Rangers rookie hogs attention in Game 3

Mitch Moreland is a rookie first baseman. He bats ninth for the Texas Rangers. He was drafted in the 17th round in 2007. He signed for $60,000. At this time last year, crowds numbering in the dozens watched him play for the Surprise Rafters of the Arizona Fall League.

I hope he enjoyed the anonymity.

It’s over.

For two games in San Francisco, the mighty Texans looked feeble. Then came the second inning of Game 3, when Moreland uncoiled on a fastball and Cody Ross barely budged in right field. Ross had been the favorite underdog of this postseason. Now he has company.

The stands swallowed the ball, and the World Series changed. A scoreless tie turned into a 3-0 Rangers lead. By the time Neftali Feliz closed out a 4-2 win, Texas had a new folk hero.

“Just a guy from Mississippi,” said a grinning Jeff Francoeur, “who really doesn’t know what he just did.”

Moreland hails from Amory, which he described (with a drawl) as follows: “Not a whole lot going on …We got a Wal-Mart … We used to hang out in the Wendy’s parking lot … It’s not real big, maybe 8,000 (people).”

In those parts, he acknowledged, Tupelo is the big city.

The highlights will show the swing that made Moreland famous, but the folks in Northeast Mississippi are probably prouder of the eight pitches that came before. Moreland was known for his mettle long before his encounter with Jonathan Sanchez on Saturday night. Now we know why.

With two on and two out, Moreland morphed into Johnny Damon — a pitch-swatting savant who refused to go away without making hard contact. The count ran 2-2, and he flicked away four off-speed pitches.

A slider. Another slider. A changeup. Another changeup. With each hack, he earned a chance to stay at the plate a little longer.

On the ninth pitch, the ninth batter won. The fastball caught too much of the plate — inner half, just above the knee. With one swing, Moreland produced three more runs than Texas had scored in all of Game 2.

The best praise he received: The veterans around him weren’t surprised.

“That at-bat was signature,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “He’s battling. He’s fighting stuff off. He’s fouling off off-speed pitches. He got one up in the zone and put a good swing on it. I’ve always got a good feeling when Mitch is at the plate.”

“In a pennant race, in the postseason, now in the World Series, he’s really showing what he’s made of,” praised Michael Young. “Tough kid. Works hard. Great teammate. He’s going to have a good career. He’s never going to mail in an at-bat.”

And to think a few months ago, the Rangers believed that Justin Smoak was their first baseman of the future. Smoak, a switch-hitter with power, was easy for the scouts to love. He was a franchise cornerstone. He was untouchable … until he wasn’t. On July 9, he was shipped to the Seattle Mariners in a package for Cliff Lee.

Smoak was the team’s everyday first baseman at the time, which made the Rangers even more reluctant to part with him. But they sounded confident about the young left-handed hitter who was next in line, Chris Davis.

Davis is regarded as an excellent defender. But he didn’t hit. He batted just .189 over his next 15 games. So the Rangers dipped back into their farm system once more.

Moreland wasn’t exactly an A-list prospect. He lacked Davis’ size, strength and athleticism. He was inexperienced at first base, having played only 12 games there at Class AAA Oklahoma City. Two years earlier, the organization flirted with the idea of making him a pitcher.

Moreland may have lacked pedigree, but he compensated with a deep sense of self-belief. He’s had it for years. The Rangers learned that when they drafted him after his junior year at Mississippi State. Moreland took a hard line in negotiations.

“Kid battled me the entire time,” Rangers scout Jeff Wood recalled Saturday. “He actually told me he was going back to school. I will always remember him feeling slighted at the time of his signing. He told me, ‘I am going to make it to the big leagues.’”

On July 29, he did.

Moreland batted .255 during the regular season. He was mostly a platoon player, with Jorge Cantu starting against left-handers. That changed during the first round against Tampa Bay, when manager Ron Washington decided (wisely) that he needed Moreland’s competitiveness in the lineup every day.

And so Saturday’s big moment was a fitting benchmark in Moreland’s development: The home run came against a left-handed pitcher.

“What’s more admirable than his success against left-handers is the way he handled not playing every day,” Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle said. “The way he kept himself busy and went about his business — he never had to do that before. He hit left-handers before. He’s just a real tough kid.”

If Young is right — and he usually is — Moreland might play first base in Arlington for the next several years. At the very least, he has earned a spot in the 2011 Opening Day lineup. Not bad for someone who spent nearly four months in the minors and earned a normal-guy wage of around $150,000 this year.

With three more wins, Moreland’s full playoff share would far exceed that.

Francoeur smiled when asked what the rookie might buy with so much money.

“Probably a gun, if you know Mitch,” Francoeur answered. “And a truck. And more land to hunt on.”

Moreland laughed off the question, saying he needs to get his feet under himself first — even though it seems like he already has.

On a night when the Rangers had to win, the understudy to the replacement became a star.