The chants begin every time Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli steps up to the plate, ringing around Rangers Ballpark in a crescendo, almost willing the bearded slugger to hit one out.
He did. He attacked a first-pitch fastball from Mitchell Boggs, and clubbed it 392 feet or so down the left-field line, in the vicinity of where Albert Pujols' mammoth home run landed the night before. Napoli’s three-run shot gave the Rangers a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning, and the score wouldn't change as they rode Derek Holland's left arm to a victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. The World Series is now tied at two wins apiece.
While Holland delivered one of the best World Series starts in the past 40 years, the game's key moment was Napoli's home run and the big question: Why was Boggs, the Cardinals' 11th or 12th man on the staff, in the game at such a pivotal situation?
The easy answer is because Edwin Jackson had just walked his sixth and seventh batters of the game, becoming just the 15th pitcher to walk at least seven in a World Series game. He’d thrown 109 pitches, so it was time for Tony La Russa to go to the bullpen.
But that doesn’t explain why Boggs was the man La Russa brought in. Boggs is a serviceable middle reliever, the kind of pitcher you use to mop-up defeats or use in blowouts. At his best, he has a good sinker, but he hadn’t been used in a so-called high-leverage situation since Aug. 7. It certainly isn’t the game situation La Russa would normally bring in Boggs.
But was there another good option? Lance Lynn had thrown 47 pitches in Game 3 and was essentially unavailable. Fernando Salas had thrown just 15 pitches but looked tired and didn’t pitch well. That left La Russa with essentially three options:
(A) Boggs. He’d thrown six pitches in a scoreless inning in Game 3, but his overall line in the postseason was six innings, eight hits, two walks and two strikeouts. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but his ground ball percentage in the regular season was 52 percent, giving La Russa a decent chance at a double play.
(B) Marc Rzepczynski. He hadn’t pitched in Game 3. He’s not just a left-handed specialist, and while Napoli crushed lefties and righties equally this season, you can understand why La Russa would be hesitant to use the left-hander. In retrospect, maybe La Russa should have brought him in to face David Murphy, after Jackson had walked his sixth batter of the game.
(C) Octavio Dotel. He had thrown 23 pitches in Game 3. Do you burn your top set-up guy while down 1-0 in the sixth? Certainly, with the way Holland was pitching, you couldn’t afford to give up any more runs.
It was a tough call, but I probably would have gone with Rzepczynski. Boggs is not the guy you want to trust in a key situation if you can avoid it. With the small luxury of a 2-1 series lead, La Russa could be a little more cognizant of not blowing out his bullpen, so the reluctance to avoid Dotel was understandable.
"I thought for sure that Jackson had given us what he had," La Russa said after the game. "Boggs went in and as you saw the rest of the time, he gets a ball down in the zone and I thought, Double play waiting to happen. He made the first pitch and (Napoli) jumped it."
Napoli is usually one of the more patient hitters around. Of his 30 home runs in the regular season, only three came on the first pitch. He also loves high fastballs; according to ESPN Stats & Information, Napoli's 12 home runs on high fastballs led the majors this season. After the game, he said he knew Boggs had a good sinker and would be trying to get a double-play ball. "I was looking for something up," he said.
He got it. Boggs threw a high fastball, Napoli turned on it and crushed it down the line. Asked about hitting high fastballs, Napoli smiled in his postgame media session: "It's a good pitch to hit. Better than a sinking fastball down and away."
Napoli was also a key part on the other end of the the Rangers' victory: helping guide Holland through a dominant performance.
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Holland set the tone in the top of the first inning. After Adrian Beltre made a beautiful snare of Rafael Furcal's line drive, he struck out Allen Craig and got Pujols on an easy 6-3 groundout: 11 pitches, eight for strikes, a pattern he'd keep up all night. He worked off his explosive 94-mph fastball, but mixed in more off-speed pitches than normal, and especially effective getting his slider inside to right-handed hitters. He worked quickly, getting the return throw from Napoli and going immediately to work on the next pitch.
I loved the decision to go after Pujols: No matter how great a hitter is, you can't afford to give a guy four walks a game, like many fans wanted to see. (In our pregame Cover It Live, many Rangers fans were imploring not to give Pujols anything to hit.) That's just too many free bases to give away. Pitching to Pujols with the bases empty, of course, made it a little easier.
Holland and Napoli were in sync all night. "We both have a strong chemistry with each other," Holland said. "We hang out off the field, on the field. We talk all the time and pick each other's brains and talk about our approach to certain hitters and what to do. He does a really good job of controlling my emotions, making sure I don't get ahead of myself. You probably saw a couple times tonight he was telling me to square up."
When Holland left the dugout to begin the ninth, the crowd gave him a huge ovation. When he walked Furcal with one out -- his 116th pitch of the game -- Ron Washington received some boos as he strolled out from the Rangers' dugout. During a long conference, there were scattered chants of "Leave him in, leave him in," but Washington went to Neftali Feliz.
"He told me he can get the ground-ball double play," Washington said, "and I told him I knew he can ... but I'm going to Nefti." Washington did admit that Holland begged to stay in the game and joked that "I just told him that if you want to stay out here, get on your knees."
It was the first World Series start of at least eight innings where a pitcher allowed two hits or fewer since Detroit's Kenny Rogers did it in 2006. It was just the sixth such start since 1972. (The others: Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Jose Rijo. Pretty good company.)
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It got a little nerve-wracking for the Rangers when Feliz entered and walked Craig. He got Pujols to line out to center on an 0-2 pitch for the second out, but then fell behind Matt Holliday with three balls. Feliz was one ball from bringing the tying run to the plate, but he fought back to get Holliday swinging on some 99-mph cheese.
Napoli's home run doesn't cover up the fact that the Rangers are still batting the guy who led the team in OPS eighth in the order. Yes, Washington took his best hitter and has moved from his sixth to seventh to eighth in the postseason. No, it doesn't make sense. Washington's rationale for Game 4 was to break up his two lefties, Murphy and Mitch Moreland. Which sort of makes sense, until you consider that Washington usually hits for Murphy with Craig Gentry against left-handers anyway in key situations.
Moreland was back in the lineup at first base, but didn't look good in going 0-for-4. It will be interesting to see who gets the first base/DH starts for Game 5. Moreland's glove isn't that much of an edge over Michael Young to demand a starting position, but the other DH option is ... Yorvit Torrealba. Maybe it's time for an Endy Chavez sighting!
The one lineup dilemma for Tony La Russa is whether to give center fielder Jon Jay a day off. Jay is hitless in the series at 0-for-14, hasn't drawn a walk and isn't making good contact. He's 2-for-30 since a three-hit game in Game 2 of the NLCS. Trouble is, La Russa's only other center-field option is Skip Schumaker, but he's also a left-handed bat and just a .210 career hitter against lefties. I suspect Jay will be out there, but don't be surprised if La Russa pinch-hit early if he comes up with runners on base.
For the Rangers, they haven't lost two games in a row since Aug. 24. As fans departed down the exit ramps, they were chanting "Der-ek Hol-lland, Der-ek, Hol-lland." It was a happy group of spectators. The World Series is tied. They'll be back chanting and hollering and screaming on Monday night for Game 5. Bring it on.