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How Cards respond in Game 3 is crucial
The last time a World Series game was lost like this, it ended with Luis Gonzalez leaping down the first-base line, Mariano Rivera shuffling toward the dugout, and the Arizona Diamondbacks spilling onto the field.
Yes, that one: Nov. 4, 2001.
It’s been 10 years since a team led with three outs to play and did not win. Those Yankees had an entire offseason to stew about Mark Grace’s leadoff single, Rivera’s throwing error, Tony Womack’s tying double, and, of course, Gonzalez’s dunker into center field.
Now the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals have 48 hours to heal their psyches, after the sort of October defeat that — when mixed with overthinking — can be the toxic cocktail that ruins a season.
The Cardinals should have a 2-0 lead in this World Series. For a variety of reasons — including a crucial error by superstar Albert Pujols — they don’t. The Rangers scored twice against closer Jason Motte in the ninth inning Thursday night. They won, 2-1, to steal momentum and home-field advantage. The next three games will be played at Rangers Ballpark — where the outfield is smaller, the weather is warmer, and the offense is bigger.
“The ball flies in Texas — everybody knows that,” acknowledged St. Louis starter Edwin Jackson. In other words: Jackson, the Game 4 starter, is well aware of the hitter-happy conditions both teams will encounter.
For one weekend, Tony La Russa’s beloved National League strategizing — which didn’t do him much good in Game 2, anyway — will be as useful as shoulder pads on a golf course. Texas will be able to dictate the terms, and the series could hinge on how resolute the Cardinals are in Game 3 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FOX).
The Cardinals don’t need a day off to reflect. But they’re going to get one. “It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve lost a ballgame,” Motte told reporters. “It’s happened before. … You have to (be) ready to go next time when the phone rings.”
It’s unclear how St. Louis will respond after fumbling away a grand chance to take command of this series. Pujols didn’t stick around to address the media after the game, after his botched cutoff of Jon Jay’s throw from center allowed the winning run to advance into scoring position. The lack of accountability was inexcusable from a man who is frequently described as a good teammate — and will soon want to be paid like the greatest player in the game.
A number of other St. Louis veterans — Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina — were noticeably absent from the clubhouse afterward, leaving younger teammates to face the large World Series media contingent. Unless there were extenuating personal circumstances, it was a weak showing on a night when the international baseball spotlight shined on St. Louis.
In almost every case, answering questions from the media has little to do with whether a team wins or loses its next game. But this was one occasion when Pujols, as a team spokesman, should have accepted the blame for his defensive blunder and reassured those inside and outside the clubhouse that the Cardinals were going to be fine. (There is no doubt Texas leader Michael Young would have done so if the Rangers had lost.)
Maybe Pujols didn’t want to hear any reporters ask about what could have been his final home game in St. Louis — if the Rangers win three straight, and if Pujols signs elsewhere this offseason. But that’s not a credible reason, particularly because the Cardinals should be able to bring this series back to St. Louis for Game 6.
The Cardinals are frequently described as an American League team playing in the National League. The next three games will be their chance to prove it. St. Louis led the NL in runs scored this season, and now La Russa gets to add another bat to his lineup — Allen Craig, the pinch-hit star in Games 1 and 2 who is likely to be the St. Louis designated hitter.
Craig, 27, began his career as a right-handed-hitting corner infielder — hardly the fast track to playing time with Pujols ensconced (for now) at first base. But Craig mashes left-handed pitching, to the tune of a 1.000 OPS in 67 at-bats this year. That will come in handy, with Texas set to start southpaws in Games 3-5: Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and C.J. Wilson.
“We can’t wait to get Allen Craig in there,” Cardinals third baseman David Freese said after the loss. “He deserves to be in there. And if we have to wait until the World Series to get him into the lineup every day, then so be it.”
Craig has delivered a pinch-hit RBI in each of his past three games, tying a postseason record. If Motte had retired the Rangers in order during the ninth, Craig would have been celebrated as the Game 2 hero. Instead, he answered questions at his locker in a quiet clubhouse. “We’re all right — we’ve played well on the road,” he insisted.
Craig later surmised, “I wouldn’t be surprised if both teams pick it up offensively.”
In short, Craig said precisely what Pujols was supposed to say — filling in admirably for Prince Albert following the game, after being more productive than him during the game. No matter how these games in Texas unfold, it was enough to make you wonder whether perhaps Craig may one day be called upon to replace Pujols in a more permanent way.
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