All year, every year, fans hear about the vital importance of fundamentals — hitting the cutoff man, situational hitting and the tiny details of inside baseball that exemplify the Game of Inches. This desperately needed 2-1 Texas win to tie a taut series took that inside game — this evening of Purist Heaven — to the hilt.
In that last inning, the Rangers pieced together two runs on a bloop single, a steal of second base, another single, a missed cutoff man and a pair of crucial clutch back-to-back sacrifice flies by Josh Hamilton and Michael Young to turn a 1-0 deficit into a heart-stopping win. In those few brief minutes, you could feel a World Series that was almost in the ferocious clutches of the miraculous Cardinals turn into a dead- even affair.
The ultimate determination of this series remains in the future with Game 3 headed to Texas on Saturday night. But, in all likelihood, the Cardinals were within three outs of putting a near-stranglehold on a title. And even then, the smallest factor — a slight misplay on a throw that missed the cutoff man — was the margin that set up the Rangers’ winning run.
Here in St. Louis, where they think they invented inside baseball (and may have), they appreciate such things. And they know the heavy weight of being on the wrong side of such fundamentals.
The Rangers opened the ninth with a bloop to left by Ian Kinsler that shortstop Rafael Furcal almost caught with an over-the-head basket catch. But he didn’t. Then Kinsler was almost thrown out stealing second base on a rocket peg by the best arm in baseball, catcher Yadier Molina. But he wasn’t. Kinsler’s perfect headfirst slide to the outside of the bag let him beat the play by inches.
Safe by how much? “Just enough,” Kinsler said.
Then came the minuscule mistake that perhaps St. Louis can appreciate better than almost any town. Elvis Andrus laced a single to center field. That was bad enough. But with no outs, the Rangers weren’t about to risk sending Kinsler to the plate. All that mattered now was that the throw from center field to home plate be cut off properly so that the speedster Andrus couldn’t get into scoring position.
But it wasn’t. The throw from Jon Jay was off line, though not terribly. The cutoff man, Albert Pujols, couldn’t quite reach it. Not so much a mistake as a misadventure in the flux of real-time baseball geometry. Everything was just out of sync enough for the throw to go all the way through to home plate so Andrus could beat Molina’s throw to second.
Give St. Louis credit: The groan for Andrus’s hit and the groan for the botched cutoff throw were equally loud.
“I’m not quite sure what happened there. I heard Albert and Yadi talking about it after the inning,” said Manager Tony La Russa, not wanting to put either all-star on the hook for a play that can come down to whether the catcher yells “CUT” quickly enough or whether, with 47,288 fans screaming, the cutoff man can even hear it.
“Obviously we don’t want to let the go-ahead run get into scoring position. But what the Rangers did in that inning — after the bloop hit to start it — that was classic baseball,” La Russa added. “It took guts and they executed it. I tip my hat.”
Afterward it became clear that Pujols had not gotten in proper position. If he had, he not only could have cut off the throw but might have trapped Kinsler off third.
“I was stranded,” Kinsler said.
With none out, the heart of the slumping Rangers order did its job — first Hamilton with a solid fly to right that easily advanced both runners. Then the craftsman Young, who has had six 200-hit seasons, smacked a fly to center that easily score the eventual winning run.
“That’s what you’re in for, so [to] those of you that have bad hearts, watch out,” Texas Manager Ron Washington said.
Sometimes, you can feel all the momentum and mystique of an underdog as it tries to pressure its favored foe into understanding that fate is not on its side. That’s where the Cards were all evening as they pushed the Rangers to the brink of the kind of two-game World Series deficit that has been almost impossible to overcome for the last 30 years.
The Rangers knew it, too. “I won’t say this was ‘series-saving’, but it was huge,” Kinsler said. Oh, feel free — series-saving is pretty close.
La Russa knows that wheel-of-October-karma feeling only too well. He took monstrous favorites into the World Series in 1988, ’90 and 2004 only to be defeated by teams with a better story, clubs living out a fantasy that his mighty men were powerless to thwart. His guys got whipped fast, too. When the Big Story gets rolling, it can squash you in four or five games.
And La Russa also knows how it works the other way, because just five years ago his 83-win Cards pulled the same stunt to steal a World Series crown.
So, to be sure, La Russa and his Cardinals understood the full symbolic weight of the 1-0 lead they took into the ninth. The same plot, absolutely diabolical from a Texas viewpoint, had played out two nights in a row. It was pure Halloween for the Rangers.
In the sixth inning of Game 1 and the seventh inning of Game 2, both managers simultaneously took out their effective starting pitchers who had been locked in pitching duels, 2-2 in Game 1 and 0-0 on this night.
Both times, they settled on the same matchup: the Rangers’ best middle-inning flame-throwing right-hander, Alexi Ogando, against the Cards’ best bench bat, Allen Craig, a .315 hitter in 200 at-bats this regular season. Of Ogando, called “Oh-God-No” by some foes, Craig said, “He throws 97, but it looks to me like 104.”
Yet both times Craig came through with RBI singles to put the Cards ahead by a run. Can you say “Dusty Rhodes,” the New York Giants pinch hitter in the ’54 World Series who changed the outcome of three victories and almost single-handedly upset the favored Cleveland Indians?
“For Craig to have that kind of cool against a pitcher with that kind of arm, that’s something special,” La Russa said of the 27-year-old second-year utility man who had a stellar .917 OPS. “You’ll see him in the starting lineup some in Texas.”
Every game in a short postseason series is vital, but some are ridiculously important, at least to one team. In effect, if you have a sense of the last 30 years of World Series history, the Rangers almost faced an elimination game here. Not really, of course. But October history seems to go in long cycles with trends that last decades. And the results, as well as the actual feeling, of being at the World Series over the last three decades is that if a team with home-field advantage goes ahead two games to none, you might as well pack your bags because the season is as good as finished.
This pattern — home team wins the first two, then dominates the series — has held 13 straight times since ’81. That’s 13-0. Seven of the last 13 World Series have followed this pattern with the losers folding up shop so abjectly that, even though they went home for Games 3-5, four of them were sweeps (’07, ’05, ’04, ’98) and two others went only five games (’10, ’00).
Both teams played this game as if a season, rather than just one night, was at stake. The final innings produced the kind of plays we’ll discuss for years. A World Series was not won on this night. It’s simply back in the hat.
But, for St. Louis, this may have been a game when an enormous opportunity, one that can hardly be overstated, got away.
“It was almost a great story for us,” La Russa said. “Then it turned out to be a greater one for them.”