ARLINGTON, Tex. — When they gathered in the Arizona desert on the first day of spring training, when they sweated through all those 100-degree Texas evenings this summer, when they reached the end of the marathon of the regular season and prepared for the sprint of the postseason — the Texas Rangers, if offered, would have gladly taken the scenario they faced in the eighth inning Monday night at Rangers Ballpark:
Game 5 of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Both the series and the game squared at 2 apiece. Their cozy little stadium, packed with 51,459 screaming faithful. The season down to its final days, and nothing to save any bullets for.
It was time to say goodbye to baseball in the Lone Star State for 2011, and the Rangers made it a memorable farewell, turning Mike Napoli’s tiebreaking, bases-loaded, two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning into a dramatic 4-2 victory.
The Rangers have now played 10 World Series games the past two years — the first such games in franchise history — and this is the first time they have known the feeling of holding a lead. Their task now: Win once in two chances at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the first of those coming Wednesday night in Game 6.
“It was great to reward our fans with a win like that in our last home game,” said Rangers left fielder David Murphy. “We’re right where we want to be.”
For the Cardinals, the final three innings devolved into a comedy of errors, questionable decisions and disastrous miscommunications. Albert Pujols acknowledged he called for a seventh-inning hit-and-run himself, signaling to Allen Craig, who was at first base, but Pujols failed to swing at an outside fastball, leaving Craig to be thrown out easily at second.
“I had no chance at that pitch,” Pujols said.
And in the pivotal eighth-inning confrontation against Napoli, St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa had the wrong pitcher on the mound — lefty Marc Rzepczynski, instead of closer Jason Motte — because, according to La Russa, his request to the bullpen to get both Rzepczynski and Motte warmed up several minutes early was only half-heard. Only Rzepczynski warmed up.
“What happened was that twice the bullpen didn’t hear Motte’s name,” La Russa said. “I don’t know if it was noisy — probably real noisy. They just didn’t hear.”
The genesis of the Rangers’ go-ahead runs in the eighth was a leadoff double by Michael Young off right-handed reliever Octavio Dotel. After Adrian Beltre struck out, La Russa walked Nelson Cruz intentionally — essentially choosing to pitch to David Murphy and Napoli instead of Cruz and Murphy — then brought in lefty Rzepczynski to face the left-handed-hitting Murphy.
Murphy hit a one-hop comebacker to the mound that might have produced an inning-ending 6-3 double-play had Rzepczynski let it go, since shortstop Rafael Furcal was shaded towards the bag. Instead, Rzepczynski stabbed at it with his glove, deflecting it just enough that second baseman Nick Punto, when he finally tracked down it down, had no play. The bases were loaded for Napoli.
“Napoli against a left-hander,” said second baseman Ian Kinsler, “is always dangerous.”
There would be one more bizarre moment for the Cardinals, later in the eighth, when La Russa brought in right-hander Lance Lynn to face Kinsler, ordering an intentional walk (the fifth of the game), then pulling Lynn for closer Motte. La Russa said that was another miscommunication with the bullpen; he never wanted Lynn to get warmed up, so when the bullpen sent him into the game, La Russa had him issue the intentional walk, then pulled him.
“When you say Motte,” La Russa said, “they heard Lynn.”
Rangers Manager Ron Washington also made some unconventional gambits, such as walking Pujols intentionally after that caught-stealing — with the bases now empty and two outs. It was the third intentional walk of the game for Pujols (the most in a World Series game since Barry Bonds in 2002), and it nearly backfired when the Cardinals soon loaded the bases against Alexi Ogando. But Ogando got David Freese to fly to center to end the inning.
The Rangers’ victory, though, would not be secured without one more trip to the plate from Pujols, this time against closer Neftali Feliz with a runner on first and nobody out in the ninth. And this time, they pitched to Pujols. It took eight pitches to retire him, but Pujols finally whiffed on a fastball, the start of a strikeout/throw-out double play.
“It wears you out,” Kinsler said of the drama and pressure. “It’s constant energy, constant noise. I’m worn out.”
The Rangers now stand one win away from the franchise’s first World Series title. And what do they need to do to close it out, in the inhospitable atmosphere of Busch Stadium?
“We just need to control our adrenaline, control our emotions,” Murphy said, “and just try to get as many base runners on as we can for Mike Napoli.”