He called a great game. And umpire Ron Culpa (yeah, the guy who blew the call in Game 3) was equally impressive, calling close pitches as strikes on a fairly consistent basis, which helped Holland immensely.
-- Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune speculates that the Chicago Cubs could try to steal Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux in the offseason. I'm guessing Texas is willing to pay whatever anyone else is to keep him here.
I'm at the game tonight, so I'm leaving the thread in the capable hands of y'all and Robert. Please join the conversation, and make sure to wish Robert a happy birthday. I hear he'll give you prizes if you do.