- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- There were about 51,000 Rangers fans in attendance for Game 5 of the World Series.
Considering each lost 10 pounds in nervous sweat during this crazy, inexplicable, tension-filled, dramatic, weird contest that defies all rational analysis, that’s a collective weight loss of 510,000 pounds.
In other good news for Rangers fans, their club won a game it had absolutely no right winning. How did the Rangers survive to pull this one out? Only the baseball gods know the answer to that one. The Rangers were charged with only two errors but made five major defensive miscues. They issued four intentional walks (only the third time in World Series history that's happened). They walked nine batters altogether (only the 16th time a team has walked nine-plus in a World Series, and only the fourth team to win). They hit a batter and tossed a wild pitch. They threw 181 pitches in nine innings.
The Cardinals couldn’t deliver with men on base, sure, but that's too simple an explanation. While Ron Washington was giving the Cardinals free bases, Tony La Russa kept giving away outs. He gave away three outs on sacrifice bunts and another on a failed hit-and-run play in the ninth inning. Considering the Cardinals also ran into another out on a missed sign and grounded into a double play, Rangers pitchers had to make only 21 outs Monday night.
For most of the game, it seemed Washington wanted to give the Cardinals the big inning by issuing all those intentional walks (three to Albert Pujols, one to Lance Berkman), and La Russa wanted to avoid it by ordering sacrifice bunts against a pitching staff that couldn't keep runners off the bases. Washington’s strategy worked not because it was good strategy, but because the Cardinals stranded 12 runners (the first NL team to strand that many in a loss since the 1982 Cardinals). Call it whatever you want: clutch pitching, untimely hitting ... I’ll call it good fortune. Just don't call it smart managing.
A baseball team has 27 precious outs. You don’t want to give away too many of them. You also don’t want to give up too many free bases, because those are precious as well. Washington and La Russa? It was like bizzaro managing in this game. If Earl Weaver was watching, he probably tossed a few tomatoes against his television in disgust.
We finally saw how the intentional walk can backfire in the bottom of the eighth inning, when the Rangers scored twice. It was not, to put it politely, the best inning La Russa has ever managed. Facing Octavio Dotel, Michael Young lined a double to right-center on an 0-1 slider. Adrian Beltre struck out on some high cheese. Then the wacky stuff began.
Weird move No. 1: Nelson Cruz intentionally walked. Dotel held right-handed batters to a .145 average this season. He's a strikeout pitcher against a guy who strikes out a lot. Walking Cruz basically ensured that Mike Napoli -- ONLY THE BEST HITTER ON THE RANGERS THIS SEASON -- would come up in the inning. With men on base.
La Russa had two hopes here as he brought in Marc Rzepczynski to face David Murphy: (A) a double play; (B) retire Murphy, walk Napoli (to load the bases). Instead he got (C) neither. Murphy bounced a grounder off Rzepczynski’s glove for an infield single. A tough break? Sure. Could have been a double play. Could have been one out. It was neither. The bases were loaded.
Weird move No. 2: Rzepczynski stayed in to face Napoli. Right-handers had an OPS 270 points higher against Rzepczynski than left-handers. Napoli drilled a 1-0 pitch into right-center for a two-run double.
In his postgame news conference, La Russa explained that he wanted Jason Motte warming up in the inning, but the bullpen coach misheard and had Lance Lynn warming up instead. "What happened was that twice the bullpen didn't hear Motte's name," La Russa said. "They heard 'Rzepczynski,' and they didn't get Motte. I looked up there, and Motte wasn't going. So I called back for Motte, and they got Lynn up. ... I don't know if it was noisy, probably real noisy. They just didn't hear the second time."
Motte would have been brought in to face Napoli. Maybe it would have made a difference; maybe not. It does, after all, seem like it is becoming Napoli's World Series. He now has four multi-RBI games in the past five games, tying Mickey Mantle for the most in one World Series. He has nine RBIs -- just one fewer than the rest of his teammates combined.
And maybe that's what we have to take away from all this: We can question the managers and second-guess all those intentional walks and bunts and weird decisions, but in the end, the players deliver or don't deliver. On this night, Napoli delivered in a big situation; the Cardinals did not. C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando worked out of jams; Rzepczynski did not. The Rangers' bullpen pitched 3.2 scoreless innings; the Cardinals' bullpen coughed up the winning runs.
It was, in a strange way, a game to remember.
* * * *
A few notes on the Cardinals' failed opportunities:
To lead off the ninth, Neftali Feliz hit Allen Craig and brought up Pujols. For once, the Rangers had to pitch to him. The count got to 3-2. Craig was running. Pujols is a good contact hitter. Feliz throws 100 mph. After fouling off two pitches, Pujols waved at an exploding outside fastball. It would have been ball four, but Pujols struck out and Craig was an easy out. "I trusted Albert could put the ball in play," La Russa said. "I liked sending [Craig] and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn't work."
The Rangers looked like a team playing its first spring training game in the second inning. Wilson walked Matt Holliday, threw a wild pitch and walked Berkman, Murphy bobbled Yadier Molina's RBI single for an error, and Mitch Moreland bobbled Skip Schumaker's potential double-play grounder to get just one out. Wilson threw 30 pitches in the frame and finally escaped after just two runs on Murphy’s diving catch in left on Nick Punto's shallow fly.
In the third, Rafael Furcal's beautiful bunt and Wilson’s awkward backhand flip that bounced past Moreland put Furcal on second. Craig bunted Furcal to third -- an odd move, considering the Cardinals had attempted a sacrifice bunt just seven times all season when leading by two runs, seven of those by pitchers. Why play for one run against a struggling pitcher in a ballpark where runs are easy to come by? Didn't make any sense. After Pujols was intentionally walked, Holliday worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off two pitches but grounded into a 5-4-3 double play, nicely turned by Beltre.
In the fifth, Schumaker singled to center and Punto walked on four pitches. (Punto: tough out, professional hitter, scrappy.) La Russa then gave away yet another out, having Furcal bunt. Wilson managed to work out of it, striking out Craig on perhaps his best pitch of the night, a hard-breaking slider that Craig swung through. After Pujols was intentionally walked, Wilson got Holliday to ground out to Elvis Andrus.
All that only set the stage for the wacky top of the seventh. The scoreboard ended up showing a "0" for the Cardinals but included: a walk to Craig by Ogando, a caught stealing when Craig apparently missed a sign, a third free pass to Pujols even though he was the go-ahead run (the first time in World Series a batter was intentionally walked with nobody on base), a Holliday single to left-center on a 3-2 pitch with Pujols taking a wide decoy turn around third to draw a throw home and allowing Holliday to advance to second, an intentional walk to Lance Berkman, and finally David Freese swinging at the first pitch and flying out to center. Whew.
Not exactly the way you'd draw it up. But Ron Washington and the Rangers had nine lives in this game. Or at least four.
They also have three wins in the World Series and are one away from baseball's ultimate prize.
I don't think it will be that easy to get it. Not in this series.