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October 24, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Mr. Holland's Opus

by Jay Jaffe

On Saturday night, Albert Pujols put together the best single-game offensive performance in World Series history as the Cardinals piled up 16 runs against the Rangers. On Sunday night, Pujols and friends couldn't buy a run and could scarcely collect a hit. The eight St. Louis batters besides Lance Berkman combined to go 0-for-25 as Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz combined on a two-hit shutout. Backed by Josh Hamilton's first extra-base hit of the Series and a three-run homer by Mike Napoli, the Rangers evened things up at two games apiece with a 4-0 win.

Holland, a Camaro-mustachioed 25-year-old who throws harder than any southpaw starter in the majors—his average velocity of 94.2 MPH ranked fifth overall—has shown flashes of brilliance during his three-year major league career. He tied for the AL lead with four shutouts this year and allowed no more than one run in 11 of his 32 starts, but he also allowed five or more runs in 10 of his turns en route to a 3.95 ERA. His postseason hadn't been quite so bipolar, but he had nonetheless been hit for a 5.27 ERA while averaging just over four innings per start; in 13.2 innings including one relief appearance, he had allowed five homers while compiling a pedestrian 7/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Prior to the game, the Fox cameras caught manager Ron Washington giving his young starter a pep talk in the dugout, stressing the need to work inside against the Cardinals’ hitters. Holland took the message to heart and dominated the Cardinals in large part thanks to his ability to establish himself on the inner half of the plate, getting the benefit of a few inside calls from home plate umpire Ron Kulpa, who was less controversial than the night before, as well. Berkman's one-out double in the second inning and leadoff single in the fifth were the only hits the Cardinals collected, and until Holland departed with one out in the ninth, they never had two runners on base at the same time, drawing just two walks, one by Nick Punto in the sixth, the other by Rafael Furcal in the ninth (Holland’s final batter of the night). Aside from Berkman’s two hits, Yadier Molina's fifth-inning fly to center field constituted the only ball that Holland allowed even to reach the outfield; David Murphy and Nelson Cruz could have swung Hamilton in a hammock while their starter worked.

Over 8 1/3 innings, Holland threw 119 pitches (that’s according to ESPN; MLB Gameday says 118, Brooks Baseball 116), 77 for strikes, and while his four-seam fastball averaged a toasty 94.4 MPH—he was still hitting 95 well past the 100-pitch mark—his offspeed stuff, via which he got 30 strikes in 44 pitches, was even more impressive. Of his seven strikeouts (three looking, four swinging), four came against his slider (one looking, three swinging); all seven were on the inner half of the plate or even further inside. It was the kind of performance that the Rangers had sorely missed this postseason; no Texas starter had worked at least seven innings since Holland himself did so on September 20, and none had gone further than seven since C.J. Wilson on September 11. Hell, no starter in any postseason game had gone further than seven innings since Justin Verlander went 7 1/3 in Game Five of the ALCS on October 13, and none had gone further than eight since Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game Five of the Division Series on October 7.

Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson, who lasted just two innings against the Brewers in Game Six of the NLCS a week ago, wasn't as good as Holland, but he kept his team in the game after a shaky beginning. With one out in the first, Elvis Andrus slapped a single through the left side of the infield, and then Hamilton, who came into the night 1-for-12 in the Series, laced an RBI double into the right field corner for his first extra-base hit since Game Five of the ALCS. That was the only hit that Jackson allowed in seven at-bats with men on base, and brother, he put plenty of them on; his seven walks were the most of any World Series pitcher since Livan Hernandez walked eight in 1997. Though he ran his pitch count up to 109 without getting out of the sixth inning, the Rangers couldn't buy the big hit off of him. Like Holland, Jackson used plenty of offspeed stuff, throwing 53 sliders and 11 changeups, and he took advantage of Kulpa’s wide strike zone on both the inner and outer corners, though obviously not to the same extent.

Inevitably, the Rangers were able to wait him out and buy the big hit elsewhere. With his bullpen gassed from Saturday night's four-reliever, six-inning effort, Tony La Russa called upon Mitchell Boggs with one out in the sixth following Jackson's last two walks, to Cruz and David Murphy. Boggs hadn’t pitched had thrown just one inning since October 13, and he had been the only Cardinals reliever to allow multiple runs in the NLCS.

Facing Napoli, who after wearing the goat horns in Game Three had been dropped to eighth in the batting order—y'know, the double cleanup spot, specially reserved for guys who lead their teams in on-base percentage and slugging percentage—Boggs’ first pitch was a 95 MPH fastball, chest-high and inside. Napoli tomahawked it to left field for a towering three-run homer, his second longball of the Series, and suddenly the 1-0 game became 4-0.

The Rangers wouldn't score again against Boggs or Jake Westbrook, who came on in the eighth for his first appearance since September 27; he had been inactive for the first two rounds of the postseason. Holland backed that sudden bounty of runs with his most emphatic, this-is-my-night inning yet, retiring both Pujols and Matt Holliday on weak comebackers, then freezing Berkman with an 85 MPH slider on the inside corner of the plate for strike three.

That was part of a game-high stretch of nine straight hitters retired by Holland; earlier in the game, he’d gone eight in a row. His latter streak ended when he walked Furcal with one out in the ninth, deep enough to allow Washington, whose bullpen was tattooed for 11 runs in 5.1 innings on Saturday night, to bypass his middlemen in favor of closer Neftali Feliz. It wasn’t a save situation, and he wasn't sharp, walking Allen Craig to give the Cardinals two men on base for the first time all night, with Pujols coming to the plate.

After collecting five hits and three home runs during Saturday night’s outburst, Pujols was 0-for-3 to that point, but the threat of one swing of his bat putting the Cardinals back in the game loomed large. The slugger fouled a pitch down the right field line that neither Cruz nor first baseman Mitch Moreland could get to, then took a strike on an 82 MPH slider low and away. In the hole 0-2, he took a defensive hack at a 99 MPH fastball and hit a routine fly to defensive replacement Craig Gentry (who bumped Hamilton over to left) in center field. Feliz then went 3-0 on Holliday, got a called strike on a 97 MPH fastball, blew a 98 MPH heater by him for strike two, and three pitches later, dialed back up to 99 on the outside corner to seal the deal.

In all, the Rangers shut out an offense that came in averaging 5.86 runs per game on .283/.351/.448 hitting; the Redbirds' number three through seven hitters (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman, Freese and Molina), who had hit .344/.418/.568 thus far, were a collective 2-for-17 without a walk. Freese's 13-game postseason hitting streak came to an end with an 0-for-3 night, while lower down in the order, Jon Jay extended his postseason slump to 1-for-26. The two hits allowed were the fewest since the Yankees’ Orlando Hernandez and friends did the same in the 1999 World Series; not since 1995, when the Braves’ Tom Glavine and Mark Wohlers combined for a one-hit shutout, had a team gotten two or fewer without allowing a run.

With three pitchers’ duels interspersed around a record-setting night of offensive fireworks, this already rates as a memorable World Series; in fact, it marks the first time since 2003 that the Series has been knotted at two games apiece. The two teams bring their Game One starters back on Monday night; neither Wilson nor Carpenter reached 95 pitches in that one, a 3-2 contest won by St. Louis, with the former walking a Jacksonesque six (two intentional) through 5 2/3 innings and the latter largely eschewing his curveball out of concern for his sore elbow. Playing their last game of the year at home, the pressure is more heavily on the Rangers, who could use a bit of tactical help from their manager. Washington needs to move Napoli, who homered off Carpenter, back up in the order; third would be just fine, and even fifth would be an improvement; recall that Game One ended with him on deck and Texas a buck short. Washington should probably also find a gas station at which to leave Moreland, whose at-bats—admittedly, his first in 10 days—looked terrible; he’s 2-for-23 this postseason. After a night of resting their main middlemen, both Washington and La Russa’s bullpens will be ready for the clown car treatment. With two good pitchers going, it’s fair to expect another low-scoring affair—but as another famous Cardinal once said, “Youneverknow.”

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

Related Content:  The Streak,  The Who,  Derek Holland,  Two Strikes

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