Could Derek Holland’s World Series Game 4 be spark the Rangers’ underrated pitchers need?

Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 24, 2011

The secret of the 107th World Series is that, if they can calm down, the Texas Rangers have a quartet of the most dominating young power pitchers in baseball in Derek Holland, C.J. Wilson, Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Not that you would know it from the way they pitched in their brief World Series careers before Sunday night. Mostly, they’ve been nervous wrecks or inconsistent or news-conference blabbermouths or just plain crazy wild.

Finally, in Game 4, the southpaw Holland, a 25-year-old who is sometimes so antsy that he never sits down during an entire game, restored balance to this most excellent battle, evening the World Series at two games apiece with 81 / 3 dazzling innings in a 4-0 victory over St. Louis.

One night, the Cardinals score 16. The next, they get two hits. It’s baseball.

A three-run homer by battery mate Mike Napoli off reliever Mitchell Boggs mightily aided Holland, who went 16-5 this season and has an overpowering repertoire of fastballs up to 96 mph, wicked breaking stuff and a nice change-up, too. Perhaps most important, his gem lets us get a proper appreciation of what an excellent and evenly balanced series this really is.

Of all the Rangers’ young guns who’ve stumbled in the World Series, Holland was the most embarrassed in his 2010 debut when he threw 13 pitches — 12 of them balls — and was charged with three runs against the Giants.

“I joke about it,” said Holland who later pitched a scoreless inning in that series. “But I wanted to redeem myself for last year.

“Sometimes, my emotions get the better of me, like they did against Tampa Bay [in Game 1 of their American League Division Series]. But I was prepared. I’m not going to let this get away from me.”

Holland’s jitters and an overall 5.04 postseason ERA were enough for Rangers Manager Ron Washington to push him back to this Game 4 start and use slightly less anxious Matt Harrison, another flamethrower with wicked breaking pitches, in Game 3. That way, Harrison might return for a Game 7. Oops. Harrison lasted 11 outs in Saturday’s 16-run onslaught.

Sunday, Washington went so far as to give Holland a pregame pep talk, complete with pats on the face, as he tried to help the pitcher he has called “a pony” turn into something more. “Well, he was a thoroughbred tonight,” said Washington, who hopes his other over-amped arms get the message.

Ogando, who won 13 games as a starter, was moved to the bullpen with great success in the first two rounds of the playoffs. But in this series, he’s come in twice to face pinch-hitter Allen Craig and twice allowed RBI singles that put the Rangers behind. Saturday, he became a casualty of Albert Pujols, too.

So, this game began with undisguised trepidation. Texas President Nolan Ryan has assembled 95 mph-plus arms in his own image. But were they actually polished and composed enough for this stage?

Holland was so brilliant, issuing two walks and striking out seven, that with one on and one out in the ninth, he begged Washington to leave him in to finish the shutout. “I just told him, ‘If you want to stay out here, get on your knees,’ ” the manager said jokingly. “He walked off the field.”

Though few outside Texas realize it, Holland’s ability is the rule for the Rangers, not the anomaly. After the 16-7 debacle in Game 3, when Pujols did for Arlington, Tex., what Mount Vesuvius did for Pompeii, the entire sports world became doubly certain that the Rangers are just a bunch of bashers with pathetic pitching. It’s simply not true. In fact, it’s backwards.

According to advanced stat metrics, including OPS+, the Cardinals, adjusted for their spacious home Busch Stadium, have the second-best offense in the sport, even better than the Rangers, who rank fourth. Come on, “Moneyball” is still in theaters. We get to use this stuff.

What we should keep in mind is that those 16 runs were Rangers Ballpark madness and a once-in-World-Series-history game from Pujols who gave us a glimpse of what Babe Ruth must have looked like in October of 1926 and ’28. But that game was not the Texas norm. Except for that one Pujols-led mauling, the Cards have scored only four runs in three World Series games.

In reality, adjusted for their nutty amusement park of a ballyard, which ranked No. 1 in baseball for offense, the Rangers actually have the third-best ERA in baseball. See, just wanted to make sure you were paying attention. The appropriate statistic is ERA+ — that’s ERA adjusted for home ballpark compared to the league norm. The Rangers stand at 118, or 18 percent better than the adjusted norm for the AL. The Phillies, naturally, are No. 1.

This isn’t a trick stat. The Rangers are a truly outstanding, all-around balanced club. But all their numbers are distorted. So we don’t expect much from Texas pitchers. But we should.

The next huge test will be for the Rangers ace Wilson, the quick-witted but eccentric southpaw who has a 1-5 record with a 5.32 ERA in eight postseason starts. In Game 5, he’ll face the best and most-poised Card, Chris Carpenter, who beat the Phils’ Roy Halladay, 1-0, to decide their National League Division Series.

The postseason “hasn’t gone as well as I would have liked. I would have liked to have won every game and thrown a shutout every time because it would have made it easier on everyone else,” Wilson said. Asked if Monday would be the biggest game of his life, Wilson said, “True story.”

Then, as befits a fellow who sometimes has theories on subjects that may not be worthy of theories, he added that Game 5 is so important because “there’s no Galaxy Series or Universe Series or whatever.”

So, in the kind of ace-vs.-ace Game 5 that proves pivotal in many World Series, hold your breath. Carpenter’s response to all pitching questions here has been the same: “You execute, you’ll get outs. You don’t, you won’t.”

No discussions of a possible Galaxy Series on Jupiter in November.

The easy assumption might be that Carpenter, a 36-year-old former Cy Young Award-winner, might have an edge over the cheerfully flaky Wilson. But that would entirely discount what was on view here Sunday.

“What you saw from Holland, we all know it’s in him,” Washington said. Strictly on premium quality talent, that applies to about nine Rangers.

If Wilson, Harrison and Ogando take their cue for the rest of this series from Holland’s powerful work — he even sat down between innings — this matchup will be a contest worthy of any World Series stage.

Which young Rangers hurlers will appear? Will they be the ones who, so far, have not always been quite ready for the World Series lights? Or will they, like Holland, grow up suddenly before our eyes?

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