Hall passes: Intentional walks pay off
Washington not afraid to keep bat out of Pujols' lethal hands
ARLINGTON -- Ron Washington is a risk-taker. This much is clear. But to label him a fool at this juncture would be, well, foolish."I'm not as dumb as people think I am," he said before Game 5 of the World Series. As if to prove the point, Washington continues to roll the dice on the game's greatest stage. And more often than not, he continues to get the results he's looking for. That's a big reason why the Rangers are taking a 3-2 lead into Game 6 at Busch Stadium. Through his intentional-walk activity, Washington has made it clear that there are certain batters (namely, Albert Pujols) in certain situations that he simply won't afford the opportunity to beat his club. It's bold, brave -- and, indeed, some would argue boneheaded -- strategy. But when it works, it works. It worked wonders in Game 5.
Walk the line
Rangers pitchers issued intentional walks four times (three to Pujols) in Game 5, tying a World Series record. Only the 1991 Braves (Game 7) and the 1946 Cardinals (Game 5) had issued as many, and both of those clubs lost that game. Washington's Rangers won, 4-2. Maybe he's on to something. "No matter who we call on," Washington said of his pitching staff, "they've been coming in and getting the job done, and I trust in them, and they trust in me, and they trust in each other. And they just go out there and keep playing the game of baseball. That's what we do." Naturally, the walks revolved around Pujols, he of the three-homer night in Game 3. Just as he became the third player in history to homer three times in a World Series game, he has now become just the third player in Fall Classic history to get intentionally walked three times in a game, joining Barry Bonds (Game 4, 2002) and -- here's a name you didn't see coming in this category -- Rudy York (Game 5, 1946). If the Rangers want no part of Pujols, really, who could blame them? But that doesn't distill the threat looming in the form of Matt Holliday on deck and Lance Berkman in the hole. And it is imperative that Holliday and Berkman come through in these conditions, going forward. They're certainly not caught by surprise. "That's what they're going to do, and I understand that," Holliday said. "It's part of it. When you bat behind Albert, that's what you get. That's the way it's been all season. If there's runners in scoring position during the regular season, they do that." The first of three intentional walks to Pujols came in the third, and it was conventional. The Cardinals, leading 2-0, had a man on third with none out after Rafael Furcal singled in the infield, advanced to second on a C.J. Wilson throwing error and to third on a sacrifice bunt. After Pujols took the free pass, Wilson got Holliday to ground into a 5-4-3 double play. Disaster averted. Later, in the fifth, with the score now 2-1, Pujols was intentionally walked again, and again it was conventional. There were runners at second and third and two out, and Washington opted to load them up, taking a gamble that Wilson could retire Holliday again. He did just that, on a groundout to short to end the inning. But it was the seventh inning, after the Rangers tied it on an Adrian Beltre blast, in which Washington's strategizing would become especially interesting -- and unconventional. Alexi Ogando was on the mound, and he walked his new nemesis, Allen Craig, with one out. But Craig, strangely, attempted to swipe second, and Mike Napoli gunned him down. With two down and the count 1-1, Washington had Ogando finish the plate appearance against Pujols with three straight balls. "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 was significant, for it was the first time in World Series history that a batter was intentionally walked with none on. This decision looked particularly dicey when Holliday did exactly what he's capable of doing -- smacking a single to left-center field. Pujols motored to third and made a big turn toward home, forcing a throw that allowed Holliday to advance to second. Now the Cards had two runners in scoring position with two out and Berkman coming to the plate. It was a moment of great magnitude for Washington. He was in danger of seeing his intentional walk strategy bite him in a big way. He had the option of turning to left-hander Darren Oliver, who was warming in the bullpen, to face the switch-hitting Berkman, who is much less of a force from the right-hand side. Instead, he made it clear it was Ogando's inning, intentionally walking Berkman -- the fourth and final intentional free pass -- to face David Freese with the bases loaded. Ogando got him to fly out to center to end the inning. All these walks gone right proved to pay off when the Rangers scored a pair on Napoli's eighth-inning double. The walks were risky, but they worked, just as they worked twice in Game 1. Only once has an intentional walk issued by the Rangers helped lead to a run for the Cards, and that came in the fourth inning of the 16-7 blowout loss in Game 3. Yadier Molina was intentionally walked to load the bases, then one run came in on a Napoli throwing error to the plate and another on a Ryan Theriot single. Look for more free passes as the Series shifts back to St. Louis. Washington is evidently going to leap at every reasonable opportunity to take the bat out of Pujols' hands. It's a strategy that's working, and Washington has enough faith in his pitchers to continue to make it work. "I just trust my players," he said, "and try to get them in a position where they can be successful, and they haven't let me down so far."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.