|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2006||[Print without images]|
And still you ask yourself: Did that really happen?
So Taguchi hit a baseball Friday night that sailed beyond the walls of Shea Stadium -- and landed deep inside the lore of the most inexplicable October events ever.
|So Taguchi's solo home run in the top of the ninth put the Cardinals ahead for good.|
We can all think of a few Cardinals who would have been more likely to hit a game-winning ninth-inning October home run off one of the best closers on earth, Billy Wagner, in a save-the-season kind of playoff game.
Albert Pujols comes to mind. Jim Edmonds comes to mind. Juan Encarnacion. Scott Rolen. Chris Duncan. Heck, Red Schoendienst wasn't a whole lot less likely.
But it was none of them. Of course. It was So Taguchi -- So Freaking Taguchi. How? There is no other question.
And the answer is: Because it's baseball. Because it's October. And in October, the scripts are apparently written by the staff of MadTV. Logic isn't part of the equation.
"Don't you see something like this every postseason?" asked Cardinals catcher Gary Bennett, after his team's stunning come-from-behind 9-6 win over the Mets had evened the National League Championship Series at one game apiece. "What about Scott Podsednik last year? Somewhere along the way, somebody always steps up, and it's the last guy you'd think of. But it happens every year."
Yep. Sure does. Every single year. Which is what makes us watch. Which is what makes it great.
So Taguchi hasn't started a single game for the Cardinals in this postseason. Not one. But guess who leads the Cardinals in October home runs? No, not Pujols. Not Edmonds. Not any of the usual suspects. It's the honorable So Taguchi. How does that happen?
From April through September, he hit two home runs in 316 at-bats. In this postseason, he has hit two home runs in two at-bats. (He also bopped one last weekend, as a pinch-hitter, in his only at-bat of the Padres series.)
Pretty good ratio -- one every one at-bat. Pretty good slugging percentage -- 4.000. Those are two records that won't ever be broken, can't ever be broken. Amazing.
So Taguchi sat on a podium in the Shea Stadium interview room, well after midnight on the greatest night of the American portion of his career. He was asked the question that had to be asked:
Two postseason homers. How did he explain that?
"I can't explain," said So Taguchi. "It's unbelievable. Who expected that I would hit a home run? Maybe nobody. Even me."
He is 37 years old now. This is his fifth season on this side of the Pacific after 10 seasons playing for the Orix Blue Wave, on his side of the Pacific, in Japan.
He is known more for his number (No. 99 in your program) than his numbers. But now he'll be known for something else, especially if the Cardinals go on to win this series (which looks much more feasible all of a sudden than anyone in New York had ever previously considered).
Now So Taguchi will be known for a home run that fueled what his manager, Tony La Russa, called "maybe the best comeback on a club that I've been around." As you digest that statement, you should remember that Tony La Russa has managed 96 postseason games, for three different franchises, in 13 different Octobers.
Last October, when Pujols swatted a breath-taking, season-rescuing NLCS homer off Astros closer Brad Lidge, it was hard to imagine that any Cardinal would ever hit a more shocking October home run than that one. But move over, Albert. So Taguchi might just have knocked you off the top of the shocker charts.
"I think it's safe to say," laughed shortstop David Eckstein, "that more people probably expected a home run from Albert than expected a home run from So."
"In its own way, this might have been more stunning," said Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty, "because it's something I don't think anybody anticipated. The ball Albert hit, you still see it replayed all the time. I don't know if So's will be replayed as much as that one. But it was just as dramatic."
OK, this is where the accuracy police need to step in and state the truth: For sheer drama, it wasn't just as dramatic.
When Pujols thumped his home run for the ages, the Cardinals were one out away from heading home for the winter. When So Taguchi stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth inning Friday, this game was tied, thanks to two Cardinals comebacks that had erased a three-run lead early and a two-run lead late.
So this home run clearly wasn't more dramatic. It was just more mind-boggling.
Wagner was coming off a sensational second half of the season. He had a 1.99 ERA after the All-Star break. He'd converted 21 straight save opportunities, counting the Dodgers series. He hadn't allowed a meaningful home run in 2½ months (since Florida's Josh Willingham mugged him for a game-winner back on Aug. 1, which was 28 appearances ago).
And in his career, he'd never allowed a hit to So Taguchi (0-for-5, one strikeout).
"I never got on base [against him]," Taguchi said. "I always strike out, ground out, pop up."
But just to add to the degree of difficulty in this particular duel, Taguchi had been sitting around for more than 3½ hours, watching as summer turned to winter before his eyes, waiting for his turn to play.
That turn came in the bottom of the eighth, and he wasn't even ready for that. The Cardinals had already taken the field. The new relief pitcher, Josh Kinney, had already taken his warm-ups. And suddenly, there was a delay.
It was, essentially, a where-the-heck-did-So-Taguchi-get-to delay.
La Russa had told him, just a few minutes before, that he'd be pinch-hitting to lead off the ninth. So Taguchi had taken his bat up the tunnel to get in a few swings. Then La Russa decided that sending him in for defense, to replace the shaky Chris Duncan in left, wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
"Tony said, 'So, go left,' " Taguchi reported afterward. "So, I was surprised. I just said, 'Right now?' He said yes."
So Taguchi threw down his bat, grabbed his glove, popped out of the dugout, patrolled left field for half an inning, and then marched toward his rendezvous with history.
Wagner burst ahead of him, 0 and 2. But the subplot of this night was the inability of Mets pitchers to put Cardinals hitters away when they had a chance. And this duel was no different.
Taguchi fouled off a slider, worked the count full, then fought off a 97-mph flameball. Wagner rared back and launched one more fateful 98-mph fastball, slightly above waist-high, right down Madison Avenue.
Taguchi didn't so much crush it as flick it. Wagner looked into the sky and followed the baseball in sheer disbelief. He wasn't the only one.
The baseball floated, floated, floated some more, then dropped into the visitors' bullpen. It was hard to know what to think. It was hard to digest what had just happened here. It was hard for even So Taguchi to know how to act, here in the defining moment of his career.
"I couldn't recognize what happened," he said. "I didn't know, what should I do. So I just run."
Yes, he didn't trot. He ran. Sprinted around the bases, and off into the pantheon of unlikely October home run heroes.
"That's what happens in October," said injured Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen. "You throw all the records out the door. You throw all the numbers out the door."
But if the Cardinals had lost this game, you might be throwing them out the door, too. Had they gone down, two games to none, to a Mets team that hadn't lost a game -- regular-season or postseason -- in 2½ weeks, they might not have been quite dead. But they sure would have needed some big-time antibiotics.
"It's a huge win," said Eckstein. "Put it that way."
Plus, this would have been a loss in a game started by their ace, Chris Carpenter -- the equivalent of the Twins losing a start by Johan Santana. Going into this game, the Cardinals had been 14-6 in games started by Carpenter over the last four months -- and 14 games under .500 (30-44) in games started by anybody else. So it felt like must-win, just because the Cardinals had rearranged their rotation to get Carpenter to the mound.
In retrospect, it's actually a miracle Carpenter didn't lose this game. He kicked his team into a gigantic hole by giving up three runs in the first inning for the first time since July 30, 2004. And when he departed after five innings, he left with more gopherballs (two) than strikeouts (one) for the first time in any start since Opening Day 2002, when he was still working for the Toronto Blue Jays.
But it didn't matter. This was going to be one of those save-the-season nights for a Cardinals team that is sure pesky, even if it isn't great.
They caught up for the first time on a Jim Edmonds homer in the third inning. They caught up a second time on two-run seventh-inning triple by the astounding Scott Spiezio, whose career postseason average with runners in scoring position is now an insane .700 (14-for-20). That's the best average in those situations in postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
And over the course of the last three innings, the men in this lineup ground out a series of spectacular at-bats that changed the momentum of this series and chewed through a Mets bullpen that is being asked to get way too many outs a night. The Cardinals fouled off 54 pitches in this game. The Mets fouled off just 17.
In fact, if the Cardinals win this series, they may look back as much on Pujols' trip to the plate in the seventh inning as they will on Taguchi's trip in the ninth.
At the time, Pujols was 0 for his last 12 and threatening to go four straight games without a hit for the first time since Sept. 23-26, 2001 -- his sixth month in the big leagues. There were two outs and nobody on, and the Mets were seven outs away from becoming the fifth team in history to start a postseason with five straight wins.
But Pujols dueled Guillermo Mota for 11 grueling pitches and finally smoked a single to left. Next thing you knew, Mota walked Edmonds. Spiezio fired a rocket to right that Shawn Green deflected off the top of the fence. And all of a sudden, the Mets sure didn't seem in control anymore.
"I saw a stat," said Isringhausen, "that showed their bullpen threw 113 pitches and ours threw 51. That's a big deal in a series like this. All those pitches -- it wears on you, especially when there's no off day and you've got to play five days in a row."
And when an unlikely character like So Taguchi hits a home run, it begins to feel like fate.
Asked where Taguchi's power ranked on the list of reasons the Cardinals signed him, Jocketty chuckled: "Uh, it wasn't a factor."
"I was just hoping he'd beat out a bunt or walk or something, to get on ahead of Albert," Jocketty said. "I wasn't thinking he'd do that."
But if you stroll down the corridors of October, you find portraits of So Taguchi-esque figures everywhere you turn. Geoff Blum? Scott Podsednik? Chad Curtis? Chris Burke? They've all been there. They've all done something just like that.
And afterward, people from coast to coast found themselves asking exactly what all those eyewitnesses to Taguchi-mania were asking last night:
How? How the heck did that happen?
How? Because it's October. That's always how.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.