Final answer? Leyland makes wrong choice on Pujols

Originally Published: October 21, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Suppose we ran an ESPN SportsNation poll on this question:

It's Game 1 of the World Series. You're trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by one run. There's a runner on second, meaning first base is open. And Albert Pujols is heading for home plate. Should you:

A) Walk him?
B) Challenge him?
C) Throw four pitches he couldn't reach with the center-field flagpole?
Or D) suggest this would be a great time for him to get his hamstring MRI'd?

Jayson Stark talks about how the Cardinals pulled off a shocker by winning Game 1.

Yeah, suppose we polled you experts out there on a question like that. Here's a wild guess:

About 97 percent of you would pick option A. Another 2.996 percent would pick option C. And four guys in Missouri would be clicking option B and chuckling, "Go ahead. Toss your best heater, right down Trumbull Avenue."

Well, it's a little late to fire that question at The Nation. But Tigers manager Jim Leyland had his chance to vote in a special one-man survey on this very topic in the third inning Saturday night. And if he had it to do over again, uh, let's just say he'd probably be on hold with that MRI clinic as we speak.

Leyland let his hot-shot rookie starter, Justin Verlander, mess with Sir Albert. And one home-run trot later, Game 1 of this World Series was officially busted open.

"I'll take the bullet there," said Leyland, after his team's 7-2 Game 1 loss had made certain that lots of those people who were predicting a Tigers sweep in this Series were going to be extremely grateful they didn't take that prediction to Vegas.

"I could go into a lot of detail about that," Leyland said of that fateful decision to pitch to Pujols. "But I'll leave it at this: The manager's decision is either to pitch to him or walk him. I pitched to him, and obviously he burned us. ... I'll take the heat for that."

The Cardinals led 4-1 when Pujols crossed home plate. And this game never got any closer for the final 6½ innings. So if you're one of those people who have been clinging to the notion that the National League was still considered a real major league, there's big news:

It's now safe to walk the streets again. The NL's long October nightmare is over.

No National League team had won a World Series game -- any World Series game -- since Josh Beckett strolled off the mound in Yankee Stadium after Game 6, 2003. That was a mere 1,092 days ago.

Roger Clemens couldn't break that streak. Andy Pettitte couldn't break that streak. Roy Oswalt couldn't break that streak. So naturally, it was Cardinals rookie Anthony Reyes, a guy who had won one game since Aug. 10, who put an end to this.

But if that shocked you in any way, then obviously, you haven't been paying enough attention to the insane and illogical plot lines that keep erupting nightly in this postseason.

"It's October, man," said the Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen. "You throw the stats out the door when these games start happening."

Well, if you ever wanted to pick a night to heave the stats out the door, this was sure a fine choice -- because whatever numbers, trends or factoids you might have thought would apply to the way this series would play out, they were all rendered useless in the next two hours and 54 minutes.

Ready? Here goes:

• The Tigers had won seven postseason games in a row before this game, had won each of the last six by at least three runs, had outscored the Yankees and A's by a ridiculous 40-15, and had trailed after only nine of 63 innings.

Albert Pujols
Paul Sancya/AP PhotoAlbert Pujols hit a two-run homer in the third inning and also scored a run in the sixth.
• Meanwhile, not only had the Cardinals not won a World Series game the last time they played in this thing (two years ago against the Red Sox). They never even led in that Series. Not for 12 seconds. They also hadn't won a World Series game against anybody in 19 years or won a road World Series game since 1985.

• The Tigers' starting pitcher, Verlander, won more games this season (17) than any pitcher in the National League. On the other hand, the Cardinals' Game 1 starter, Reyes, had won fewer games this year (five) than any Game 1 World Series starter ever.

• Reyes also had the second-highest ERA (5.06) of any Game 1 starter in history -- trailing only the fabled General Crowder, who brought a 5.77 ERA to the mound with him for Game 1, 1934. (Sorry -- videotape of the General not available, not even on YouTube.)

• The Cardinals' first run in this game scored on a home run by Scott Rolen. Which was a slight departure from the last time Rolen played in a World Series -- when he went 0 for the Whole Freaking World Series (0-for-15). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no player since Gil Hodges, in 1953, had gone 0 for any World Series with that many at-bats and then ended that schneid with a homer the next time he played in one.

• And finally, there was Pujols. Remember all his home runs from that 2004 World Series? If you do, you're lying -- because he finished that Series with zero homers and zero RBI. So it figured it would take him three innings to get that ugliness behind him.

"I don't think you can change anything that happened two years ago," Pujols said after one of his pals in the media helpfully brought up those attractive numbers. "That was then. This is now."

But now also happened to follow an NLCS in which the Mets made it clear they would rather all take jobs selling counterfeit watches on Lexington Avenue than let Pujols get a big rip in a spot like this.

Pujols came to the plate five times with runners in scoring position in the LCS. He walked in four of them. He was allowed to swing only once, with runners on first and second and two outs, in Game 7.

Asked if he was frustrated by his treatment in that series, Pujols replied: "I'm not frustrated -- because we won four games, and we're here in the World Series."

Hmmm. Good point. Then again, he sure wasn't complaining when the Tigers actually let him hit for a change Saturday. But he claimed he wasn't surprised, either.

"Surprised? No. Why?" he smiled. "I'm just human, and I make a lot of outs. I get some hits in key situations. But sometimes I don't come through in that spot in the game. That's the last thing I want to try to do, is think about: Are they going to pitch to me, or are they not?"

Well, it may be the last thing he's thinking about. But his teammates sure think about it. We know that. Just listen:

"In the bullpen, we were screaming, 'First base is open,' " said Isringhausen, who apparently wasn't screaming it loud enough for Leyland to hear.

But Leyland, of course, knew the deal, whether the Cardinals wanted to mention it to him or not. That's because Jim Leyland knows every deal about every situation.

The manager may not have felt like recounting all the thoughts that zig-zagged through his brain at the time. But when he popped onto the Fox telecast in mid-game, he made it clear he'd just wanted Verlander to try to tempt Pujols with pitches off the plate -- and regretted afterward that he'd put a rookie in that position.

Verlander, however, was taking full responsibility.

"As a pitcher, you've got to know the situations where you can and can't pitch around guys," he said. "Even if it's not Albert Pujols up there in a situation where it's two outs and a guy on second base, you really don't want to give a guy anything to hit no matter who it is -- whether it's the first hitter or the ninth hitter. So I made a little bit of a mistake. It's a pitch the ninth hitter may not have hit ... but it's Albert Pujols."

Right. Sure was. And when Pujols gets to play, his team is always eternally thankful for that.

First things first
Albert Pujols
The Tigers probably wanted to walk Albert Pujols with first base open in the third. He homered, but that's hardly surprising. Here are his numbers from the regular season when he batted with runners in scoring position and first base open:
Plate appearances73
At-bats42
Hits19
Batting average.452
Home runs4
RBI25
Walks31
Intentional walks25
Pct. Of P.A. walked42%
Source -- Elias Sports Bureau
But Sir Albert also needs help. And he got plenty of it in this game.

So Taguchi helped. He helped, even though the most important ball he hit all night traveled approximately four feet. On a hit-and-run three hitters before Pujols' homer, Taguchi literally threw his bat at a low, outside pitch -- and somehow made contact. Which kept Yadier Molina from getting thrown out at second by 40 feet, and may well have kept the inning alive for Pujols to put his inimitable stamp on it.

"That," said Verlander of that spectacle, "was kind of weird, man. I don't know what the heck happened there."

But Rolen also helped. Even he decided it was about time, too.

Two nights earlier in New York, he'd hit a ball over the fence -- only to have that pesky Endy Chavez blast off his little launching pad and catch it. So when Rolen scrunched a Verlander fastball to deep left in the second inning Saturday, you can imagine what was going through his head.

"I wasn't sure who was going to catch that ball," Rolen laughed. "I figured somebody would. I'm just glad it was a fan. When that ball was in the air, I was thinking, 'How am I going to screw this up?' "

Ah, but despite his fears, it turned into a real, game-tying home run. What a concept. As it turned out, though, it wasn't even Rolen's most action-packed contribution to the festivities.

While trying to score from second in the sixth inning after a wild throw, he plowed right into third baseman Brandon Inge, crash-landed somewhere between the foul line and Ann Arbor, then staggered up and headed home. He was out -- but was allowed to score anyway, on fielder's interference.

"I was just trying to score," Rolen recounted. "I went down. I got up. I slid into a dead plate. Then I ran back and got my helmet. I was like the guy in 'Saving Private Ryan' who got shot and went back to try and find his arm."

The only arm the Cardinals needed to find, however, was attached to Reyes. In the two previous St. Louis-Detroit World Series, the Cardinals' Game 1 starters (and winners) were Dizzy Dean (1934) and Bob Gibson (1968). This time it was a guy who had gotten 14 outs in his previous two starts combined. Perfect.

All Reyes did in this start was (what else?) get 17 outs in a row. No rookie had ever done that in a World Series. And only four other pitchers had strung that many outs together since Yogi Berra leaped into Don Larsen's arms 50 years ago this October.

Reyes even made it to within three outs of becoming the first rookie in 54 years to pitch a complete game in the World Series. Which is a pretty cool feat for a fellow who was only starting because somebody had to pitch.

But then, somebody had to play the Tigers, too. And contrary to the opinion of most of our nation's finest media geniuses, the Cardinals weren't informed by the proper authorities that their only role in this World Series was to help the Tigers finish off their uplifting little worst-to-first story, for the good of mankind.

"Well, we've got one more win in this World Series than we got two years ago," said Isringhausen. "That's a step in the right direction, huh?"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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