Saturday, October 30, 2010
Mitch Moreland arrives from nowhere
By Jerry Crasnick
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The town of Amory, Miss., was created in conjunction with the start of a new railroad line in 1887 and is located directly between Birmingham and Memphis. It has a population of about 7,200, and any list of the most prominent Amory natives would have to include blues singer Lucille Bogan, Christian songwriter Marty Funderburk and actor John Dye of "Touched by an Angel'' fame.
The person who coined the phrase, "If you blinked, you missed it,'' might have had Amory in mind.
Yet Texas Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland happily refers to the place as "home sweet home.'' He says that with the serene disposition of a rookie ballplayer who treats Game 3 of the World Series as if it's a backyard barbecue.
"We've got a Wal-Mart, and I used to hang out in the Wendy's parking lot,'' Moreland said. "There's not a whole lot going on there, but I love it.''
There was a lot more going on Saturday night in Arlington, where the Rangers' No. 9 hitter produced the type of heroics that might earn him a "Home of Mitch Moreland'' sign at the city limits before he's through. If by chance Texas comes back to beat San Francisco in the World Series, the biggest at-bat of Moreland's young career will be regarded as the moment when everything changed.
Moreland, a left-handed hitter, worked San Francisco lefty Jonathan Sanchez for eight pitches in the second inning before lining Sanchez's ninth offering, a fastball, over the right field fence. The three-run homer propelled the Rangers to a 4-2 victory and sent a surge of electricity through the crowd of 52,419, which included Moreland's parents, an aunt and uncle, two cousins and his girlfriend and her family.
If Moreland felt goosebumps, jitters, butterflies or any of the other side effects that rookies are supposed to feel at moments like this, they were nowhere in evidence. He has a quick bat, and it works very efficiently in conjunction with a slow pulse.
"The way I'd describe it is, tonight was very 'Moreland-like,''' said Texas pitcher Derek Holland, who played Class A ball with Moreland with Clinton in the Midwest League in 2008. "Even if he loses in an at-bat, you'll know he gave everything he had. That's just Mitch being Mitch.''
Moreland, 25, had enjoyed a productive postseason even before Saturday night. He carried a .342 postseason batting average into Game 3 and showed a flair for working deep counts and fouling off good pitches.
One of Moreland's most impressive at-bats came in a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. With two out in the ninth inning, Moreland worked Mariano Rivera for nine pitches before lining pitch No. 10 to left field for a single. The hit was meaningless in the overall scheme of things but it said a lot about Moreland's patience, bat control and maturity.
"I made a joke when we were playing the Yankees that Mariano Rivera was probably scratching his head and looking in our dugout and saying, 'Who's Mitch Moreland?'" Texas outfielder David Murphy said. "Regardless of what happens at the end of the day or how his numbers look, Mitch always has impressive at-bats. He's a guy who only gets better in big situations.''
Your mind starts swimming when you contemplate the guys who could have been playing first base for Texas manager Ron Washington in Game 3.
Chris Davis hit 21 homers for the Rangers in 2009 but his progress has stalled because of a penchant for striking out and an inability to hit left-handers. Justin Smoak took over for Davis but left for Seattle in the Cliff Lee trade in July. And the Rangers traded for Jorge Cantu in July so that he could be their designated right-handed hitting assassin. But Cantu slugged .327 and drove in a meager two runs in 98 regular-season at-bats, and he's hitless in eight at-bats in the postseason.
Moreland endured some twists and turns of his own to reach this point. He played first base and outfield at Mississippi State and also pitched for the Bulldogs. After the Rangers selected Moreland as the 530th pick in the 2007 draft, they gave serious thought to using him as a left-handed reliever, because they thought he had a chance to make it to the big leagues in a hurry. Moreland threw 90-92 mph from the left side, complemented it with a good slider and curve and displayed an aptitude for throwing strikes.
"He was kind of a throwback,'' Texas farm director Scott Servais said. "It was, 'Just give me the ball and put me on the mound, and I'll do the job.' But to his credit, he wanted to ride it out with the bat, and we said OK. He hadn't failed, so why not?''
Moreland tore up the Midwest League in 2008, hitting .324 with 18 homers and 99 RBIs for Clinton. He worked his way up the organizational food chain with stops in Bakersfield, Frisco and Oklahoma City, and on Saturday night he exploded on the biggest of national stages.
Moreland collected four hits in a mere 20 regular-season at-bats against lefties. But against Sanchez, he simply refused to be denied. After going up 2-0 in the count, he hit a long foul fly to right field. Then came a fastball for a called strike to even the count. Sanchez followed with four straight sliders and changeups, and Moreland fouled off all four to hang tough at 2-2.
|Mitch Moreland hung tough for nine pitches against Jonathan Sanchez in the second. He belted the last one for a huge three-run shot.|
Finally it came time for one more fastball, and Moreland didn't miss it. He drove the pitch into the right field seats to put Texas up 3-0 and give his hometown cause to bust its buttons with pride.
"I just wanted to stay short and get the barrel to it,'' Moreland said. "It was kind of down and in, and I just reacted. I'm not going to say if that's my sweet spot. I don't even know if I have a sweet spot.''
In the course of attaining folk hero status in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, Moreland also became the answer to a couple of trivia questions. On Saturday night, he became the first rookie first baseman to start the first three games of a World Series since Jackie Robinson achieved the feat for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
The good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau also passed along the news that Moreland is now tied for fourth place in World Series home runs by a player with the initials "M.M.'' Mickey Mantle is first with 18, Mark McGwire and Mike Marshall are tied for second with two, and Moreland and Marty Marion are next in line with one each. Who knew?
Rest assured that Moreland will not let the attention give him a swelled head. He's just a regular country boy who loves playing ball and takes the same approach whether it's the World Series or a Cactus League tilt in Surprise, Ariz.
"I get excited,'' Moreland said. "But I guess I'm more anxious and ready to play than nervous or anything. After we get going, I just try to tell myself that it's another game.''
Whatever works. Thanks in large part to Moreland, the Rangers are back in the series. Lefty Madison Bumgarner will be on the mound for the Giants in Game 4 on Sunday night, and the pride of Amory will be ready and waiting.
It was kind of down and in, and I just reacted. I'm not going to say if that's my sweet spot. I don't even know if I have a sweet spot.
-- No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.