Rangers' aggression pays off in Game 2

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington's aggressive approach evens up World Series vs. St. Louis Cardinals

He isn’t a genius; that supposedly is the guy in the other dugout.

He might never be celebrated by George Will, Bill James and other baseball intellects.

Heck, he was the village idiot for using Esteban German as a pinch-hitter in Game 1 – a move that baffled most of us, but had Tony La Russa recalling German’s days as a contact hitter with the Royals and thinking, “Oh no, not him.”

Maybe, as La Russa indicated, the Rangers’ Ron Washington is smarter than you think.

Not always in an Xs-and-Os kind of way – let’s face it, "Wash" will do some funky things from time to time. But watch the Rangers play, and consider how they rallied against the Cardinals Thursday night in Game 2 of the World Series.

Simply put, they embodied the spirit of their manager.

That daring on the bases — the steal by Ian Kinsler on the seemingly impenetrable Yadier Molina, the heads-up sprint to second by Elvis Andrus after the Cardinals botched a cutoff — that’s Wash.

Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine calls the philosophy “smart aggression.” Whatever you call it, it’s the hallmark of a team that can beat an opponent playing either an American League or National League style.

The Rangers had so many heroes in their 2-1 victory, the first by a team trailing after eight innings in the Series since the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Game 7 comeback against the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera 10 years ago. Frankly, it’s difficult to know which players to even single out.

We could talk about Colby Lewis, who was a Nick Punto single off first baseman Michael Young’s glove from pitching seven scoreless innings. We could talk about the hobbling Josh Hamilton and about Young, both of whom hit ninth-inning sacrifice flies.

We could talk about Kinsler’s imitation of Dave Roberts, circa 2004 (see Red Sox, Boston), and Andrus’ brilliant all-around game. We could talk about righties Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz, who combined for two scoreless innings of relief.

But if La Russa is going to be hailed for every successful pitching change he makes this postseason, we should be talking about Washington, too.

True, the players are the ones who make their managers look good or bad; either they perform or they don’t. But few teams are as aggressive as the Rangers on the bases. And the Rangers are aggressive because that is what their manager demands.

“There is no sense of doubt. They never think they’re going to get thrown out,” Levine said. “Wash doesn’t focus on negative outcomes. He only focuses on the positive. They go for broke because Wash trains them to do that.”

The Rangers, mind you, are far from reckless. While they’re only 8-for-14 in stolen-base attempts during the playoffs, they had a 76.1 success rate in the regular season, third best in the AL.

Good baserunning, though, goes far beyond base stealing — and the Rangers are always looking to pressure the opposing defense, whether it’s by executing a hit-and-run or going first to third, second to home.

First-base coach Gary Pettis, a proficient base stealer in his day, said the style actually takes time to learn, requiring a manager to be as forgiving as Washington is with the Rangers.

“You’re going to make some mistakes,” Pettis said. “But the key is to learn from them so later on, you’ll run and you’ll do it at the right time.”

Which, of course, is what happened in the ninth inning Thursday night.

Molina, the Cardinals’ catcher, threw out Kinsler in the first inning of Game 1, but that was with veteran Chris Carpenter on the mound, not closer Jason Motte, who is slower to the plate.

Kinsler, 30-for-34 in stolen bases during the regular season, wasn’t about to lose his nerve. After leading off the ninth with a single, he dared Molina again, barely beating a strong throw and getting his left hand under the tag.

Andrus failed to get down a bunt, but singled to center on the seventh pitch of a hard-fought at-bat. As Kinsler rounded third, center fielder Jon Jay’s throw was off line and first baseman Albert Pujols committed an error by failing to catch it. Kinsler couldn’t score, but Andrus alertly dashed to second.

From there, it was practically checkmate. Andrus advanced to third on Hamilton’s sacrifice fly off left-hander Arthur Rhodes and scored on Young’s sac fly off righty Lance Lynn.

“They played a classic ninth inning,” La Russa said. “They stole a base. Not many people would try to run on Yadi, and they barely made it. It took guts and they executed it. They did a lot of good things.”

They played it Wash’s way.

Washington was a coach with the Athletics when the book “Moneyball” was written. A’s GM Billy Beane disdained making outs on the bases. Washington disdained curbing the aggressiveness of baserunners.

In one memorable scene, Washington, hitting coach Thad Bosley and second baseman Ray Durham are talking at the batting cage, complaining about the restrictions on Durham. Author Michael Lewis refers to them as “a revolutionary cell” within the A’s organization.

Well, now Washington is a manager. He isn’t afraid of his players running into outs. Nor is he afraid of La Russa, no matter how the two of them might be perceived.

“I don’t think I can win a chess game against Tony,” Washington said. “But you know, the best I can do is try to put my players in a position to be successful and hope they execute. If they execute, the chess matches take care of themselves.”

Washington didn’t need to maneuver the pieces in Game 2. He already had taught them to maneuver themselves.

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