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Bizarre night in Arlington leaves the Rangers on the brink of a title

Chris Ruddick,
MLB Editor


Rounding Third Logo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - This much I know. Tony La Russa is a better manager than Albert Pujols.

But, Ron Washington was better than both of them on Monday and the Texas Rangers are now on the brink of their first-ever World Series title.

Texas catcher Mike Napoli came through for about the bizzilionth time this postseason, as his two-run double in the eighth put the Rangers ahead for good in their 4-2 win, giving them a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven affair.

Still, that's not what everyone will be talking about today. Instead the focus will be on the Cardinals' missed opportunities in Game 5, specifically the one in the seventh inning that may have been snuffed out by their own three-time NL MVP, as well as a bizarre set of events the following inning.

With the score tied at two in the seventh Allen Craig drew a one-out walk with Pujols coming to bat. Pujols, though, inexplicably called a hit-and-run from the plate, but failed to put the bat on the ball, leaving Craig dead at second on a terrific throw from Napoli.

"It was a 99-mph pitch away that I couldn't even get my bat on," Pujols said. "So I let it go."

With first base now open Washington made the call to walk Pujols intentionally for the third time. After Matt Holliday's single, Washington then intentionally walked Lance Berkman and got out of it unscathed when NLCS hero David Freese swung at the first pitch and flied out to center to end the threat.

Mike Napoli
Mike Napoli's two-run double in the eighth put the Rangers ahead for good in their 4-2 win.
"I certainly wasn't going to push Craig to second base," Washington said. "So once first base got cleared up, then I put [Pujols] on first base."

The hit-and-run was questionable to begin with, but it became even more puzzling when it was revealed after the game that it was Pujols who actually made the call.

"On our team, nobody gets thrown under the bus, and that's all I'm going to say about it," La Russa said afterward.

La Russa, though, was visibly annoyed with Craig in the dugout after the play.

"Sometimes Albert will put a hit-and-run on from the plate for himself," Berkman said. "I think he put the hit-and-run on and recognized that the pitch was so up and away that he couldn't really hit it. I don't think he wanted to give a strike away right there."

An already strange night in Arlington was taken to a new level in the eighth when La Russa thought he had closer Jason Motte warming up to face Napoli, only to find out that bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist instead heard Lance Lynn, who before the game La Russa said was unavailable.

So the left-handed Rzepczynski was left in to face Napoli, who delivered a two-run double, giving him nine RBI in this Fall Classic.

"At this point, I'm not surprised by anything he does," said David Murphy. "He's Superman right now. I knew we were getting a good player when we traded for him, but he has exceeded all expectations.

I don't care how loud Rangers Ballpark may have been, in what world does Motte sound like Lynn? Especially when you knew Lynn was not going to pitch?

"It's just like any other park," Lilliquist said. "You get a bunch of people and it's loud and he wanted Motte going easy to back [Rzepczynski] up, and I thought I heard Lynn."

Then to make matters worse, after the Napoli hit La Russa went out to the mound expecting Motte, only to get Lynn, who intentionally walked Ian Kinsler before giving way, finally, to Motte.

St. Louis then blew another chance in the ninth when it took Texas closer Neftali Feliz off the hook.

Craig again reached base in the ninth with Pujols at the plate and this time it was La Russa who called for a hit-and-run. However, Pujols struck out and Craig was once again gunned down by Napoli.

"Yeah, I trusted Albert could put the ball in play," La Russa explained. "In fact, two swings prior, he fouled the ball off with the second baseman going over [to cover the base]. The hole was there, and all of a sudden, it would have been first and third with nobody out. On the last pitch, [Feliz] has a very live arm, and it sailed on [Pujols] and he missed. I liked sending him and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn't work."

If the Cardinals do lose this series they may point to the seventh and eighth innings on Monday, but they were just 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 12 runners on base.

"If you're going to beat a good team at their ballpark, you've got to capitalize when you have the opportunity," Berkman said. "The longer you go without it, the more confidence I think they have that somebody's going to have a big hit."

Since erupting for 16 runs in Saturday's Game 3 triumph, the Cardinals have managed just two runs. Take away that rout and St. Louis is 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position this series.

And aside from his epic Game 3, Pujols is 0-for-12 in the set.

"Well, I mean, you know, the same guys that produce offense one day that don't produce the other day, they don't stink," La Russa said. "We have really good hitters, so if somebody gets them out, give credit to the pitchers. I told the guys, 'We tried -- perfect.' There wasn't anything for 8 1/2 innings that was wrong with the way we went about it. We played our butts off. We tried -- perfect. We didn't play perfect at times. So give the other guys credit. I do. That's my suggestion."

Now the Rangers return to St. Louis, needing just one more win to nail down their first title. And oh by the way Texas hasn't lost back-to-back games since dropping three in a row from August 23-25.

Lost in all the La Russa/Pujols drama is just how good Napoli been for the Rangers. Traded twice in a five-day span over the winter, Napoli was brought into Texas for his bat. And he has delivered at the plate, as his 14 RBI are the second most on the team. But, how about his work behind the plate? Not only did he throw Craig out twice on Monday, but he has posted a catcher's ERA of 1.54 this series.

"Sometimes in this game guys get stuck unfairly with labels and they're really difficult to shake," Texas' Michael Young said. "To Nap's credit, he's shaking his label and he's done an incredible job for us behind the plate. It's right there with what he's done for us offensively, and that's saying a lot considering how good he's been offensively for us."

Perhaps Tampa manager Joe Maddon was right when he proclaimed that this is, "The Year of the Napoli".

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Ruddick at cruddick@sportsnetwork.com.

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