Commentary

Cardinals go quietly in Game 4

Albert Pujols and offense can't muster anything against Rangers' Derek Holland

Updated: October 24, 2011, 3:17 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Albert Pujols' day began with breakfast and a phone call to a fellow history-maker. Babe Ruth was unavailable for comment Sunday, but Pujols spent some time conversing with Reggie Jackson, one of the holy troika of players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.

"It was real nice,'' Pujols said. "It was real humbling. I just told him how blessed I am to be on the same list with him and Babe Ruth. He was really complimenting me. I appreciate him taking the time. He didn't have to do that. It shows what kind of man he is.''

A night after peppering the outfield seats in Arlington with 1,226 feet worth of long balls and accumulating a World Series record 14 total bases in a 16-7 St. Louis Cardinals victory, Pujols went hitless in four at-bats in a 4-0 loss to the Texas Rangers. In his final plate appearance, Pujols hit a harmless fly ball to center field against Texas closer Neftali Feliz, carried his bat halfway down the line, then did a U-turn and toted it forlornly back to the dugout.

The Cardinals were bound to experience an offensive letdown after their Game 3 onslaught, but regression to the mean took on a whole new look against Texas starter Derek Holland. The Cardinals had two runners reach second base, and they looked worse than Rangers team president Nolan Ryan trying to catch George W. Bush's ceremonial first pitch.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
AP Photo/Eric GayA night after hitting three homers, Albert Pujols was kept quiet by Derek Holland.

Major league hitters by nature detest praising opposing pitchers. But the Cardinals were one complimentary, hat-tipping bunch in assessing Holland's performance. Third baseman David Freese said standing in the box against Holland was like facing Atlanta reliever Jonny Venters -- "for eight innings.'' That's the same Jonny Venters who struck out 96 batters in 88 innings and held opposing hitters to a .176 batting average this season.

And Lance Berkman, who recorded St. Louis' only two hits on the evening, stressed that it was not a case of deception or unfamiliarity, even though Nick Punto was the only St. Louis hitter who had faced Holland more than three times in the big leagues. The Cardinals floundered against Holland because his stuff was dominant, from the first pitch through the 116th.

"It's not complicated,'' Berkman said. "He's throwing 95-97 miles an hour from the left side. How many guys in the game do that? There's a handful and they're all studs. Jon Lester. CC Sabathia. David Price. There are very few of them out there. If he throws strikes, it's going to be tough to hit him.''

Holland lugged an unsightly 5.27 ERA into his Game 4 start, but the TV broadcast captured manager Ron Washington giving him a pep talk at the top step of the dugout before the first inning. Holland took the mound with a spring in his step and a greater sense of purpose, and he looked like a more confident and assertive pitcher from the outset.

"You have to kind of expect the guy's best shot,'' the Cardinals' Matt Holliday said. "You can't come in thinking, 'Well, his last couple outings have been a little shaky.' You have to try to prepare for the best Derek Holland you're going to get. Unfortunately, we got him.''

Oddly enough, the first pitcher-batter confrontation of the evening looked a lot what transpired in Game 3. St. Louis leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal scorched the third pitch from Holland down the third base line. But Adrian Beltre snagged it, turning a would-be extra base-hit into a loud out, and Holland used it as a springboard to a 1-2-3 inning.

Home plate umpire Ron Kulpa, mercifully, was not a featured player after Saturday's mini-debacle at first base, but he did irritate a few Cardinals with some generous called strikes on the inside corner. Holliday, Freese and Berkman all took exception to borderline strike calls and made their displeasure clear to Kulpa.

In the clubhouse after the game, the Cardinals walked a fine line. Yes, they conceded, the expanded strikes might have forced them to alter their approach and become less selective than they would have preferred.

"It's important,'' Holliday said. "It makes it tough on us. You can't take borderline pitches, so you have to be aggressive.''

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland vs. Albert Pujols heat map
ESPN.comThe heat map shows the location for most of Derek Holland's pitches to Albert Pujols in Game 4.

Conversely, the St. Louis hitters knew it sounded like an excuse, and that quibbling over the strike zone in hindsight would be doing a disservice to Holland's brilliant performance. After providing various assessments of the ball-and-strike tug-of-war to the first wave of reporters, Berkman was less forthcoming to the second. By the third wave, he simply shrugged and said, "The guy pitched a great game. That's basically all you can say about him.''

Holland was good enough to do a number on baseball royalty, deftly mixing his pitch patterns and changing speeds to get the best of Pujols. In the first inning, Holland threw Pujols a 95-mph fastball and a 77-mph curve before inducing a groundout to short with an 86-mph changeup. In Pujols' next appearance, Holland threw a slider and then a changeup to retire Pujols on a foul pop to first base.

In their final confrontation, Holland threw five fastballs in six pitches. The last one resulted in a feeble comebacker to the mound.

In the American League Championship Series, the Rangers did their best to pitch around Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, but he still found a way to hurt them on several occasions. In Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday, the Texas staff spent too much time trafficking in the heart of the plate and watching Pujols practice his home run trot.

With Holland and Feliz on the mound, it was just a case of superior stuff.

"That's why they say momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher,'' Berkman said.

Pujols, to his credit, didn't linger in the lunch room after the final out. He was at his locker doing the obligatory postmortem, and wondering, like his teammates, how the Cardinals could score a touchdown and three field goals one night and look so ineffectual the next. The simple answer: Derek Holland.

"I'll be honest -- he was very impressive,'' Freese said. "You don't like to give too much credit to the opposing pitcher, but tonight he was fantastic.''

In the consummate display of sportsmanship, Freese even praised that little mustache of Holland's -- the one that looks as though it needs a learner's permit.

"I love it,'' Freese said. "It adds some character. It might even add a little bit to that sinker.''

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 email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer