If you've read my piece about St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, you know that the first time I had a really good, strong sports cry was Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
As a fan of La Russa and the Oakland A's at the time, Kirk Gibson's walk-off pinch-hit two-run homer off Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley absolutely crushed my 11-year-old heart.
Even though it was only the first game of the series, it already felt over. So over.
The Los Angeles Dodgers used the momentum from Gibson's historic blast to win three of the next four games, taking the series in five.
Both teams had great starting pitching and bullpens that year. LA's staff was led by 23-game-winner Orel Hershiser and 17-game-winner Tim Leary, and Oakland's rotation featured 21-game-winner Dave Stewart and 17-game-winner Bob Welch.
But the A's were seemingly the better team with '88 American League MVP Jose Canseco, first baseman Mark McGwire and outfielder Dave Henderson in the lineup and '88 AL Cy Young runner-up Dennis Eckersley as their closer. Oakland also had 104 regular season wins that year.
The Dodgers, on the other hand, weren't supposed to be contenders. Only one player in their lineup hit more than 20 home runs in the regular season, and just one player had a batting average above .280. That was Gibson in both cases, and he had a bad knee and ailing hamstring during the series. He couldn't even muster up the strength to take batting practice before the game.
Legendary broadcaster Jack Buck's call of Gibson's shot to right field with two outs and a 3-2 count is just as remarkable and memorable as the play itself.
"I don't believe what I just saw!" Buck yelled through the TV screen as Gibson pumped his arm rounding the bases. "I don't believe what I just saw!"
While not as dramatic as Gibson's long ball 23 years ago, Thursday night's ninth-inning comeback by the Texas Rangers to win Game 2 of the World Series left me saying the same thing.
After an unexpected stellar seven innings of work (3 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk and 7 strikeouts) by St. Louis left-hander Jaime Garcia, Texas starter Colby Lewis was well on his way to matching Garcia by keeping the game scoreless in the bottom of the seventh. He had struck out All-Star slugger Matt Holliday, given up a single to scorching-hot David Freese and induced a fly out by Yadier Molina. Then, for the second-straight night, Nick Punto -- a bench player for almost any other team and career .249 hitter -- walked up to the plate in a key late-inning situation with a tied score and Freese on base.
In Game 1, C.J. Wilson pitched around Punto and walked him on four pitches, leaving Alexi Ogando to face pinch-hitter Allen Craig with runners at the corners and two outs.
In Game 2, Punto hit a smash off Lewis just to the right of first baseman Michael Young into right field for a single. It wasn't ruled an error, but it should have been. Good first baseman make that play.
That left the same scenario as Game 1: Ogando v. Craig with runners on first and third.
For the second night in a row, Ogando didn't throw him a slider. And for the second night in a row, Craig made him pay and ripped a fastball to drive in the go-ahead run. Before Craig's hit in Game 1, the last time a pinch hitter drove in the go-ahead run in the sixth inning or later with a base hit in the World Series was Gibson in '88, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
If Young's postseason performance as the team's cleanup hitter hadn't been embarrassing enough, the man who has asked the organization to be traded twice had now cost Texas an exceedingly valuable run in the biggest game of his life -- once again, much just like Wash had done in Game 1 by leaving Wilson on the mound too long.
Unfortunately, Wash had been at it again in Game 2. Earlier in the game, Ian Kinsler walked to lead off the top of the fourth inning, and Elvis Andrus (who hit .123 in the ALDS and .240 in the ALCS this year and.176 in last year's WS) was not told to bunt him into scoring position. Instead, Andrus hit a lazy fly ball to right field, and then Josh Hamilton flied out as well.
To everyone's surprise, Young came through with a single, and Kinsler would have scored had Andrus sacrificed him to second. But, of course, he didn't, and the next batter, Adrian Beltre, struck out with runners at first and second.
When a team gives away two runs in a 1-0 game as the eighth inning approaches and they're facing a strong bullpen, it's easy to crawl into a deep, dark hole as a fan. At this point, the game felt destined to become the most painful loss in franchise history, and it would have forced Texas to win four of the next five games in order to win the series.
Then it got worse.
In the top of the eighth, Wash sent up David Murphy to pinch-hit for Craig Gentry with one out and right-hander Fernando Salas on the mound. La Russa countered by replacing Salas with Marc "Scrabble" Rzepczynski, who struck out Gentry and Esteban German to end the top of the seventh in Game 1.
Wash pulled Murphy to avoid the lefty-lefty match-up and sent out Yorvit Torrealba -- the player most fans and pundits argued should have batted instead of German in Game 1.
But it turned out Torrealba wasn't the answer either, as he struck out swinging on three pitches, just as German had the night before. Then, with only left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland and righties Matt Treanor and German left as options, Wash turned again to German to pinch-hit for Ogando, and he promptly grounded out on the first pitch.
With John Jay, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman up in the bottom half of the inning, St. Louis looked primed to put the game away and take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. Wash sent out Mike Adams (the right call, by the way) to relieve Ogando.
After Jay flied out on the first pitch of the bottom of the eighth, Pujols nailed an Adams' offering deep to right-center field. The look on Pujols' face said it all: It was gone, and the Rangers were done.
Yet Nelson Cruz kept backing up to the outfield fence until he ran out of room, reached up and grabbed it.
A dejected Pujols headed back to the dugout.
The Rangers were still alive, but their heartbeat was fading fast.
A Berkman single and Holliday walk exposed a significant managerial misstep by La Russa. In the top of the inning, he had replaced a defensively challenged Freese with Daniel Descalso, a versatile defender who hit just .264 with one home run and 28 RBI in 326 regular season at-bats.
Now, instead of Freese, who had extended his postseason hitting streak to 12 games in his previous at-bat, the light-hitting Descalso was up with runners on first and second. He grounded out to Kinsler to end the threat.
The Rangers' good fortune continued in the following inning against hard-throwing and recently untouchable Jason Motte. Kinsler, who misplayed two Berkman grounders earlier in the game, led off the ninth with a well-placed single.
For a second time, the situation dictated a sac bunt from a struggling Andrus, and Wash made the right call this time. But Andrus, who had made two dazzling defensive plays to end the fourth and fifth innings, didn't get a pitch to his liking after seeing a ball and a strike from Motte.
Then Kinsler took matters into his own feet, darting for second on the third pitch, which Andrus took for a strike.
The risk was significant. Get thrown out by Molina -- the game's best defensive backstop -- and Kinsler single-handedly kills a potential rally and perhaps the Rangers' season. Make it to second safely and put the pressure on Motte with the tying run now at second base.
If only by a split second, Kinsler's hand touched the bag ahead of the tag from Rafael Furcal, and the team's pulse kicked up a notch.
Andrus continued to battle Motte and lined a base hit into center field. Kinsler rounded third aggressively, but third base coach Dave Anderson inexplicably threw up a stop sign, even though Jay isn't known for his throwing arm.
Jay's throw was offline and seeing Kinsler headed back to third, Pujols tried to cut it off, but the ball just glanced off his glove. An alert Andrus bolted to second base and snuck in ahead of Molina's throw. Initially, the play wasn't ruled an error, but Pujols - an excellent defender and two-time Gold Glove winner -- was given one after the game.
Much like a hobbled Gibson in '88, Hamilton, whose groin issue is so bad that he claims he's playing at around 50 percent without much use of the lower half of his body, walked up to the dish with runners on second and third and no outs.
If Hamilton was healthy, I'm convinced La Russa intentionally walks him and keeps Motte in to face Young with the bases loaded. But, while he was widely criticized for doing so, I think La Russa made the right call by summoning Arthur Rhodes from the bullpen. That's exactly the reason why you have Rhodes on the roster -- to face tough lefties when Scrabble has already pitched or is unavailable. And Rhodes had successfully retired Hamilton in Game 1.
Before the inning began, I suggested that Wash pinch-hit Moreland for Hamilton because Hamilton had looked so uncomfortable at the plate in his previous at-bats.
But Wash's confidence in Hamilton paid off, as he not only hit a fly ball deep enough to score Kinsler, Andrus was also able to advance to third, setting the stage for Young's go-head sac fly. The last time someone stole a base in the ninth inning or later of a World Series game and scored the tying run was Mike Davis, who came home on Gibson's homer.
It wasn't exactly Gibson in the '88 World Series, but the momentum shift is the same, and it was the most thrilling game this Texas Rangers fan has ever seen.
I honestly couldn't believe what I had just effin' saw.
Three more wins. Just three more wins.
-- Lots of noise was made about Pujols and other Cardinals refusing to speak with the media following Thursday night's loss. Pujols and La Russa have attempted to dismiss concerns, but the situation can't be playing well in the clubhouse. It can only help the Rangers.
-- Michael Young is at DH for Texas tonight, with Napoli replacing him at first base and Torrealba behind the plate. Murphy's also back in left.
I'm not a fan of seeing Torrealba at catcher, especially since tonight's starter for Texas, Matt Harrison, has a 4.39 ERA when throwing to him compared to 2.60 with Napoli.
-- Berkman is at DH for the Cards, with Craig taking over in right field and batting second. At least he won't be available as a pinch-hitter.
-- I expect the Rangers' offense to break out tonight against starter Kyle Lohse. Although the 33-year-old had a career-best 3.39 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in the regular season this year for the Cardinals, he's been a bad pitcher for the majority of his 11 seasons in the bigs, with a career 102-106 record, 4.64 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. As recently as 2010, he had a 6.55 ERA and 1.78 WHIP in 18 starts, and he's also 0-4 with a 5.09 ERA combined in three starts and five relief appearances in the playoffs.
-- I heard a lot of bitching from Rangers fans about the Cardinals having home-field advantage because of the All-Star Game, even though they were a wildcard team and had six fewer regular season wins than the Rangers. However, I've always viewed having games 3 through 5 at home as the advantage. Only if a series goes to seven games does the advantage swing back to the home team, and seven-game series are hardly frequent. In fact, only four of the last 22 World Series have gone to a seventh game.
-- The Rangers are now only the fourth team to win a World Series game without an RBI base hit since 1969.
-- The winner of Game 3 in the last 11 World Series tied at 1-1 has won the series 10 times.
-- In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, Buster Olney speculates that the Rangers will "make a competitive offer" for C.J. Wilson but won't engage in a bidding war to retain him. He says they are far more interested in 25-year-old Japanese starter Yu Darvish, who will draw a significant amount of interest if he's posted after the season. The option posed by Olney that I favor is attempting to swing a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays for ace James Shields. It would take a stout package of prospects that would likely include left-handed pitcher Martin Perez and shortstop Jurickson Profar, but I'd do it in a heartbeat.
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-- Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman had a general manager tell him that he expects Wilson to land a five-year, $75 million deal. I think he'll get more than that. There's always someone out there willing to overpay for pitching, and, despite his postseason woes, Wilson's the best option in a poor free-agent crop of hurlers. Another GM estimates that a team will have to cough up around $100 million (including the posting fee) for Darvish, which would resemble the amount the Boston Red Sox paid in late 2006 for Daisuke Matsuzaka ($51.1 million posting fee and six-year, $52 million contract). Matsuzaka's inability to live up to his contract makes me worry about the Rangers making a similar investment in Darvish.
-- ESPN's Howard Bryant wrote a terrific story about Ron Washington.
-- Thanks to Baltimore Orioles beat reporter Brittany Ghiroli for giving me hope. "I continue to believe that Koji Uehara will find a way back to the Orioles," she writes. I sure hope an offseason deal can be worked out, because he's clearly worn out his welcome here.
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