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October 23, 2011

World Series Prospectus

Once, Twice, Three Times a Long Ball

by Jay Jaffe

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"When you have the bat in your hand, you can always change the story," said Reggie Jackson years ago. Mired in the controversy regarding a post-Game Two no-show following his ninth-inning relay flub, Albert Pujols changed the story on Saturday night, becoming just the third player ever to hit three home runs in a World Series game and collecting five hits en route to a Series-record 14 total bases. Before hitting his first home run, Pujols had already collected two hits while helping the Cardinals build an 8-6 lead; his three-run, sixth-inning homer off Alexi Ogando broke the game open en route to a 16-7 rout and a 2-1 Series lead. The Cardinals' 16 runs tied the 2002 Giants and 1960 Yankees for the second-highest single-game total in Series history.

Pujols had skipped the postgame press conference following Thursday night's loss, in which he let Jon Jay's relay throw tail away from him, allowing Elvis Andrus to make it to second base with what would become the game's decisive run. While taking full responsibility for the bad play, the slugger remained defiant about his postgame snub of the press, hiding behind Tony La Russa and a Cardinals PR flunky as he evaded the spotlight. That continued defiance fueled the fire through the travel/workout day to the point that anything he did on Saturday night would have made for big news, particularly given that he’d gone 0-for-6 over the first two games. The record book will show he rose to the occasion, though plenty transpired before he took center stage.

For a game which featured 23 runs scored, the early innings were quiet; through three frames, the only run scored was off the bat of Cardinals designated hitter Allen Craig, who hit a towering first-inning solo homer off Rangers starter Matt Harrison. When all hell broke loose in the fourth, it seemed as though the story of the game would be an egregiously blown call by an umpire. Following Pujols' leadoff single, Matt Holliday hit a potential double play groundball to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who flipped to Ian Kinsler for the forceout. Kinsler's throw to first base was high and a bit off-line; Mike Napoli made an exceptional play to leap off the bag to catch the ball, reaching back to tag Holliday on his left shoulder.

First base umpire Ron Kulpa didn't see the tag clearly and ruled Holliday safe, making him quite probably the one person in seven billion who believed it so. "He was out easily, almost by a full stride," said Fox's Tim McCarver upon his first look at the replay, yet another moment that pointed out Major League Baseball's failure to place getting the call right ahead of the fragile feelings of umpires or the impatience of fans; reversing the call wouldn't have taken more than 30 seconds of video review unless a supervisor wanted to thumb through Roget's Thesaurus in search of an appropriate superlative to describe the obviousness of the mistake. Kulpa refused to ask his crewmates for help and said afterwards that Ron Washington didn't ask him to get help, either. That only compounded the epic-ness of the failure. If nothing else, such a disputed play should have at least triggered an umpire huddle so as to get the call correct. Apparently it was on Washington to kick up enough dust to make that happen, and he did not.

The floodgates opened; Lance Berkman singled, and David Freese followed with a double down the right field line, running his postseason hitting streak to 13 games and scoring Holliday. Washington poured gasoline on the fire by walking Yadier Molina to set up a potential double play, then Jon Jay hit a groundball to Napoli that scored two runs when the latter's rushed throw went wide to the right of catcher Yorvit Torrealba and well behind the plate. Ryan Theriot followed with a single to left field, running the lead to 5-0. Eight batters deep into the inning, Harrison finally got a second out via a tag at the plate following Rafael Furcal's comebacker, but he was done for the night after just 73 pitches. Scott Feldman came on and got Craig to ground out to end the inning.

The Rangers answered right back. Kyle Lohse, who hadn't gone longer than 81 pitches in either of his previous postseason starts, had kept the Rangers scoreless but wasn't at all efficient, throwing 62 pitches in three innings, walking two and striking out three but going in to far too many deep counts for his own good. He coughed up three runs over his next six pitches via homers by Michael Young and Nelson Cruz sandwiched around a single by Adrian Beltre, cutting the lead to 5-3. A Napoli single chased him after just 75 pitches, with Fernando Salas coming on.

Salas got an out on David Murphy's swinging bunt, then surrendered a single to Torrealba and a flyball to Kinsler. Holliday caught the shallow fly near the foul line and threw a one-hopper to Molina to nail Napoli—who could hardly have had a worse inning if he crashed Washington’s Cadillac—at home and escape without allowing a run. With a better slide, or at least some instruction from the on-deck Andrus, Napoli would have scored, but he barreled straight into the plate instead of hook-sliding, and Molina grabbed the throw, which was to his right, and swooped in for the timely tag.

Feldman, who had delivered a sparkling 10.2 innings of scoreless relief thus far in the postseason, turned back into Scott Feldman in the fifth inning, loading the bases with nobody out via a Pujols single and five-pitch walks to Holliday and Berkman. Washington, despite having six other relievers at his disposal, remained nailed to the bench as his long man's chariot turned back into a pumpkin. Freese plated Pujols on a ground ball, and then Molina lashed a two-run double down the left field line, restoring the five-run lead. The Cardinals ran themselves out of an even bigger inning when Molina got hung up between second and third on Jay's grounder, and then Jay himself was caught stealing to end the threat.

Again, the Rangers answered, as Salas, who had to that point delivered 11.1 innings of two-run ball this postseason, proved as ineffective as Feldman. Andrus and Josh Hamilton singled on his first two pitches of the inning, the latter collecting his first hit of the series in 10 at-bats via a seeing-eye dribbler that convinced nobody of his health or the propriety of his batting third in the Rangers' lineup. Michael Young laced a double past Freese and down the left field line, scoring Andrus; Hamilton held at third base, grimacing in pain over coming to a full stop. La Russa gave Salas the hook in favor of Lance Lynn, who continued the theme of previously invulnerable relievers finding their level by allowing both Hamilton and Young to score, the first via a Beltre single, the second via a Napoli sacrifice fly, cutting the lead to 8-6. Lynn would walk both Murphy and Torrealba to load the bases, but Kinsler popped up a high 2-2 fastball.

That was the last time the Rangers were close. In one of the game's bigger ironies, Ogando, who had allowed go-ahead hits to Craig in the first two games of the series, faced seven hitters and was able to retire only the DH. He struck Craig out, but only after issuing a walk to Theriot and a single to Furcal, and that small triumph was quickly erased when Pujols pulverized a high 96 MPH fastball over the middle of the plate to run the score to 11-6. The slugger's shot to left field recalled his towering homer off Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS, bruising the concrete facade in front of the second-level club deck. Initial estimates of 423 feet were mocked; that thing looked like it could have gone 600 while still trailing smoke (ESPN's final estimate of 431 feet still seems low, unless that was simply the height). Again, Washington fiddled while his bullpen burned; an understandably rattled Ogando loaded the bases via an Andrus bobble, a two-strike single by Berkman, and an eight-pitch walk to Freese. Lefty Michael Gonzalez came on and needed just two pitches to get two outs, but the first yielded a sacrifice fly by Molina, running the score to 12-6.

From there the Cardinals pulled away, with their bullpen finally settling down while that of the Rangers continued to smolder. Lynn got the first 1-2-3 inning since the visitors' half of the second and saw his margin padded by two more runs when Pujols hit a two-out, two-run homer off of Gonzalez, this one a 424-footer to center field off a 93 MPH cookie that was almost dead center in the strike zone. Both sides added a run over the next two half-innings, the Rangers against Lynn, the Cardinals against Mark Lowe, making his first postseason appearance; by sending five men to the plate, the Redbirds guaranteed Pujols a shot at history.

Octavio Dotel shut down the Rangers in the eighth, and ageless Darren Oliver came on for his date with destiny. He got two quick outs and battled Pujols to a 2-2 count before catching too much of the plate with an 89 MPH fastball. This one was another no-doubter to left field; ESPN's estimate was 420 feet. Pujols had already done more than enough talking with his bat, but Buster Olney added some levity to the historic situation by formally requesting the slugger's presence at the postgame press conference.

The three home runs were the game's obvious takeaway, but Pujols rewrote multiple pages of the World Series record book. With the trifecta, he joined Jackson (1977 against the Dodgers) and Babe Ruth (1926 and 1928, both against the Cardinals) as the only men to hit three homers in a World Series game. Thanks to his two singles, he tied Paul Molitor's five-hit 1982 effort against—who else?—the Cardinals. His six RBI tied Hideki Matsui (2009 against the Phillies) and Bobby Richardson (1960 against the Pirates), while his four runs tied nine players, including Reggie and the Babe. His 14 total bases, a series record, tied Bob Robertson's 1971 NLCS showing for the single-game postseason record as well.

Almost as impressive was the damage wrought by two bullpens that had done sterling work in their respective League Championship Series. The four runs allowed by Salas and Lynn were two shy of St. Louis' six-game total against the Brewers, while the 11 allowed by Feldman, Ogando, Gonzalez, Lowe, and Oliver—every reliever Washington called upon—were one more than the Rangers allowed in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Perhaps it was simply regression to the mean, or a combination of a warm night (80 degrees at first pitch) and a hitter-friendly ballpark (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington hosted MLB highs of 896 runs and 228 homers in 2011), but even with the depth of the two bullpens and the assorted off days, one has to wonder if there's a fatigue factor. The two teams' starters have combined to average just 5.3 innings per turn in this series after both averaging less than five in the LCS, so it's hardly out of the question.

In all, the Cardinals’ number three through seven hitters (Pujols, Holliday Berkman, Freese and Molina), who combined to hit .420/.488/.688 in the LCS, combined to go 11-for-22 with four walks, six extra-base hits, 23 total bases, 11 runs and 12 RBI—a monster showing that makes any notion of pitching around Pujols a potentially harrowing one. Through three games, the Cardinals are outhitting Texas, .267/.370/.446 to .253/.292/.379, with big edges in both extra-base hits (10-6) and walks (16-7); were it not for their blown ninth-inning lead on Thursday, they would be within striking distance of a sweep.

As for the Rangers, Washington’s refusal to move Hamilton down in the order or to the bench looms large; the slugger is 1-for-12 without a walk. Young, Beltre, Cruz and Napoli are a combined 16-for-42; seven of those hits belong to Beltre, and while each of the other three has at least one extra-base hit, they have combined for just three walks, two of them by Cruz. Napoli’s play at first base raised the question of whether the Rangers had their best defense on the field. Young, the night’s DH, made just one more appearance at first during the regular season (36-35) but totaled 23 percent more innings, though for what it’s worth, scored slightly lower according to FRAA, UZR, Plus/Minus, and Total Zone.

As bad as Saturday night was for the Rangers, they’re down only one game in the World Series, but they certainly need Game Four starter Derek Holland to muster a stronger effort than he has in this postseason, during which he’s allowed 10 runs (eight earned) in just 12 1/3 innings. Luckily for the Rangers, Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson has been wobbly as well, yielding eight runs in 12.1 innings over three turns himself. That’s a story for another day, however. This one belongs to Pujols, who succeeded in turning the page on something less than the finest day of his career to put together one that might stand as such for a long, long time. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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