“Hap-py flight! Hap-py Flight” is what the St. Louis Cardinals chant after winning the last game of an away series before heading back home. They had won something like 14 of those “getaway games” in a row. But on Monday night at the Ballpark in Arlington, that chant was nullified by another three shouted syllables.
“Na-poh-lee! Na-poh-lee!” Texas Rangers catcher Mike Napoli, who put away World Series game four with a three-run homer, won a game five that felt like game seven with a bases loaded double in the bottom of the eighth. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa had wanted right-handed Napoli to face his right-handed closer Jason Motte, but due to crowd noise the bullpen coach misheard the name during LaRussa’s call. With Motte not loose, the gritty catcher affectionally nicknamed “Dirtbag” faced lefty Marc Rzepczinski and broke a 2-2 tie.
Is there a texting ban in baseball?
The Rangers arrived at this Series on the red carpet, winning their division from wire to wire, while the Wild Cardinals snuck in the back door at the last minute. But the angle was that baseball genius LaRussa would out-fox emotional ninny Ron Washington, a point that seemed to hold up in game two when Washington sent in relief pitcher Alexi Ogando to face pinch hitter Allen Craig, who had the winning hit in game one against Ogando. The pitch was identical in game two, as was the result, putting St. Louis ahead 1-0. The Fox crew was already announcing that no player’s ever won two games in a Series with pinch hits.
But then came the ninth inning, when Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler and shortstop Elvis Andrus, so dazzling in the field all game, scored the tying and winning runs after some run-manufacturing basemanship. Kinsler made his own gutsy decision to steal second and barely got in under the tag. If he’s out, the Rangers lose and Kinsler is forever branded a bonehead. By showing faith in Ogando earlier, Wash was telling his team he believed in them. And they came through.
Instead, it was Albert Pujols, the greatest pure hitter since Babe Ruth, who became “The Sultan of ‘What?'” in game five when he called for a hit and run in the 7th inning and let the pitch sail by. Trying to steal second when Pujols is at the plate is like Hugh Hefner sneaking out of the Playboy Mansion to try and score at TGI Fridays. Napoli nailed Craig by a yard, as he would again in the ninth, giving Jane’s Addiction (“Been Caught Stealing”) a little royalty change. Even more substantially in the ninth, the shockingly mortal Pujols struck out a moment before Craig was tagged, making for the greatest unofficial double play in Rangers history.
This Series, which pits a team that’s never won it against a team which is second only to the Yankees in World Series championships, has so much epic drama going on it’s a brushback to the days when Tim McCarver was behind the plate catching Bob Gibson, not behind a microphone pitching his knowlege in annoying and redundant and grating fashion. (Somewhere there’s a young garage band who just proudly named themselves the Fastball Counts.)
There is something about these Rangers that makes them a special team, one folks can root for even if their only connection to the Dallas- Fort Worth area is a four-hour layover at DFW. Maybe it’s because their two leaders, Washington and outfielder Josh Hamilton, have rebounded from well-publicized substance abuse problems. For the ladies, it could be the handsome and mysterious C.J. Wilson, whose stare looks like he’s auditioning for a spaghetti western on the mound. Or the unlikely brotherhood of Kinsler, in his classic shin-length uni, and Venezuelan street kid Andrus. And there are the ever-smiling fifth and sixth hitters, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, just loving playing base-a-ball. Beltre tied game five 2-2 in the seventh with an Al Jolson home run, dropping to a knee as he swatted. Can’t forget young pitcher Derek Holland, looking like “Falcon and the Snowman”-era Sean Penn, who Coach Wash slapped into the game of his life, a 4-0 win Sunday.
Holland needed a Nefty save last night when his segment of bad ‘SNL’ impressions was painful. And another thing we could’ve done without was the latest segment of “American League Idol,” that seventh inning vocal stretch has octave junkies wailing “God Bless America.” Nice idea, cool country and all that, but Wrigley Field does it the right way.
The Rangers are up 3-2, but this series could just as easily be 3-2 the other way and the Rangers know it. This is a team, a franchise that has known despair, even losing a fan in a tragic fall. A firefighter, no less, trying to get a ball for his son from his favorite player. Baseball’s a game and you win it when you play it like one. Which is why you don’t stomp on Chris Carpenter’s hand with your metal cleats.
This World Series is far from over. Is there a more terrorizing image for Rangers fans than Pujols at the plate, all Popeye forearms and Brutus eyes, ready to launch another 450-foot heartbreaker? St. Louis can win two games in a row at home. But you get the feeling we’ll be seeing a lot of long pans of distraught fans either Wednesday or Thursday, if necessary. Old women crying and young women crying and old and young men staring ahead like their lives are over. That’s what Rangers fans want to see.
As the Rangers embark on their own happy flight to St. Louis, the world’s largest McDonald’s, they’ve got to know this one’s not in the bag. Not at all. Baseball is boring until everything’s on the line—and then it’s the most exciting and emotional sport of them all.