Texas' strategy keeps Pujols at safe distance
Washington's plan to intentionally walk slugger three times works
ARLINGTON -- Ron Washington kept walking Albert Pujols intentionally. The strategy kept working. After a while, you saw a trend emerging.
With, oh, maybe just the whole World Series on the line Monday night, the Rangers' manager kept walking Pujols, until he reached a point when the intentional walk was simply not in order.
Three times Washington ordered Pujols walked intentionally, and three times, he was not bitten by this strategy. In fact, he emerged from the intentional walks looking like an inspired leader of men. Washington did the right thing on those three occasions, and the payoff was a 4-2 victory in Game 5 of the World Series and a 3-2 Fall Classic lead.
Twice, Washington walked Pujols with first base open and runners in front of him. This was business as usual. Matt Holliday, hitting directly behind Pujols in the St. Louis order, is a fine hitter. But he is not Pujols. Neither is anybody else, which is the whole point of the exercise.
Walk the line
In the third inning, after an intentional walk to Pujols with one out, Holliday grounded into a double play. Optimal result there.
In the fifth inning, with two outs and runners on second and third, Washington had Pujols walked intentionally to load the bases. Again, Holliday cooperated with a groundout. Very tidy.
In the seventh inning, the intentional walk to Pujols came in a less obvious form. With one out, Allen Craig, hitting in front of Pujols, walked and then inexplicably attempted to steal second. The Rangers were not stunned into inaction by this strange move, and Craig was thrown out by a wide margin.
"It was just a mix-up," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "It was a mix-up, and on our team, nobody gets thrown under the bus. So it was a mix-up."
With a 1-1 count on Pujols, two outs and nobody on, Washington ordered Pujols walked intentionally. That was a little beyond business as usual.
"Well, I certainly wasn't going to push Craig to second base," Washington said. "So once first base got cleared up, then I put [Pujols] on first base."
This result was not harmful either, although there were some temporary detours on the road to three outs. Holliday singled Pujols to third and took second on the throw to the plate. Presto. Washington pressed the intentional-walk button again, this time for the switch-hitting Lance Berkman. Then reliever Alexi Ogando got David Freese on an inning-ending flyout to center.
WALKING ON THE EDGE
|2005||CHW||3||12||W, 7-5 (14 inn.)|
With Pujols representing the tying run in that situation, circumstances virtually forced Washington to pitch to him.
"I had no choice," Washington said. "And Neftali got it done."
Everybody, including Washington, saw the kind of damage Pujols was capable of doing in Game 3. It was one-man gang stuff: five hits, three homers, six RBIs and 14 total bases.
In a way, that was just the recent evidence. Pujols has been doing damage to opposing pitching staffs for 11 seasons in a way unmatched by any other Major League hitter. The Cardinals, with the National League's leading offense, like their lineup depth. And they should, with Holliday and Berkman being proven hitters, Freese -- the MVP of the NL Championship Series -- emerging as a threat and Yadier Molina having his best offensive season.
But none of those other players is Pujols. He can be regarded as being on a level by himself, because his performance has dictated that status. So if Washington wants to walk him intentionally, it is difficult to imagine a circumstance in which that is the wrong move.
What Washington is implicitly saying here is not necessarily that he has no confidence that his pitcher can retire Pujols. He is saying that this same pitcher is good enough to get everybody else, even with this added runner on base.
None of the four intentional walks issued by the Rangers in Game 5 scored. This led to the inevitable question to Washington of whether he had won "the chess match" with La Russa.
"Nope," Washington said. "As I always say, it's your players that make you look good. You know, I did what I felt I had to do with my players, and that's all I'm worried about. I can't match wits with Tony. I haven't been in this game that long. I just wish I could stay around as long as he has and be as successful as he has. I just trust my players and try to get them in a position where they can be successful, and they haven't let me down so far."
Those players have taken the Rangers to the cusp of the franchise's first World Series championship. They appreciate the role that their manager has played, as well.
"I think the mark of a good manager is putting your players in spots where they can have success, and Wash does that consistently with us," Michael Young said. "His biggest goal is to make sure the lineup he puts out there is one that he feels is going to have a chance to win a ballgame. We have complete faith and trust in Wash, and we know that that's a two-way street."
Four balls to Pujols will help maintain those "complete faith and trust" areas.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.