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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Updated: October 21, 7:47 AM ET
The inning that changed everything

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- It was just one inning.

Just one inning of a classic October baseball game.

But just one inning is all it takes sometimes to change everything -- to rewrite all the storylines, to turn heartbreak into triumph, to take an entire World Series and turn it upside down.

So that's all this was -- just one inning. But after the stunning, historic turn of events in the ninth inning Thursday night at Busch Stadium, this World Series may never be quite the same.

For eight innings, this was an unforgettable 1-0 game for the history books. But then …

A bloop single fell to earth. … Two daring baserunning plays set up an epic comeback. … The great Albert Pujols let a baseball skip past his glove. … And you could almost feel the baseball earth shift in the blink of an eye.

Two humongous runs would score. … The Texas Rangers would find a way to win this game, 2-1, and tie this World Series, a game apiece. … And instead of tumbling into a 2-games-to-nada canyon that no team has climbed out of during the past three decades, the American League champions found themselves floating euphorically toward a plane ride home to Texas, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

It was only one inning. But it was an inning of baseball that shredded all the scripts we thought were unfolding in this fascinating 2011 World Series.

"That," said outfielder David Murphy, "was huge -- huge that we pulled this out. Going down, 2-0, in a series -- obviously, if you're that team that's down, 2-0, you don't want to look at statistics from the past. But I think the past will tell you that most teams that get out to that 2-0 lead will win the series.

"So that," Murphy would say one more time, "was huge -- not only to win this game but to shift the momentum in our favor."

OK, now that it's safe to look at those dreaded statistics from the past, we can tell David Murphy exactly how bleak the Rangers' picture would have appeared if that ninth inning hadn't turned out the way it did:

No team has lost the first two games of any World Series on the road and come back to win the Series since Fernando Valenzuela's 1981 Dodgers. No team has lost the first two games of a World Series anyplace and come back to win it since Jim Leyritz's 1996 Yankees. And the past eight teams in a row that fell behind, 2-to-zippo, in the World Series have had their seasons end with somebody else spraying the champagne.

Rangers
The Rangers celebrated a Game 2 victory that appeared remote entering the ninth inning.

So that's what was on the line here as the bullpen door burst open in the ninth inning Thursday night, and the man Tony La Russa refuses to call "The Closer," Jason Motte, began jogging toward the mound.

They've been playing these World Series games since 1903 now -- 618 of them to be exact, heading into this night. And in all that time, in all those games, only two teams had ever gone into the ninth inning on the wrong end of a 1-0 score and roared back to win.

One of those teams was the 1985 Royals, who were three outs from losing the World Series to Joaquin Andujar's Cardinals until first-base ump Don Denkinger flashed that fateful "safe" sign.

The other was Home Run Baker's 1911 Philadelphia A's, who staged a shocking ninth-inning comeback against the legendary Christy Mathewson and went on to win in extra innings.

And that's it. …

Until Jason Motte finished his warmup tosses, Ian Kinsler wriggled into the batter's box and a remarkable inning of October baseball began to unfold.

Kinsler may not be your classic leadoff man in many respects. He hit just .251, with a .336 on-base percentage, leading off innings in the regular season. And he batted only .146, with a .226 on-base percentage, in the ninth inning. But he did lead his team in pitches per plate appearance (3.94). And he's still a guy who inspires incredible trust from his teammates, especially in situations like this one.

"We feel great about him being up there," said Michael Young, "because we know he's going to throw up a good at-bat."

And that's exactly what Kinsler gave them. He worked the count to 2-2, dunked a blooper into the Bermuda Triangle in short left-center and charged around first base, clapping his hands with the fury of a man who had the feeling he'd just kicked off something special.

It may not have been the prettiest swing of Kinsler's career. In fact, it was a hit that Young would later describe as "your classic lawn dart." But you think the Rangers care that nobody would want to hang a photo of this hit in the Dallas Museum of Art? It was still a hit that sucked almost all the noise out of a rocking Busch Stadium, and started tumbling the dominoes in what was about to turn into a stunning inning.

Next up was Elvis Andrus. He was hitless in this World Series (0-for-6). He was just 8-for-45 (.177) in this postseason. And he was supposed to be up there to bunt. But never mind that bunting stuff because, on the third pitch he saw, Kinsler bolted for second.

Kinsler's mad dash toward second base took only a couple of seconds. But to his teammates, it felt like a week. And as they watched Yadier Molina unleash one more laser beam across the diamond as Kinsler sprawled toward the bag headfirst, they weren't sure they would ever remember to breathe again.

"It was definitely hard to breathe there," Murphy said with a laugh. "Everybody knows how good a defensive catcher Molina is, and how well he throws. And that throw was right on the money. So there was definitely a sigh of relief. It was a great moment in the dugout. You've got to do little things like that to try and win games. And 'Kins' is a guy -- he's fearless out there."

If he was safe -- and Kinsler swore he was -- it was by maybe half the length of a fingernail. Asked how much he thought he'd been safe by, Kinsler summed it up in one word: "Enough."

But once the second-base umpire, Ron Kulpa, gave the safe sign and Kinsler popped back onto his feet, spitting fire, it was hard not to have flashbacks to Dave Roberts' tide-changing steal of second back in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

And then it was Andrus' turn to change the World Series.

He'd had trouble handling the bat through the entire month of October. But if Andrus was going to pick one moment in time to have his greatest at-bat of the postseason, this one worked just fine.

He would foul off one two-strike, 98-mph flameball to stay alive. Two pitches later, he'd foul off another, this one at 95 mph.

Ian Kinsler
Ian Kinsler finally got the Rangers on the board in the ninth inning.

But then Motte tried to fool him with the first breaking ball of the at-bat. Andrus stroked it into a patch of open space in right-center. And Kinsler charged so far around third base, he drew a hard throw to the plate from center fielder Jon Jay.

Kinsler admitted later that he didn't make that monstrous turn to attract a throw. He was thinking only about "scoring that run right there." So when he caught the "stop" sign out of the corner of his eye, and saw Pujols moving to his left to cut off the throw, "it was a little scary," Kinsler said, thinking he might get "stranded out there."

But somehow or other, Pujols never did cut off this throw. Either he never quite got to the spot, or Molina yelled at him to let the throw go through, because the baseball appeared to tick off Sir Albert's glove and skip slightly up the third-base line, where Molina ran it down.

Exactly what happened on their end, we won't know for another day or so, because neither Pujols nor Molina made themselves available to the media after the game. But what we do know for sure is this:

The instant that throw hip-hopped past Pujols, Andrus restarted his engines and roared into second. And all of a sudden, the Rangers had two men in scoring position with nobody out.

Asked if he would have tried to make it to second if Pujols had cut the ball off, Andrus replied: "No. If he catches that ball, I would have stayed at first base. You've got to be smart."

Yeah, you can never go wrong playing it smart, all right. And by playing it just smart enough to take those extra 90 feet, Andrus set up everything that happened next.

First, La Russa strolled toward the mound to yank Motte, a man who had given up one hit to the first 28 hitters he'd faced in this postseason -- and then allowed two in a row to start this inning. The manager said later he never would have made that move if Andrus hadn't been standing on second base.

So out went Motte, and in sauntered the ancient left-hander, 41-year-old Arthur Rhodes. It was La Russa's most debatable decision of a brilliant postseason. But he made it, he said, because he didn't want Hamilton to see fastballs in this spot and because "if you're thinking about how can you get an out and maybe not have [Andrus] go from second to third, I thought the left-hander had a better chance."

That's what the postseason is all about. It was exciting, man. It gives me goosebumps now, just talking about it.

-- Rangers' Game 2 starter Colby Lewis

But this was where La Russian logic and reality went their separate ways. Rhodes hung a first-pitch slider. Hamilton lofted it to right. And not only did Kinsler score, but Andrus raced another 90 feet to third base, with just one out.

And that was where Albert Pujols' botched cutoff throw really left its mark -- "because it gave Josh the opportunity to get Elvis to third," Young said. "When Josh hit that ball, I'm sure most people were thinking, 'Sacrifice fly,' but the big thing was to get that runner to third. And that was really Josh's goal -- to get that guy to third."

Once Andrus pulled into third and Young headed for the plate, La Russa had one more ill-fated move left in him. He waved for his new favorite right-handed power arm, Lance Lynn, hoping for a strikeout. Instead, Lynn went 3-and-0 on Young, worked the count back to 3-2, and rubbed up the baseball one more time.

Young stepped out of the box, took one last giant gulp of oxygen, tapped home plate twice and waggled his bat back and forth. Lynn rocked, fired and left a breaking ball out over the plate. Young lifted it into deep right-center, where Jay ran it down but had no play at all at the plate. So Andrus loped home. And shock waves rippled through a disbelieving stadium.

It was just one inning. Just one span of four batters in a game in which 69 men headed for the batter's box. But it's incredible how much can change in just one inning.

An October hero turned into the losing pitcher. … A manager who spent three weeks looking as though he could do no wrong might have overmanaged himself into trouble. … And a baseball team on the precipice of a second straight World Series disaster suddenly found itself in a whole different place -- back even in this Series, heading home and riding the wave of one of the epic comebacks in Fall Classic history.

"It's the World Series," Kinsler said. "Last two teams. Every victory is huge."

"That's what the postseason is all about," said starting pitcher Colby Lewis, whose 6 2/3 brilliant innings were trampled into "oh by the way" material by that ninth inning. "It was exciting, man. It gives me goosebumps now, just talking about it."

But in this case, those goosebumps might be sticking around for a long, long time. As Lewis' teammates knotted up their ties and headed for the airport and a beautiful ride home, it felt like merely a gigantic game to win. But one of these days, when those Texas Rangers get a chance to reflect on what just happened on this remarkable evening, it is going to hit them all what really transpired here.

It was just one inning, which turned into a once-in-a-generation comeback tale for the ages.

But for now, they're just a little too busy trying to win a World Series to appreciate that.

"Yeah, hopefully," said Michael Young, "we'll appreciate it in about a week."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst