Friday, October 21, 2011

Cards Miss Chance to Take Series Lead; Head to Texas Tied 1-1 with Rangers

Few figured the St. Louis Cardinals would ever make it to the 2011 World Series. But now that they’re here, it’s hard to resist admiring their tenacious spirit. Alas, they squandered a chance to take a 2-0 Series lead last night, losing a 2-1 squeaker in which their closer du jour, Jason Motte, proved unable to do what he’d done the previous evening: pitch a scoreless ninth inning and keep the enemy at bay. Instead, their opponents, the Texas Rangers, scored two runs in the top of the final frame and turned a 1-0 deficit into victory.

The Rangers look on paper to be the superior team--a nicely balanced collection of sweet swingers and impressive young relief arms--with strength up the middle defensively, especially the shortstop/second base combo of Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler, who pulled off a nifty double play in the 4th inning of last night’s Game 2, then pulled off a totally amazing force play to end the 5th inning. Plays like that kept the Rangers in a real nail-biter, as did their gritty relief pitchers Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz, the latter firing 100 MPH BB’s in the ninth inning to put away the spunky Cards.

The series now moves to Texas for Games 3, 4 and 5.

Of course, it’s a surprise that each team has only scored four runs in the first two games of the series. (St. Louis won the series opener, 3-2.) There are big bats on that field, from the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to the Cards’ Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and clutch National League Championship Series star David Freese.

So far the pitchers are in charge, with maybe the exception of the Rangers’ Alexi Ogando, who was an excellent starter for the team this season (13-8, 3.51) but has been pressed into middle relief in the postseason. In each of the first two Series games, Ogando has faced the Cards’ pinch-hitting Allen Craig, and twice has yielded key run-scoring singles.

But while the season stats seem to favor Texas, the Cards might be able to ride it out on the wave of their continued improbable run, from presumed also-rans to National League champions.

Amazingly, the Cards clawed back from a 10-game wild card deficit in late August to slip into the playoffs on the final day of the season. And they did so having completely replaced their regular middle infielders, a move almost unheard of among World Series contestants.

Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker were the main DP combo this year, based on games played and at-bats. Yet after acquiring shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers on July 31 for a minor leaguer, manager Tony LaRussa eventually paired him with unheralded veteran second baseman Nick Punto, an offseason pickup from Minnesota (career batting average: .249) who appeared in only 63 regular season games.

Furcal, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2000, is--believe it or not--playing in his first World Series, after many previous postseason appearances with Atlanta and Los Angeles. He turns 34 this Monday. He and Punto (turning 34 on Nov. 8) can’t combine youth and athleticism like Andrus and Kinsler can, but they nonetheless have provided solid defense, and Punto has surprisingly rapped out three hits in six at-bats.

Reliever Motte’s also an interesting case. He hasn’t been around the big leagues that long--parts of four seasons--yet he’s a bit of a journeyman at 29 years old. He only has 12 career saves (9 in 2011) but--with a high 90s fastball--has emerged as the big closer for LaRussa, despite the fact that Fernando Salas led the team with 24 regular season saves.

For the Rangers, they can breathe a sigh of relief that they escaped St. Louis with a split of the first two games, despite the fact that their big hitters are stuck in neutral. Hamilton, Young, Beltre and Cruz are so far a combined 5 for 28, and memories of the 2010 Series, when the Rangers’ bats were silenced by the San Francisco Giants’ excellent pitching, are not that far in the forbidding past.

Returning to Texas should provide some tonic for the home team’s hitting woes, but if the Cards continue to get good starting pitching, they might hold off the Rangers until their own bats come alive.

Media Notes
I still can’t figure out what Tim McCarver is talking about. The FOX color guy seems to make up the most ridiculous stuff passed off as expert observations. His verbiage meanders into fanciful explanations that simply have no basis in fact or even in logical conjecture.

Last night, McCarver offered this (paraphrased): “In order to get a good bunt off him, you’ve gotta not bunt at the ball. You’ve gotta bring the bat down so the ball goes under it, and then maybe you’ve got a chance.” Huh? Tim is 70, and we might suggest that hardening of the arteries explains his ridiculous surmises--except for the fact that he’s been doing the same thing for almost 15 years.

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