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La Russa wins Game 1 chess match

ST LOUIS -- This World Series was billed as a matchup of virtual twins, of clubs that deeply resemble each other in both construction and quality, and so it made sense that in Game 1 the difference between winning and losing came down to not more than the length of a finger.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, with the game tied 2-2 -- thanks to strong efforts from starters Chris Carpenter and C.J. Wilson on a chilly and rainy night at Busch Stadium -- the Cardinals' Allen Craig stepped to the plate, pinch-hitting for Carpenter with men on first and second and two outs, against the Rangers' fireballing reliever Alexi Ogando. After taking ball one, Craig swung through a 96-mph, and then he swung through a 97-mph fastball. Ogando's next pitch came in at 98, but it was down in the zone, which allowed Craig to catch up with it and slice it down the right-field line. Nelson Cruz, the Rangers' right fielder, raced after it even as it tailed away from him, and Cruz slid feet first thrusting out his glove. But the ball was just out of his reach, mere inches from striking leather. David Freese raced home from third and the score was now 3-2, and it would remain that way the rest of the night, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the World Series.

"I thought it was a hit right off the bat," said the soft-spoken Craig as he stood in front of his locker after the game, still wearing his rain-dotted hat and sweatshirt. "Cruz made an unbelievable effort getting that close to it. But it fell in."

Craig's success was the result of yet another wise strategic move by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, whose decisions this postseason have rarely backfired. La Russa admitted that even he thought the odds might be stacked against his pinch-hitter. "Cold weather game, sitting on the bench, World Series, Ogando -- it's not a very good situation."

Rangers manager Ron Washington had conceded on Tuesday the tactical advantage to the veteran La Russa. "I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa, but what I will try to do is put my players in the right position, and if my players perform, I don't have to worry about matching wits," Washington said.

In Game 1, Washington was unable to achieve the same results from his decisions as La Russa did from his. The Rangers had a chance to immediately strike back after Craig's go-ahead single, putting men on first and second with one out in the top of the seventh. Then, against reliever Marc Rzepczynski, Washington pinch-hit for David Murphy with Craig Gentry, who struck out on four pitches. Washington then pinch-hit for Ogando with little-used utilityman Esteban German, and this time it took Rzepczynski only three pitches to register his third strike.

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It was Washington's decision to call upon German that was the curious one. German had taken 11 at-bats all season, the last of them coming 24 days before, against the Seattle Mariners. Moreover, the Rangers had appeared to carry with them a third catcher, Matt Treanor, so they could use Yorvit Torrealba, their second catcher, in key pinch-hit situations such as this. And Washington also had the option of leaving Ogando -- who was, after all, a minor league outfielder with a career .296 average and an .835 OPS -- in to hit against Rzepczynski.

"Righty against a lefty," explained Washington, when asked about his decision. "I thought [German] had a good chance against Rzepczynski, with the breaking stuff he threw. He beat us. That's all there is to it."

"Can you guarantee me that if I used Torrealba, he would have done anything different?" said Washington, when pushed on the matter. "I used the guy that I thought could get me the base hit."

German did not, and then La Russa, once again, expertly deployed his bullpen from there, as Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Jason Motte combined to throw a perfect final two innings.

In this game, both teams' usually prodigious offenses were largely silenced by effective performances from the starting pitchers. The Cardinals scored their first two runs on a fourth-inning Lance Berkman single, and the Rangers scored their only two on an opposite-field home run by Mike Napoli in the fifth. The difference, and it was a small one, came down to decisions by the managers -- but, more importantly, to what the players on whom the managers called did after they'd been called. "I think in the end, you have to give Craig credit -- he beat him," said Washington, "him" referring to Ogando. "We certainly didn't lose tonight. We got beat. Their pinch-hitter got it done, and ours didn't."

The pinch-hitter who got it done, a 27-year-old who in his career hasn't even played a full season's worth of games yet, maintained a strong sense of perspective afterward. "It's the first game, and we've still got three more to win," said Craig. "But it's a good start."