Friday October 21st, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- Finally, at the very last moment, when they were three outs away from falling behind two games to none in their second straight World Series, the Rangers started to play their brand of baseball. That rediscovery of their identity allowed them to turn a 1-0 ninth-inning deficit to the Cardinals into a 2-1 win, and to tie the series at one game apiece.

Before Game 1, manager Ron Washington had promised that his club would not shy away from the aggressive, base path-churning style that had become their signature, even though they would have to try to steal bases against the Cardinals' rifle-armed catcher, Yadier Molina. "Whether it's Johnny Bench or whoever is back there, Molina, we're going to run, if the numbers say we can run," Washington said.

But Molina gunned down leadoff man Ian Kinsler in the first inning of Game 1. In the 16 innings to follow, the Rangers -- fifth in the majors with 143 stolen bases this season, and seventh in success rate, at 76 percent -- seemed chastened by Molina's looming presence, and didn't try again. On Thursday night, they faced a Cardinals starter, in Jaime Garcia, who, though he is left-handed and though usually pitches to one of history's best-throwing catchers, had proved essentially incapable of stopping runners from stealing bases against him. Even with Molina behind the plate for 85 percent of Garcia's innings, base stealers were successful on 15 of 18 attempts in the regular season. The numbers, in other words, said the Rangers could run.

They did not. In the fourth inning of a scoreless game, Kinsler, the swiper of 30 bases during the regular season -- "I don't think he's that fast, but he's smart," explained his teammate Elvis Andrus of the source of Kinsler's success -- drew a leadoff walk, but then simply stood on first as he watched Andrus fly out, and then Josh Hamilton do the same. Had Kinsler stolen second, he would have likely scored on Michael Young's two-out single to center field, but as it was he reached only third, and Garcia's strikeout of Adrian Beltre stranded him there.

In the sixth, with the game still scoreless, Kinsler hit a one-out single, but this time Washington and Andrus didn't even try to conspire to allow him to attempt a steal. Andrus swung at Garcia's first pitch, and grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Then, in the ninth, with the Cardinals up 1-0 and hot closer Jason Motte on the mound, Kinsler got on base again, due to a soft leadoff blooper to left that somehow fell in. This time, after Motte had gained a one-ball and two-strike advantage on Andrus, and with Andrus preparing to attempt to bunt Kinsler over to put him in position to tie the game, Kinsler took off.

"As soon as I see him get a good jump, I couldn't bunt," Andrus said, explaining why he drew back his back.

Molina rose and fired one of the finest throws of a career full of fine throws -- a clothesline that extended from his right hand to the far right corner of second base -- but Kinsler reached out and stretched as far as he could and touched the bag just before the ball's hasty arrival. "My hand just barely got in there," Kinsler would say. "It took everything I had."

With that one play, Rangers-style baseball seemed to be activated. "From that point right there, we just started running the bases," Washington said. Andrus lined a single to center field, sending Kinsler to third -- but then, brilliantly, Andrus sneaked into second base when Albert Pujols mishandled Jon Jay's throw from the outfield. That set them up for consecutive sacrifice flies, by Hamilton and Young, and then three outs by closer Neftali Feliz. The Rangers had run a loss into a win.

Before that, Game 2 seemed to be following a strangely similar script as had Game 1, edited into only its most basic components. The starters -- Garcia for the Cardinals, Colby Lewis for the Rangers -- pitched even better than Chris Carpenter and C.J. Wilson the night before. Garcia allowed no runs and three hits in his seven innings, Lewis one run and four hits in his 6 1/3. Improbably, the Cardinals recorded their one run against Lewis in the exact same way they had taken the lead against the Rangers on Wednesday. It was the seventh inning this time -- not the sixth -- but again Tony La Russa sent in Allen Craig to pinch-hit for his starting pitcher, again the Cardinals had men on first and third with two outs and the game tied, and again Washington countered with Alexi Ogando. Again Ogando threw a high-90s fastball down in the zone, and again Craig lashed it the other way, for the go-ahead run.

"For a young guy like him to have that kind of cool and be that competitive against a guy with that kind of arm, that's special," La Russa would say. "It was almost a great story for us. Turned out to be a greater one for them."

Craig again was positioned to be the hero, until the Rangers rediscovered themselves in the ninth. As they look to Game 3, which will be played in Texas on Friday -- and which could prove crucial, as 10 of the past 11 World Series that began with a 1-1 tie have been won by Game 3's victor -- they had best remember the reason that they will be going home deadlocked.

"When you're not hitting good, you better do whatever you can," Andrus said.

The Rangers are not hitting well. Just two members of their lineup -- Beltre and Kinsler -- have batted better than .200 in the series' first two games, and their most important hitter, Hamilton, looks a shell of himself due to a groin injury. Before the game, he said that he would likely be on the disabled list, were this the regular season, and he suggested that performing any activity more physically demanding than eating sunflower seeds causes him great pain.

"We know Yadier's one of the best catchers in baseball, but we're not going to be afraid," said Andrus. "If he gets you out, he gets you out. We're not going to stop. Be aggressive on the bases, that's a big part of our game."

For 16 largely unproductive innings in St. Louis, the Rangers seemed to forget that. They were fortunate they remembered in the 17th.

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