A couple of minutes before Sunday's first pitch, the FOX production team made one of its better decisions of the night in deciding to fixate on a 30-second exchange between one team's manager and his starting pitcher. The manager rested his two weathered hands on the pitcher's shoulders, stared deep into his pitcher's soul from a distance of no more than eight inches or so, and proceeded to launch forth into the kind of heart-to-heart, father-to-son talk that you could hardly imagine the manager in the other dugout ever staging with one of his own players.
The pitcher listened attentively, gently nodded his head at the appropriate moments, and then served as the eager recipient of a playful slap to the cheek from the manager as he wrapped up his talk and sent him on his way. I don't know exactly what was said during that conversation, and I doubt we'll ever know exactly what was said (though Richard Durrett gives us a fairly decent idea this morning), but then again, I'm not sure that what was said matters so much as the fact that the manager and the pitcher truly connected on a visceral level in that moment. The kid simply didn't want to disappoint his baseball dad again.
Three hours later, the pitcher was being serenaded with his own name by one of the largest crowds in the history of Texas baseball. A few minutes later, the win was carried across the finish line by the erratic-but-thankfully-just-good-enough closer, and the plaudits began to shower down upon the pitcher who had just turned in one of the most brilliant pitching performances in World Series history. His manager beamed, while the purported managerial genius helming the other team found himself -- and his decisions -- peppered with second guesses almost immediately. It turns out that you don't have to win the managerial "chess match" if you overturn the table upon which the chess board is resting.
A month and a half ago, I heralded Derek Holland as the hero that the Rangers both deserved and would need before their season was finished. After a so-so ALDS showing against Tampa Bay and two disastrous ALCS starts against Detroit that earned him a demotion to one-start status going into this Fall Classic, the hero has finally arrived. May the hero live long and be prosperous.
I'm not going to force the "greatest Rangers post-season start ever" narrative down your throat, in part because I still consider that title to be the sole property of Cliff Lee after his Game 3 performance in last year's ALCS ... but I'll be damned if Holland didn't do everything within his power to try and neuralyze our memories of Lee. In his three previous October starts, Holland's aberrant command had, to varying degrees, compromised his ability to execute his intended game plan. His one "successful" start entailed yielding three runs (one earned) in five innings against Tampa Bay, and while he did marginally compensate for his other struggles by tossing 1.1 critical innings in relief of Matt Harrison in Game 4 of the ALDS, the second-half beast that helped fuel the Rangers' run to the division title had re-entered a state of deep hibernation.
But on Sunday? Well, let's see -- Holland (a) allowed just two hits and two walks against seven strikeouts over 8.1 shutout innings; (b) became just the third pitcher in the last 40 years to record at least 8.1 innings while yielding two or fewer hits in a World Series game in the last 40 years, joining Greg Maddux and Jose Rijo in that exclusive club; (c) became just the seventh left-hander since 1919 to post a Game Score of 84 or better in a World Series game (welcome to the Koufax/Johnson/Glavine/Spahn/Ford club); and (d) permitted a whopping three balls to leave the general vicinity of the infield. Two of those were hits off the bat of Lance Berkman.
The rest of the Cardinals' lineup collectively went 0-for-20, and muscled exactly one ball out of the infield. The toast of Game 3, Albert Pujols, threw up a nice 0-for-3 against Holland, and then topped his failure of a night off with a nice ninth-inning fly out to center field against Neftali Feliz to cripple a burgeoning last-minute rally.. That, in a nutshell, is why you don't succumb to the temptation of irrationality and invoke a fear-based automatic walk policy against Pujols just because he torched you 24 hours earlier.
And if there was ever any question as far as the effectiveness of Holland's intended plan of attack against the Cardinals' righty-stacked lineup, allow me to dispel those questions with the following two heat maps (fastballs on the left, curveballs, sliders, and change-ups on the right; click to enlarge; graphics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information):
Heat away, everything else down. It sounds simple because it is simple, but it's not terribly often that you see the game plan executed to such great effect. The Cardinals never did conjure up an adequate plan of attack against Holland's steady heat-based assault (94-95 mph, generally) upon the outer edge of the plate -- and even when Holland caught a bit more of the heart than he intended, the Cardinals would still watch the heat fly past for a called strike (sometimes for strike three), or smash it into the ground only to watch it be gobbled up by some enterprising Rangers infielder.
For whatever it's worth, Holland managed to produce 25 "chases" from the Cardinals' lineup at pitches outside of the strike zone in his 116 pitches of work. That's good for the second-best single-game mark of his major league career, across nearly 70 starts amassed between the regular season and the post-season. He also generated a career-high number of chases (13) with his curveball/slider tandem, as well as the third-greatest number of swinging strikes with those two pitches combined (7) in any single start of his career. In the World Series. Against one of the most patient offenses in baseball, one night after it hung 16 runs on the Rangers. At the Ballpark. In the freaking World Series.
I don't want to neglect Mike Napoli's two-way brilliance on Sunday night (the three-run homer, and, on top of that, Ron Washington's abundant praise for the way he called Holland's start), or those defensive gems, or the fact that Josh Hamilton actually rapped home the eventual game-winning run innings before Napoli's crushing blow ... but I think you can understand why the bulk of the attention is being directed where it's being directed this morning. I don't know if we're going to see Holland again in this series, but the Rangers are one more win away from at least forcing a Game 7, and I'm going to bet that with Holland available on three days' rest out of the bullpen, Matt Harrison's leash is going to be about as short as ... well, as the Cardinals' final hit total on Sunday night.
When Derek asks us "Whose world is this?", we say, "the world is yours, the world is yours, the world is yours ..."