|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The beautiful thing about the lore of October is that there is room for just about everything:
For Bill Mazeroski and Bill Buckner. For 46-hour rain delays and the attack of the San Andreas Fault. For Curt Schilling's bloody sock and Dusty Baker's son getting scooped up at home plate by J.T. Snow.
But just when you thought you'd seen it all, Game 5 of the 2011 World Series gave us one of the weirdest October moments ever Monday night:
The bullpen phone that got stuck on "Rzepczynski"?
No matter what name Tony La Russa shouted into his handy-dandy bullpen phone Monday night, apparently, the only name the guys on the other end could hear was "Rzepczynski." Hey, that's what the man said, anyhow.
So the wrong reliever wound up in the game at the wrong time, to face the wrong No. 8 hitter. And the Texas Rangers wound up stealing a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in one of the strangest World Series games ever played.
And now a Rangers team that's still lugging around the third-longest title drought in baseball (51 years) is one victory away from hopping on the parade floats.
And it's all because the bullpen phone didn't work?
Well, not exactly, of course. Even if La Russa's story of how the eighth inning came unglued on him was 100 percent accurate, it still wasn't quite that simple.
Mike Napoli had something to do with it. And Adrian Beltre had something to do with it. And the relentlessly unorthodox manager of these Rangers, Ron Washington, left his mark on this game, too, as only he could.
But in the end, when you get right down to it, this was a game that was pretty much decided -- assuming you believe La Russa's account of this nuttiness -- by a telephone and a crowd that picked an excellent time to get louder than a space shuttle launch. And we don't remember seeing any planning for that sort of thing in "Moneyball."
So if the Rangers end up winning this World Series, how could they possibly pay proper homage to the phone snafu that did in the Cardinals and reward those raucous paying customers who made it possible?
Easy, said second baseman Ian Kinsler: "They all get rings."
All right, that'll be 51,459 extra rings, if you're counting. Which could get a little pricey. But the good news for Nolan Ryan is that it didn't take much searching in that Rangers clubhouse to find a guy who said he was willing to bankroll all those rings.
|Adrian Beltre's knee-dropping, sixth-inning solo shot off Chris Carpenter tied the score at 2-2.|
"I'll pay for it," said Beltre, without much prompting, "if I get one. I just want to get mine."
Well, he's now one win away from a ring all his own. And if his team can merely win Game 6 or Game 7 in St. Louis this week, these Rangers will be looking back on the strange events of Monday night, trying to figure out what the heck just happened.
But all they knew for sure was this:
They dug themselves an early 2-0 hole against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, a fellow whose team had only lost two of his 13 career postseason starts. And that definitely seemed like a bad idea at the time.
But the No. 9 hitter, Mitch Moreland, mashed a solo home run in the third inning, and it was a 2-1 game. Then Beltre -- who hadn't gone deep since his three-homer game in the American League Division Series nearly three weeks ago -- tied this game in the sixth with one of those mad hacks only he can take, toppling to one knee on his follow-through as the baseball sailed off toward somebody's popcorn box.
"I don't know how he does that," Kinsler said, with a laugh. "He doesn't practice it. I know that. I've never seen him do it in batting practice. But it's pretty cool."
"Just a bad habit," Beltre reported. "I get mad at myself when I do it. I don't want to do it. It would be better if I didn't do it. But I can't help it."
Considering he'd just pulled his team even in the most pivotal game of an epic back-and-forth World Series, this probably wasn't the time to get too worked up at himself. Whatever it was he did out there, either by design or mistake, it did a swell job of setting the stage for the madness to come.
Besides, by the time the bottom of the eighth rolled around, this game had already pushed the needle on the insanity meter to incomprehensible heights. That goofiness was highlighted by the sight of Washington issuing four -- yessir, four -- intentional walks, three of them to Albert Pujols.
And the third of those intentional walks (in the seventh inning) just happened to be the first intentional walk issued in World Series history with the bases empty.
|The Rangers intentionally walked Albert Pujols in three consecutive plate appearances in Game 5.|
But it all worked out, somehow, because the Cardinals (1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, plus two bizarre Allen Craig caught-stealings and their nightly double-play ball) spent the night perfecting the art of not scoring. So this was still a 2-2 game as Octavio Dotel loped in from the St. Louis bullpen to pitch the eighth.
Just two pitches later, Dotel served up a leadoff double to Michael Young. And it was time to fasten your seatbelts and place all your tray tables in the full upright and locked position.
Dotel did whiff Beltre on three pitches for the first out of the inning. And then up stepped the right-handed-hitting Nelson Cruz. We'd been led to believe it was going to be Dotel's job in this series to attack Texas' parade of right-handed bats. But he wasn't even allowed to attack this one -- because La Russa ordered a very mysterious intentional walk.
So it was first and second, one out. And out popped La Russa -- to wave for his left-hander, Marc Rzepczynski, to face the left-handed bat in the No. 7 hole, David Murphy.
It was the third time the manager had done that in five games, so that move computed, for the most part. But what didn't compute, to experienced La Russa watchers, was that he didn't have a right-hander up in his 'pen for the big bopper on deck: Napoli, by far the Rangers' most lethal bat in this World Series.
La Russa said later that his plan was to have Rzepczynski get Murphy out and then pitch around Napoli. But Murphy messed up the master plan by thumping a one-hopper off Rzepczynski's arm and beating it out for an infield single.
So the bases were loaded. And as the stadium rocked and the tension mounted, Napoli began stalking toward the plate.
It was so hard to believe he was going to be allowed by La Russa to hit off a left-hander that even the guys on Napoli's own team kept waiting for the Cardinals' bullpen door to open and a right-handed reliever to come roaring out.
"But that didn't happen," Beltre said. "And I'm glad it didn't happen."
Now why didn't it happen? That's the big question. It certainly looked like the goofy events that had just gone down must not have fit the scenarios La Russa had envisioned when the inning began. But not according to the manager.
It was all that darned bullpen phone's fault, all right. That was his story, and boy, was he sticking to it. So that's why Jason Motte, his closer and most trusted right-handed bullpen arm, wasn't up, he reported. Out in the bullpen, they kept hearing him wrong.
But meanwhile in the Texas dugout, "We kept asking, 'What's going on?'" Beltre said. "It was weird. We know La Russa likes to make a lot of different moves, and some of them are moves you don't expect. We know he's really smart. But we couldn't figure out why he was doing what he was doing."
Well, if it makes him feel better, there were millions of Americans who couldn't figure it out, either.
With any luck, we can appoint a blue-ribbon commission someday to unravel this soon-to-be-legendary World Series mystery. But there wasn't time for that Monday night. There was only time for baseball's most dangerous No. 8 hitter to do what he's been doing all month:
Bust this game to smithereens.
|Mike Napoli's eighth-inning, two-run double off Cardinals left-hander Marc Rzepczynski gave Texas a 4-2 advantage.|
Napoli's left/right splits this year weren't all that wide, actually. But he did have a .619 slugging percentage and 1.049 OPS against left-handed pitchers this season -- the fifth-best OPS against left-handers in the American League. So what Rzepczynski was doing in this game, trying to get him out in this spot, is a question that will hang over this entire series.
But there the two of them were, dueling under the bright lights. And you didn't need to be a descendant of Stan Musial or Kenny Rogers to know the 2011 World Series hung in the balance.
Napoli took a monster hack at the first slider he saw and fouled it off. That was strike one. Then he took a second slider, low and away. And the count was one-and-one.
He eased out of the box as 51,000 people chanted his name: "NA-po-LI, NA-po-LI." It was quite a moment.
"They say it every time I get up there now," Napoli said. "I like it. Now I kind of go up there and wait for them to start doing it. It's a cool thing."
He didn't have time to take in the mayhem around him. But if he had, he'd have seen this: Every single occupant of this park was standing, bellowing his name, waving those rally towels, savoring this incredible October scene.
Napoli stepped back in, tapped the plate, wagged his bat and awaited one last Rzepczynski slider.
It came floating in, thigh-high, and Napoli uncoiled. He lashed this baseball up the alley in right-center, where it one-hopped the Snapple sign and unleashed the kind of bedlam that, once upon a time, only Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin could generate in this formerly single-minded little metroplex.
One run would score. Two runs would score. And the Texas Rangers were going to win this game.
In the on-deck circle, Mitch Moreland bounced up and down as if he were on a trampoline. In the dugout, Ron Washington's arms waved almost as fast as his feet pumped. And out there at second base, Mike Napoli was clapping, screaming, giving the antler-and-claws sign to his teammates, trying to keep his heart from exploding out of his chest.
If the Rangers go on to win this World Series, this just might have been their signature moment. And the din inside this ballpark might have been the loudest sound ever heard in a baseball stadium in North Texas. Ever.
Even louder than the sound that drowned out La Russa's voice on the bullpen phone.
We may never know whether it really was the crowd that sabotaged the manager's attempt to orchestrate his bullpen through the biggest inning of this World Series. We may never know for sure what the real story was of the eighth-inning confusion that decided this game.
"But if that's the truth," Kinsler said, "I can believe it, because it's been incredibly loud in this stadium. We've been to Tampa. We've been to Detroit. We've been to New York. We've been to St. Louis. We've been to San Francisco. And this is the loudest outdoor ballpark we've ever been in.
"They're great fans," he said. "It's a great way to go out. And hopefully they'll be this loud screaming at the TV when we're in St. Louis."
Asked if he thought they'd be loud enough that he might be able to hear them better than La Russa's bullpen heard the manager's breathless instructions, Kinsler couldn't help but chuckle.
"I hope so," he said. "I sure hope so."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