ARLINGTON, Tex. — Of all the people you could have tabbed to restore some sanity to a World Series that had suddenly devolved into a world of football-like scores and record-setting offensive outbursts, the last might have been Derek Holland, a gawky lefty prone to short mound outings whose wispy mustache suggests someone whose big stage should be the senior prom, not Game 4 of the Fall Classic.
But for 81 / 3 dazzling innings Sunday night, Holland did the impossible: He dominated Albert Pujols and the mighty St. Louis Cardinals, rarely encountering so much as a stumble. The Texas Rangers’ resulting 4-0 win at Rangers Ballpark evened the World Series at two games apiece, with Game 5 to be played here Monday night.
Behind Holland’s masterful two-hit, seven-strikeout gem, the Rangers made a first-inning run against Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson hold up, with catcher Mike Napoli adding a towering three-run homer in the sixth. The Rangers still have not lost consecutive games since the last week of August.
“He was a thoroughbred tonight,” Rangers Manager Ron Washington said of Holland. “He showed the world what he was capable of.”
Perhaps never before had the juxtaposition of two games done more to illustrate the capricious nature of baseball. On Saturday night in Game 3, the Cardinals scored 16 runs. On Sunday night, with the wind having shifted in the pitchers’ favor, they put only three runners on base in eight innings against Holland, and advanced only one of them into scoring position.
“It’s not complicated,” said Cardinals designated hitter Lance Berkman. “He’s throwing 95 [mph] from the left side. How many guys in the game can do that? There’s only a handful, and they’re all studs. Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, David Price.”
Then there was this contrast: On Saturday night, Pujols produced perhaps the greatest offensive night in World Series history — three homers, two singles, five runs scored, six RBI — and on Sunday night he failed to get a ball out of the infield in three tries against Holland. In fact, Matt Holliday didn’t get a ball out of the infield either, nor did David Freese or Allen Craig.
“I got some good pitches to hit, and I missed them,” Pujols said. “That’s part of the game. . . . He did a really outstanding job.”
It helped in Holland’s effort to contain Pujols that none of his first three plate appearances came with runners on base. It would have been understandable if Holland had pitched around him anyway, but he didn’t. Holland fed Pujols a steady stream of off-speed stuff in his first two encounters, then went with five fastballs the third time, and Pujols hit a comebacker to the mound.
“I just wanted to go right after him,” Holland said. “He’s one of the best in the game, but I wanted him to see my ‘A’ game as well.”
Holland, 25, carried an unsightly 5.27 ERA this postseason into this start, and he hadn’t so much as pitched into the eighth inning in more than five weeks. But his effort Sunday night not only succeeded in silencing the Cardinals’ bats, but he also saved a bullpen that had started to appear ragged and tired, and that was without heavily used Alexi Ogando for the night.
“I felt like I had to really prove myself,” Holland said. “I made sure I’m not going to let this slip away from me.”
Meantime, Jackson’s start was the definition of tightrope-walking for pitchers: The 25 batters he faced produced seven walks, three hits and four flyballs to the warning track. The sixth and seventh of those walks, to consecutive batters with one out in the sixth, brought Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa out of the dugout to make his move.
With a bullpen shortened by Saturday night’s marathon, La Russa called upon right-hander Mitchell Boggs, whose first pitch to Napoli was a 95-mph, letter-high heater that Napoli deposited about 15 rows up in the left-field stands. When the crowd of 51,539 went into chants of “Na-po-li! Na-po-li!” the burly catcher popped out of the Rangers’ dugout to take a curtain call.
Staked to a four-run lead, Holland became even more confident and even more overpowering, taking advantage of home-plate umpire Ron Kulpa’s generous strike zone on the inside half of the plate. The seventh and eighth innings were his best, as he set down six straight batters, beginning with Pujols leading off the seventh, on three strikeouts, two comebackers and a grounder to short.
“Considering the circumstances,” Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler said, “I think that was the best-pitched game this franchise has ever seen.”
The extra-long, television-mandated break between innings provided one last moment of drama — as a good minute or so went by before a pitcher joined the rest of the Rangers on the field to get ready for the top of the ninth. With all eyes on the bullpen gate, finally Holland popped out of the dugout to a round of hearty applause.
Two batters later, after Holland issued a one-out walk to Rafael Furcal, Washington strutted to the mound, accompanied by boos, and — after first shooting down Holland’s pleas to remain in the game — pointed to his bullpen, and closer Neftali Feliz jogged in. Holland departed to a standing ovation, waving awkwardly as he approached the dugout steps.
“He was begging [to stay in]. I just told him, ‘If you want to stay out here, get on your knees,’ ” Washington said of Holland. “He walked off the field.”
When Feliz blew away Holliday with a 99-mph fastball to finish off Holland’s shutout, the World Series was all squared and pointed toward a long, drama-filled finish, and nobody could say with any certainty what might be coming next.