The World Series contest that’s been instantly enshrined in history for Albert Pujols detonating three tons of TNT into the Arlington night (and then graciously sticking around to chat about it afterwards) was really decided before the King completely got his groove back. Those three homers that defined Game Three, every one of them a Poke of Pujolsian Proportions, were mammoth, majestic, magnificent…and just a shade beside the point.
The Rangers were going to lose this thing on their own merit before Albert really hit his stride. Texas did almost everything wrong, starting with drawing Ron Kulpa as the first base umpire. The home team was rooked by a lousy call, one of those instances in which a baseball-watching nation sees one thing and the only man whose vision matters sees something else — something that didn’t happen. Mike Napoli received a lousy throw from Ian Kinsler but slapped a definitive tag on Matt Holliday. Holliday was out, except to Kulpa, who seemed to be standing somewhere in downtown Fort Worth when he made his mysterious Jim Joycean judgment.
One Super Bowl III final later, it didn’t seem to matter, but who knows how a game’s shape is altered by a Sliding Doors ruling? In a parallel universe, Matt Harrison pitches differently and perhaps more soundly in that fourth inning, with two out and nobody on, trailing only 1-0. Instead, he gets worse and worse, and the Rangers get worse and worse (including poor Napoli, who channels Jeremy Reed on one particularly dismal fling home) and Texas is lucky to escape that frame down a mere five runs.
The Rangers surged back into competition in the bottom of the inning as one can apparently do in Arlington’s charming bandbox and with a lineup as dangerous as Texas’s against a pitcher as terminally undistinguished as Kyle Lohse. Michael Young homers. Nelson Cruz homers. It’s 5-3. Lohse joins Harrison as a former participant in the evening’s proceedings. The Rangers threaten to edge ever closer when Kinsler lifts a one-out fly ball that ought to score Napoli from third, but Napoli adds to his night of woes by making a lousy slide to the wrong side of home plate and he’s out to end the inning.
By now, it was clear we were past the “admirable” portion of the World Series, the segment in which stifling pitching and crisp defense were setting the tone. This was now the kind of night in which the likes of D.J. Carrasco and Ryota Igarashi would have felt right at home (which would be great for Igarashi, who could use a new professional home right about now). Scott Feldman, however, would have to do for Ron Washington. A hit, a couple of walks, a well-placed grounder and a killer double from Yadier Molina, whom I regret to inform the portion of Metsopotamia that doesn’t deign to watch World Series games, is October-lethal even when Aaron Heilman isn’t around. The Cardinals were up 8-3 in the middle of the fifth, and Pujols had yet to homer once.
Texas made one last stand, with three consecutive hits and a run to open their portion of the fifth, which was presumably fine with Tony La Russa, because it gave him an excuse to make a pitching change; Tony La Russa going more than ten minutes without making a pitching change is like Don Draper going ten minutes between cigarettes. Lance Lynn replaced Fernando Salas and, sure enough, the Rangers bats continued to smoke. A single, a sac fly and a pair of walks led to the bases being loaded, the Rangers pulling to within 8-6 and Kinsler having every chance to re-alter the trajectory of what was — depending on your preference — a pulsating offensive display or a total pitching fiasco.
Then, on a two-two delivery, Lynn popped up Kinsler to Rafael Furcal for the third out. And just like that, with four innings to go, the game was over.
And the exhibition was on.
BOOM!!! went Pujols’s first home run, a three-run blast off Alexi Ogando in the sixth, to make the score Cardinals 11 Rangers 6.
BOOM!!! went Pujols’s second home run, a two-run job off Mike Gonzalez in the seventh, to make the score Cardinals 14 Rangers 6.
BOOM!!! went Pujols’s third home run, a solo shot off Darren Oliver in the ninth, to make the score Cardinals 16 Rangers 7.
Albert was having a pretty good game when the issue was still in doubt. He had singled twice and driven in a run. But he had a phenomenal game as it was becoming abundantly clear the Rangers had blown their myriad chances to hang in with the Cardinals. Merge Albert’s two games, as the box score does, and it seems pretty clear Albert Pujols just crafted the best game any batter ever put together in a World Series.
Which is really saying something, no matter how little Albert chose to say two nights earlier.
On another night, Kulpa’s atrocious call would be the main story. Or Napoli’s all-around Schleprock luck. Or maybe Molina’s four RBIs. Or Allen Craig’s first-inning home run, which gave him three hits in his first three World Series at-bats. Or the burning of the Texas bullpen — five pitchers used, none throwing fewer than sixteen pitches. Or the way Lynn restored a semblance of order to an almost lawless game, getting Kinsler in the fifth, facing only three batters in the sixth and collecting two outs in the seventh before giving way to Octavio Dotel.
But there’s never been a night in which one man came to bat in the World Series six times, recorded five hits, walloped three home runs, drove in six runs, accumulated fourteen total bases and increased his already stratospheric market value exponentially. So yeah, Albert Pujols, whose exploits evoked necessary statistical shoutouts to Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, was the main story.
That he wasn’t the primary reason the Cardinals won the game we’ll just keep between us.