Following the madness of the 2011 postseason, one of the longest and strangest on record, might have been best done from a safe room, which is exactly where you would have found Rangers pitcher Derek Holland on Sunday night when he wasn't throwing 8 1/3 fittingly improbable shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series. The Chill Room, as fellow starter C.J. Wilson calls it, is a special hideout for Texas pitchers at Rangers Ballpark.
This is an article from the Oct. 31, 2011 issue
Tucked into a corner of a large storage room behind the Rangers' dugout, the room is little more than a plywood pod of about 60 square feet, with seven feet of headroom, a flat-screen television on the wall and two upholstered stool-height chairs at a counter in front of the TV. To even enter the tiny space, you have to squeeze past a portable air-conditioning unit that grinds in the thick of the brutal Texas summer heat and gives the room its name—though the few fist- and foot-sized holes in the plywood walls suggest the metaphysical gradient in the room is not always so cool.
Eight times Holland on Sunday would throw a shutout inning and then repair to the Chill Room. He imagined himself a boxer, girded for a nine-round fight, returning to his corner between rounds. Says Wilson, "It's like getting unplugged. You come in, reset and go back out like it's the first inning all over again."
Usage of the Chill Room fairly sums up the 107th World Series. For four games the Cardinals and the Rangers alternated wins and losses, hot and cold, red hats and blue hats, managerial genius and doltishness, the sublime and—especially if you got a gander at Holland's famous attempt at a mustache—the ridiculous. "One thing about this Series," Wilson said, "is there's no such thing as breathing room. There's no, like, scrub dudes in the other lineup."
It wasn't until Game 5 on Monday that either team won a second straight game. Texas, with Wilson on the mound to start—he allowed one earned run in 5 1/3 innings—and catcher Mike Napoli delivering a tie-breaking, two-run double in the eighth, broke the oscillation pattern of the series with a 4--2 win to move within one victory of the franchise's first world championship. Among current droughts, the Rangers' 51-season wait for a title is exceeded only by those of the Indians (63) and the Cubs (103), though Texas, which began in Washington as the Senators in 1961 and moved to Arlington in 1972, lacks any ghosts or curses to make for an entertainingly tortured existence. If the Rangers suffer from any curse at all, it has been the curse of irrelevance.
The back-and-forth nature of the Series made for one of unusual length, with baseball getting only its second World Series Game 6 in the past eight years, and the possibility of ending the longest wait for a Game 7 (nine years) since the best-of-seven format was permanently installed in 1922. Game 6, scheduled for Wednesday in St. Louis, would be the 37th postseason game played this year. Only once before (38 games in 2003) were so many games needed to decide a champion. Such has been the chaotic nature of this October.
This year was one of the starkest reminders yet of why postseason baseball bears little resemblance to the regular-season game, perhaps shedding for good the archaic notion that the World Series crowns the best team of the year. The reality is that it rewards the team that happens to be the best during the four-week October tournament. The top teams in each league over 162 games, the Yankees and the Phillies, never made it out of the first round. None of the top nine teams as ranked by Opening Day payroll and none of the top eight as ranked by regular-season ERA won a postseason series.
Even the time-honored belief that great starting pitching wins championships was blown to bits. Entering Game 6 of the World Series, starting pitchers this postseason were 21--29, having been knocked out in four innings or less more times (16) than they lasted seven (14). The cascade of runs and early knockouts put these games more than usual into the hands of managers, with Tony La Russa of St. Louis and Ron Washington of Texas combining to change pitchers 122 times this postseason through Monday.
"I don't like this," La Russa said from the steps of his dugout before Game 4 in Arlington, reflecting on the previous night in which the Cardinals and Rangers combined to score 23 runs, or more than were scored in the entire 1963 and '66 World Series—and La Russa's team won the darn game, 16--7. "It's hard on the players, the coaches and the managers. There is never a point where you feel like the game is in control."
Only one team, the 1936 Yankees, has scored more runs in a World Series game than the Cardinals did in Game 3, which will be remembered as the singular property of Albert Pujols. The greatest hitter of his generation gave the performance of a lifetime, laying claim to the night the way Lincoln did Gettysburg and Hendrix did Woodstock. The St. Louis first baseman joined Babe Ruth (1926 and '28) and Reggie Jackson (1977) as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game. But for an entire collection of hitting exploits, Pujols's night stood above all others as the greatest ever.
After a well-struck first-inning groundout, Pujols produced five straight hits off five pitchers in his next nine swings, good for six runs batted in and 14 total bases. The five hits (Paul Molitor, 1982) and six RBIs (Bobby Richardson in 1960 and Hideki Matsui in 2009) tied World Series records, and the 14 total bases shattered the previous Series single-game mark of 12 (Ruth and Jackson). "What it means," says Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire, "is move over, Mr. October. There's a new Mr. October."
Pujols smashed a small mountain's worth of homers—1,226 feet to be exact, or the precise elevation of Little Mount Grace in Warwick, Mass. His first, a 423-foot sortie rudely interrupted by the facing of the leftfield upper deck at Rangers Ballpark, left even his teammates in awe, for Pujols turned around a 96-mph fastball from Texas righthander Alexi Ogando that was above the top of the strike zone on the inside half of the plate. Says Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday, "To not just get that ball, but to hit it with backspin and hit it that far is amazing. It's hard to hit a ball that far in BP. There's not a lot of guys, if anybody else, who can do that. He may be the only one."
"The Ogando homer," infielder Skip Schumaker said when asked to pick out his favorite Pujols masterpiece, referring to the shot by name as if it were The Starry Night in the Van Gogh oeuvre. "The guy was throwing a thousand miles an hour."
While Pujols was readying to bat in the ninth, with the Cardinals leading 15--7 and the game and his might no longer in doubt, rookie outfielder Adron Chambers went up to him in the dugout and said, "You might as well go up there and hit another one." Pujols just looked at Chambers and gave a little laugh. Then he went up and hit a parting shot, a 397-foot coda, as modest as his homers came but still a no-doubter, off lefthander Darren Oliver.
"I ran up and hugged him," Chambers says. "I mean, I can't believe it. He hit another one like it was just that easy. To be here and be able to see it? Wow. I'm lucky."
As he left the clubhouse, pitcher Adam Wainwright said, "I'm going back and playing MLB The Show, and I'm going to be Albert Pujols."
Said Pujols after his magnum opus performance, "Hopefully at the end of my career I can look back and say, 'Wow, what a game it was in Game 3 in 2011.' But as of right now, it's great to get this win and just move on pretty much and get ready to play tomorrow."
Neither La Russa nor Pujols is under contract with the Cardinals for next year—the manager has a mutual option with the team, and the slugger will become a free agent next week—though St. Louis wants both back to continue what has become a long, familial run. The first time La Russa saw Pujols was at an Instructional League game in Jupiter, Fla., back in 1999, the year the Cardinals selected him in the 13th round of the draft.
"There are certain players the front office lets you know about that have a chance to be special," says La Russa, who took over as manager in 1996. "They told me Albert was one of those players. The first time I saw him, he hit a home run. He got my attention. He was a little heavy then, not a great body. The next time I saw him was in the Arizona Fall League the next year, and you could see he had worked hard to get in shape."
Pujols made the Cardinals' Opening Day roster in 2001, the first of his 11 seasons under La Russa. They are inexorably linked, personally and professionally, and a second world championship together would cement their shared iconic status, like Torre and Jeter, Anderson and Bench, Alston and Koufax, Stengel and Mantle. No National League manager has won a second World Series since Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers in 1988.
"The relationship we have is like family," La Russa said of his bond with Pujols. "I can't say it's unlike some other ones I've had. There were guys like Stew [Dave Stewart] and Eck [Dennis Eckersley] and other guys, but yes, it's like family with Albert. What's important is that everyone on our staff—it's not about me—treats everyone with respect.
"I'm really proud of what we've done over the years to make this a place where players like to come to our organization."
The World Series showcased two of La Russa's signature traits: aggressive bullpen usage and a fierce defense of his star players. In Game 1, La Russa used five relievers to secure the last nine outs after ace Chris Carpenter handed over a 3--2 lead. Washington, mindful of La Russa's reputation, had cracked before the Series that not even he expected to "match a wit" with the manager with more wins than any other except Connie Mack and John McGraw. Sure enough, in his last, best shot at tying Game 1, Washington used Esteban German—a guy who hadn't taken an at bat in 22 days—as a pinch hitter with the tying run at second with two outs in the seventh inning. St. Louis reliever Marc Rzepczynski fanned him on three pitches.
Washington, however, won the Game 2 chess match. The Rangers, trailing 1--0, were three outs from going down two games to none when they thwarted La Russa's bullpen machinations to score twice and win, 2--1. The key play occurred with no outs when Pujols, near the mound as a cutoff man, misplayed a throw from centerfielder Jon Jay, allowing the Rangers' Elvis Andrus, representing the potential go-ahead run, to advance from first to second. Andrus then went to third and finally home on fly balls. The deciding run was unearned because of Pujols's error.
After the game, a swarm of reporters gathered at the first baseman's locker for an explanation of the key play. Pujols, however, left Busch Stadium without making himself available to the media, as did veterans Holliday and Lance Berkman, leaving youngsters such as Jay and losing pitcher Jason Motte to answer questions. At the very least, it was an ignorance of his responsibility as a franchise player involved in the key play of the ninth inning of a World Series game. The next day Pujols, whose no-show brought national criticism, defiantly maintained he had done nothing wrong because the media had not asked for him. Though his position was not rooted in any postseason protocol—star players, especially when involved in key plays, are available by expectation, not invitation—La Russa aggressively defended him.
"If anybody had said, 'We need to talk to Albert,' he would have stayed," La Russa said. "So I think we have responsibility. We're willing to live up to it, but somebody has got to be fair with us. I heard the criticism, and it offends me because I know our attitude as an organization is 180 degrees different from the way it's being portrayed. Nobody asked for those guys, and they got out of there. They had other things to do."
A day later, thanks to his historic night, Pujols was a media darling. Indeed, with his bat he had provided baseball with something of extraordinary value that had been missing for a decade of World Series play: a performance that becomes an instant addition to the game's oral history, like the three homers from Reg-gie that happened so long ago that Pujols himself had yet to be born. "This is certainly something you can tell your grandkids about," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "What makes it even more special is, he has carried the pressure of an entire city on his shoulders night in and night out for more than a decade. He deserves it."
Nothing, however, better defined the fast-changing nature of this postseason than what happened after the Game 3 Cardinals outburst. The very next night Pujols went 0 for 4 and St. Louis was bechilled by Holland and closer Neftali Feliz, 4--0, on two hits. There have been 63 World Series games in which a team scored at least 10 runs. This was only the third time such a hot-hitting team came up with nothing in the next game.
Holland seemed a most unusual candidate for such superlative pitching, and not only because of his youth (he just turned 25) and comically sparse hair above his upper lip. In two ALCS starts he had an ERA of 8.59 and was pitching on Sunday with seven days of rest. Before Game 4, Washington literally grabbed him on the top step of the dugout and forcefully lectured him on the importance of pitching inside—but not so recklessly as to hit St. Louis batters, particularly since it might look like leftover frustration from the 16-run beating the night before. Washington capped his pep talk with the exclamation of a slap across the pitcher's not-so-fuzzy cheek.
"It's like a handshake we have," Holland said.
The lefthander executed his game plan almost flawlessly, burying pitches on the hands of St. Louis hitters while sending his curveball diving to the bottom of the strike zone and below. He made the Cardinals look like, well, scrub dudes. He became the third-youngest pitcher in World Series history to throw shutout ball into the ninth inning while permitting as few as two hits—the youngest since Waite Hoyt of the 1921 Yankees and Bill James of the 1914 Braves, who both were 22. Napoli broke open a 1--0 game in the sixth when he blew up La Russa's first bullpen move—righthander Mitchell Boggs entering after starter Edwin Jackson issued the last of his seven walks—with a first-pitch three-run homer.
After he gave up a one-out walk in the ninth, Holland's night ended as it began—with a meeting with Washington. The manager came out to the mound and told the lefty he was taking him out.
"Wash," Holland pleaded, "let me stay in. I can get a double play."
"I know you can," the manager said, "but I'm going with Nefti."
"Wash, let me stay. I've worked hard for this."
"No. You're going to give me the ball, son, and just soak up that crowd on your way off."
Said Holland, "He gave me that little laugh of his—'Ha-ha!'—and out I went."
Rangers president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan called Holland's effort "the game of his life." Holland didn't disagree, saying, "Yes, because this is the big stage. I was able to step up." Holland succeeded in making certain the World Series would be a long one, that it would return to St. Louis. One last back and forth in a give-and-take October.
Get more analysis and video reports from Tom Verducci as well as complete coverage of the final games of the World Series.