ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was fitting that the final out of Game 5 was recorded after a dropped third strike.
Each of the first four games of this World Series had been a classic, the first two tense and tightly played one-run affairs, the third and fourth won due in large measure to transcendent and sustained individual performances, by Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols and then Rangers starter Derek Holland.
The Series' fifth game was different. It was sloppy. It was chaotic. It was riddled with the inexplicable -- balls that were flung and deflected all over the place, balls that would normally have been picked up by sure-handed players that were not picked up, balls that would normally have been hit in important at-bats by productive batters that were not hit, odd miscommunications and strategic decisions by a manager, the Cardinals' Tony La Russa, who will one day enter the Hall of Fame. It ended with a 4-2 Rangers victory, one that gave them a 3-2 series lead and put them on the cusp of their first championship.
"We definitely had to fight through that game," Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland said. "It's not going to be clean every time. The end result was what we wanted."
It was, but the Rangers' attainment of that result came after a slog through the muck. The game featured a total of 13 bases on balls, six of them intentional. C.J. Wilson, the Rangers' starter, walked five batters in his 5 1/3 innings.
It featured three errors but several more strange misplays that did not officially qualify as such. The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the top of the second thanks, in large measure, to the Rangers' bungles. A wild pitch by Wilson allowed Matt Holliday, who had led off the inning with a walk, to advance to second and then to score on a one-out single by Yadier Molina. But David Murphy simply could not pick up the ball in leftfield after Molina's hit, allowing Lance Berkman -- who had also walked -- to advance to third. Then Skip Schumaker hit a sure double-play grounder to Moreland at first, but Moreland, too, mishandled it, meaning that he had time only to step on first as Berkman crossed home plate.
Then it was the Cardinals' turn to play below their abilities. Molina's single would prove their only hit of the night with runners in scoring position -- and they had 12 opportunities, repeatedly putting runners on base only to strand them there. The Cardinals left 12 men on base and could never strike a fatal blow.
"We had a lot of chances -- what did we have, nine or 10 times to add a run?" La Russa said. "It's a very disappointing, frustrating loss."
The Rangers had tied the game on solo home runs off Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter, by Moreland in the third -- such a no-doubter that the Rangers' stadium operator started to play the music from "The Natural" before it had even landed in the second deck of right field -- and then by Adrian Beltre in the sixth, who sank to his knee a moment before taking Carpenter deep. Michael Young led off the bottom of the eighth with a double off St. Louis reliever Octavio Dotel, and then, after Dotel struck out Beltre, he intentionally walked Nelson Cruz. In came Marc Rzepczynski, the lefty specialist, to face David Murphy, and he got the double-play ball he wanted -- a hard grounder up the middle. Had Rzepczynski let the ball pass him by, Nick Punto and Rafael Furcal would have likely turned the double play, and the result would likely have been the same had Rzepczynski cleanly fielded it. But he deflected it, and it trickled into no man's land, loading the bases.
La Russa said that he had called for right-handed closer Jason Motte to warm up alongside Rzepczynski, but that order was somehow lost in translation, and Motte was not ready when the righthanded Mike Napoli came up next. So it was that he left Rzepczynski in to face Napoli, the Rangers' No. 8 hitter, and probably the most powerful No. 8 hitter ever to play in a World Series game.
It was then that this confused and ugly game had its moment of beauty. Napoli fouled a pitch off and then took a ball, and then, on Rzepczynski's third pitch, as the crowd chanted "Nap-O-Li! Nap-O-Li!," he hit a shot deep to right center. It would result in a double and two RBIs, and it would prove the game-winner.
Two Octobers ago, when he was a member of the Angels, Napoli's then manager, Mike Scioscia, thought so little of him as a catcher that he gave more postseason at-bats to Jeff Mathis, despite the fact that Napoli had in the regular season slugged 20 home runs and had an OPS of .842, and Mathis had hit five homers with an OPS of .596. In his first season with Texas, Napoli hit 30 home runs and had an OPS of 1.046, but he proved himself to be more than a one-dimensional slugger.
"I want to be a complete player," he said Monday. "You know, I'm not just here trying to be an offensive player. My job is to get pitchers through innings, give them a quality start, try to get us a win. I'm trying hard on the defensive side. That's my main goal. And then when I come up to hit, I hit."
In Game 5, he again proved himself a complete player -- guiding his pitchers out of trouble time after time, twice gunning down Allen Craig on stolen-base attempts that were, with Pujols at the plate, ill-advised, and then striking the game's decisive blow.
Should the Rangers win the series, he will almost undoubtedly be its MVP, as he has now driven in nine runs, more than three times as many as any of his teammates. On Monday night, in a game that was played as though it was enveloped in a deep fog, he was the Rangers' guiding light.