It took 50 seasons, but History finally befriended the Texas Rangers last night. This was the honest-to-goodness History, the tell-your-grandkids kind of History that has filled encyclopedias worth of memories for franchises such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants and, good gosh, even the teal-covered Marlins.
The Rangers had none of it. Theirs was a lower-case history of obscurity, trivia and, too often, even comedy. When the players were introduced in San Francisco for Game 1 of this World Series, for instance, they were met by Giants fans with the insulting reaction of nothingness. There was nothing to dislike about the Rangers, nothing to fear.
You could make a case that the two most iconic moments in franchise history were worthy not of Cooperstown but of blooper reels: Jose Canseco heading a flyball over the outfield wall in Cleveland for a home run and Nolan Ryan ramming his bare-fisted knuckles over the scalp of Robin Ventura. Great moments if you're a fan of slapstick, but baseball?
One pitch changed all of that. Facing a must-win game in the franchise's first-ever home World Series game last night, and batting in the second inning with two outs and two on, Mitch Moreland drove a fastball from Jonathan Sanchez into the happiness of the rightfield seats for what was an immutable 3-0 lead.
It was the greatest home run in Texas Rangers history.
Never heard of Mitch Moreland? You're not alone. Sanchez never addressed him by name after the game, calling him several times "the first baseman," as in "I made a good pitch to the first baseman. It wasn't a bad pitch. I made a good pitch to the first baseman."
Can you blame him? Moreland, 25, had started only four times this year against lefthanders and never had hit a home run against one. (Sanchez had never allowed a three-run homer to a lefty.) He was so buried in the minors behind Justin Smoak and Chris Davis this year that the Rangers had him playing the outfield -- until the day Texas traded Smoak for Cliff Lee and his Triple-A manager told him to start working at first base.
Moreland is a guy whose stock in trade was his ability to grind out at-bats and to throw a baseball so hard that the Rangers thought a few years ago about using him as a pitcher. Indeed, Moreland, who can throw 93 mph, throws harder than Sanchez. He was hitting ninth in the order last night, and Sanchez was so happy to face him that with a runner on third and two outs he pitched around Bengie Molina, the number eight hitter, just to get to Moreland.
"I wanted to pitch around him," Sanchez said. "I got the lefty coming up next. I didn't want to give Bengie a pitch to hit with two outs."
"One run," Molina said, "changes the game there."
There was one hitch to Sanchez's plan. The pitcher who gave up the fewest hits per nine innings in baseball this year, and who held batters to a .124 batting average after getting a second strike, pitched to Moreland as if trying to solve a Rubik's cube. The at-bat went on for nine maddening pitches. After getting that second strike, Sanchez tried four straight off-speed pitches -- two breaking balls and two changeups -- and Moreland fouled off every one of them, sometimes by the slimmest of margins.
That's when Sanchez came up with an idea: throw a fastball inside to get him off the off-speed stuff in order to set up another slider away for the out pitch. Sanchez never got to throw that last slider. Moreland somehow reacted to the first fastball that he had seen in five pitches and hammered it.
"Honestly," he said, "I just wanted to see it and hit it. That's all I was trying to do."
It must be mentioned that Sanchez's fastball was a shadow of its former self, just as it was in his flameout against the Phillies in the NLCS. He was pushing the ball up there at 88 and 89 miles an hour, several ticks down from his Grade A heater and lacking its signature late life. It's something to file away if this World Series happens to get to a seventh game, when Sanchez's turn comes up again.
With that one swing, Moreland turned around that pitch and the series. The Rangers still trail, two games to one, but as Molina said, "This was a huge game for us. We were down 2-0. It gives us the edge right now. We come to the park tomorrow fired up."
For the next two games, the Rangers remain at home, where, unlike at AT&T Park, their fly balls carry beyond the outfield wall. And now, thanks to Moreland, they have befriended History. The double Vlad Guerrero hit in NLCS Game 6 was a huge hit, but that was not a must-win situation and it wasn't the World Series. No, this moment was something much bigger. The moment belonged to Moreland. And now it belongs to generations of Rangers fans.
The second most important pitch of the game was a 3-and-2 pitch from Texas reliever Darren O'Day to Buster Posey, representing the tying run that the plate with two outs in the eighth inning. The pitch tells you everything you need to know about how important Molina is to this team and how important Angels manager Mike Scioscia is to Molina.
Posey had mounted a brave at-bat against O'Day, climbing from an 0-and-2 hole to the full count. Closer Neftali Feliz was throwing in the bullpen. It was a monumental intersection in the game. A home run ties the game at 4. A walk brings the go-ahead run to the plate, and possibly Feliz into a rare eighth-inning emergency spot. (Feliz obtained more than three outs for a save only twice this year.)
"You don't want the winning run coming up there," third baseman Michael Young said. "The kid [Posey] had a great at-bat. If he gets on base there, you don't know what happens. Maybe Feliz does comes in. Who knows?"
Molina put down signs for a fastball and also a slider, both of them away. O'Day shook off both of them. Molina called for time and jogged to the mound.
"What do you want here?" Molina asked O'Day.
"I want it inside," the pitcher replied.
"I want it away," Molina said.
And that was it. No argument. No further discussion. The catcher's word was gold.
O'Day had faced Posey in college. He remembered how Posey took an outside pitch and popped it over the rightfield wall for a home run. "Metal bat, 300 feet to right," O'Day said. But he remembered it nonetheless.
"My mom reminded me," he said.
But if Molina said to go away, away it would be, no matter what memories O'Day had from college.
"They're down two runs," Molina explained. "I don't want to make a mistake middle in because then the game is tied. If he makes a mistake away, chances are the game isn't tied."
It's old-school wisdom: don't get beat inside late because mistakes there turn into home runs; mistakes away turn into walks or singles.
"I learned a lot from Mike Scioscia," Molina said. "He was the guy who gave me a chance to play and took me under his wing and taught me."
There was one more thing to do: execute the pitch. It's one thing for Molina to call the pitch, but quite another for O'Day to throw it will conviction.
"[Pitching coach] Mike Maddux gave us T-shirts with that word; it's in here somewhere," O'Day said, flipping through his locked for the red one that said, if a bit inelegantly: "X-ecute with Conviction."
O'Day X-ecuted perfectly, snapping off a slider that broke obediently to the outside edge of the strike zone. Posey couldn't put a good swing on it, and grounded out. Disaster averted, the Rangers and Molina made the right call.
You're Bruce Bochy. Your power-hitting left fielder is 0-for-9 in the World Series with eight punchouts, including four in four trips to the plate in Game 3. The leftfielder also is a liability on defense. So are you putting Pat Burrell in the lineup for Game 4?
The Giants manager wasn't ready to make out his lineup card immediately after Game 3, but neither did he give an assurance that Burrell would be starting tonight.
To his credit, Burrell faced the media quickly after the game and made no excuses.
"I'm getting pitches to hit and not doing anything with them," he said.
Then he was asked how he would feel if Bochy benched him for Game 4 against Rangers starter Tommy Hunter.
"I'd be disappointed," he said. "Could I blame him? Probably not. I'm not exactly swinging the bat well."
Compounding matters for Bochy, his choice for Game 3 DH, Pablo Sandoval, did nothing in three trips to the plate. Bochy could wind up with a new leftfielder and a new DH for Game 4, perhaps running Aaron Rowand and Travis Ishikawa into the lineup.
Bochy has been excellent this postseason about getting off cold hitters and pitchers (Sandoval, Mike Fontenot, Sergio Romo, Ramon Ramirez.) But this is his biggest test yet. Burrell is notoriously streaky and can run into a mistake out of the blue and pop it out of the park. Or he could be four more punchouts waiting to happen. It's Bochy's toughest test yet when it comes to lineup construction.
Chalk one up for the old-school method of use-it-or-lose-it when it comes to pitchers maintaining arm strength and health. It's no secret that Colby Lewis revived his career by going to Japan for two seasons. But Lewis also adopted the in-season throwing regimen of the Japanese, which included running up big pitch counts and throwing often between starts.
Asked what methods he took to the big leagues from Japan, Lewis replied, "A lot of throwing. ... Throwing 120, 125 pitches a night definitely helped me. I definitely didn't do a lot of what they do in spring training. Guys would throw 100-pitch bullpens. But once the season started I threw a lot. My third start of the year, my first year over there, I threw 138 pitches. Over there you just keep pitching as long as you're getting people out."
Lewis is now 227 1/3 innings deep into this year, easily a career high, and yet his stuff is still firm. He is 3-0 this postseason with a 1.71 ERA.
Red-hot Cody Ross is to the postseason what Jose Bautista was to the regular season: don't even try sneaking a fastball by him in the zone. ... Not something for baseball to brag about: Game 3 took nine minutes short of three hours -- and still was the shortest World Series game in nine years. ... Give credit where it's due: the umpires have done a terrific job this postseason, and home plate umpire Bill Miller kept the standard high in Game 3. ... There is a nine-year-old Texas kid who is dressing up as manager Ron Washington for Halloween, having shaved a bald spot into his head and popped a toothpick into his mouth. The players swear he's a miniature dead-ringer and want the kid to deliver the ball to the mound before Game 4 -- as long as he doesn't curse like Washington. The players are still buzzing about his pep talk before ALDS Game 5. "When it was over," Young said, "we were all running to get our bats and run up to the plate to hit."