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Overlooked grinder, strike-thrower help Rangers climb back into Series

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jonathan Sanchez, the Giants' Game 3 starter, is a left-handed pitcher, and Mitch Moreland bats left-handed, and Moreland didn't know if he would start in Game 3. He didn't know -- though he had some idea -- as of Friday, when the best that Rangers manager Ron Washington could do, after listing a number of players who would definitely play on Saturday, was say that Moreland "probably" would be in the lineup. Two nights ago, even though he was then the only Ranger who had hit with any consistency in his club's back-to-back losses, he really didn't know, and he didn't care. "We'll walk in there," he said then, referring to the Rangers' clubhouse, "and if I'm in the lineup I'll be ready, and if I'm not, I'll be ready."

This is an attitude that baseball managers love. They call players like Moreland "grinders," in that they'll keep churning at the same rate no matter what type of meat they're given -- and the 25-year-old Moreland hasn't always been served Wagyu in his four years in the Rangers organization -- and Washington calls Moreland that too, although he also has another word for him. "I call him a dirtbag," Washington was saying in the corner of a buoyant and relieved home clubhouse late Saturday, after the Rangers had beaten the Giants 4-2 to cut San Francisco's Series lead to 2-1. "The guy doesn't exude a whole lot of talent. All he does is get the job done."

Moreland got the job done in his first at-bat against Sanchez. In that at-bat, in the bottom of the second inning of a scoreless game, Moreland made Sanchez throw him nine pitches. Of the first eight, Moreland fouled off five. He fouled off a fastball, two sliders and two changeups, in the process seeing Sanchez's full repertoire and tiring him, too. The ninth pitch, Moreland hit a three-run homer to right, providing the Rangers with all the runs they would need, and getting the job done.

Dirtbaggery ranks rather high among baseball's Seven Virtues, and it is one of the player attributes that scouts and front office types like to say will translate from league to league, no matter how much better the other players get around him. Another one of those attributes is the ability to throw strikes. That was what Colby Lewis, once a big league washout who used to walk nearly as many batters as he struck out (124 walks to 155 strikeouts from 2002 to '07), learned to do during his two seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, and that was the central reason why Rangers GM Jon Daniels this winter outbid at least a dozen major league teams to bring Lewis back to the United States. "Now he's got a much more compact, traditional power delivery, and he pounds the strike zone," Daniels said back in spring training, when Lewis's big league rebirth was still just an idea. "Strikes translate, league to league. And it's not like he's doing it with 86, 88 mile-an-hour, below-average stuff."

Seven months later, on Saturday, Lewis was still throwing strikes -- with 73 of his 104 pitches (including a stunning run between the third and sixth innings in which of his 32 pitches, just four were balls) . And they were not just average strikes. Some were first-pitch strikes, which he threw to 19 of the final 20 batters he faced on the evening. And they were, most of them, quality strikes, of every type, fastballs and sliders and curveballs and changeups, each of which he threw in the strike zone at least two-thirds of the time. "He hasn't done anything but just amaze me," said his catcher, Bengie Molina. "That's what you guys" -- you guys being the news media -- "are missing -- that he can throw all his pitches for strikes. That's why he's so good." And that's why Moreland's second inning three-run home run produced all the runs the Rangers would require.

What the Rangers have come to appreciate about both Mitch Moreland and Colby Lewis is that they both possess the rare ability to be the same every day, and part of their ability to be that stems from the view the players share that baseball is always the same, no matter who they're playing against or with, and no matter the league in which they happen to be playing. Lewis has been asked a lot recently about his experiences playing in Japan, and while some of his answers are interesting (he didn't learn much Japanese but was arranging to hire a tutor if he went back; his brother, Zack, has long scoured internet auction sites for his Japanese baseball cards, an investment with an undoubtedly enviable beta), but in most of them he stresses how the experience wasn't all that unusual. "It's a good time, and it's always noisy, it's always loud," he said yesterday. "I think that's what kind of helps me coming back here with the noise and the celebration and everybody cheering and stuff like that. There's no real big difference, though."

This Lewis said before he had delivered 7 2/3 brilliant innings in a crucial World Series game in front of his hometown fans, and before he'd walked off the mound in the eighth inning as they chanted his name, over and over. "I get goosebumps thinking about it right now," he said of that moment, remembering it less than an hour later. Moreland said something similar, as a crowd of reporters circled him, where even two nights ago there was no crowd. Both learned on Saturday that some things aren't always the same, in every league -- they'd never felt in Nippon Professional Baseball or in Triple-A or in the SEC what they felt after Game 3. It won't be long, however, until Moreland and Lewis return to their natural states -- a grinder, a thrower of strikes -- and that is how the Rangers will need them. It is now certain that Moreland's name will appear on Washington's lineup card, in the No. 9 hole, before every game in this series. Lewis is in line to start Game 7.

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