- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The St. Louis Cardinals could have been wearing goggles and soaked in champagne spray late Monday night.
Tony La Russa could have cradled the Commissioner's Trophy for the third time in his Hall of Fame managerial career.
Downtown parade routes could have been announced to the vast Redbird Nation.
Instead, the Cardinals lost a second consecutive game here and return home somehow down 3-2 in a World Series they could have closed out by now.
And all because a bullpen coach couldn't hear La Russa on the phone?
Because Albert Pujols apparently put on a hit-and-run that defied explanation?
Because the Cardinals could barely dink out any runs with a dozen runners in scoring position?
If the Cardinals go on to lose this Series to the Texas Rangers, they'll only have themselves to blame. This isn't meant as any disrespect to the Rangers -- they did what they're supposed to do, which was take advantage of the Cardinals/La Russa brain cramps and a supposed under-volumed bullpen phone -- but something went terribly wrong for St. Louis in Game 5.
Now La Russa's Cardinals are one loss away from elimination when you could very easily make the case they could have left Rangers Ballpark in Arlington with a world championship title.
Think about it:
They were three outs away from winning Game 2 and taking a 2-0 Series lead, but lost on a Rangers' ninth-inning rally.
They crushed the Rangers in Game 3.
They got beat fair and square in Game 4.
They had a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning of Game 5, were tied going into the bottom of the eighth and had a runner on first base and the most feared hitter on the planet -- Pujols -- at the plate as the tying run in the ninth.
And they lost. But it was the way they lost that boggles the mind.
For one of the few times in this Series, La Russa didn't bring his good stuff. The most prepared manager in the big leagues whiffed when it counted.
Rangers starter C.J. Wilson had already walked two in the game, thrown a wild pitch and seen his defense let him down. But with a 2-0 lead and Furcal in scoring position, La Russa wanted his No. 2 hitter to move him to third?
What happens? Rangers manager Ron Washington intentionally walked Pujols and Matt Holliday ended the inning with a double-play grounder.
"Let me ask you a question: If a guy was on second base and if Craig doesn't get him in or over, what are they going to do with Albert?'' La Russa said. "They're not going to pitch to him. So what you do is get the base [for Furcal].''
But we'll never know if Craig could have gotten him in, will we?
It continued in the seventh, when Craig bolted for second with one out and Pujols at the plate. Craig was thrown out, Pujols then was intentionally walked, and the Cardinals eventually ended up with zilch in the inning.
Afterward, Pujols said he put on the failed hit-and-run play. Except that he didn't swing at a nasty Alexi Ogando fastball, leaving Craig exposed.
"It was a hit-and-run and Ogando threw an unhittable pitch,'' Craig said. "It was a perfect play for them.''
But did the sign come from the dugout or from Pujols? Sounds like Pujols via third-base coach Jose Oquendo.
"I got the sign [from Oquendo] and I ran, simple as that,'' Craig said.
And then came the strangest inning in this Series, the bottom of the eighth, when fact and fiction had a fistfight with each other.
Afterward, La Russa said one thing, but the circumstances -- and the odd reactions of the Cardinals players themselves -- suggested something else.
Without getting too inside baseball, Cardinals right-handed reliever Octavio Dotel began the inning thinking he was going to face the 4-5-6 hitters in the Rangers' lineup: right-handers Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. If someone got on, lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski would face the left-handed hitting David Murphy in the seven spot.
What didn't make sense is what happened next. With the game tied, 2-2, Dotel gave up a leadoff double to Young, struck out Beltre and then was ordered to intentionally walk Cruz.
"I want to pitch to him,'' Dotel said. "I got that feeling I was going to pitch. I'm not going to lie. When [pitching coach Dave] Duncan came and say, 'We're going to walk this guy.' I say, 'Why?' He say, 'The manager wants to do that.' And I respect that.''
I don't. Cruz should have never been walked. By putting Cruz on base with one out, then Napoli's spot in the order potentially comes into play two batters later, unless they get the double play.
As expected, Rzepczynski came in to face Murphy and gave up a freaky, carom single off his knee, moving Young to third and Cruz to second.
And after that, I can't accurately tell you what the hell happened.
La Russa said he had called the bullpen twice earlier with instructions to get Rzepczynski and Motte ready. But according to La Russa, the crowd noise drowned out his orders and Lance Lynn, not Motte, warmed up.
How you confuse an M with an L is beyond me, but that's their story, and they're sticking with it.
Anyway, La Russa kept the left-hander Rzepcyznski in to face the right-hander Napoli, who's only one of the hottest hitters in the postseason. Napoli doubled in two runs.
No more tie game.
Then Lynn, who was never supposed to pitch Monday night, was brought in, but only because of the crowd noise, miscommunication, brain cramp, whatever. Again, take your pick.
"I can't say anything,'' Dotel said. "I just watch the game and see what happened. It's nothing that I can go to the manager and say, 'What are you doing?'''
Tony, what were you doing?
Few of the postgame explanations by La Russa about the eighth-inning mess sounded plausible or logical. All we know for sure is that there was a colossal screw-up in an inning and a game where the Cardinals couldn't afford one.
And, oh, did I mention that Craig was thrown out at second with Pujols at the plate in the top of the ninth? He was running to help lessen the chances of a double play. Instead, that's exactly what they got: a strike-him-out/throw-him-out scenario.
La Russa whiffed Monday night, just as his team did with men on base. When you go 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, you've got problems.
But when you go 1-for-12 and your manager takes an O-fer too, you've got a 3-2 World Series deficit to the confident Rangers.
"It's not frustrating; it's part of the game,'' Pujols said of the botched opportunities. "It's the big leagues.''
Not Monday night, it wasn't. Comical and perplexing, yes. Big leagues, no.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.