— ARLINGTON, Texas - The quick-and-easy story of the Texas Rangers' 4-2 victory in Game 5 is that catcher Mike Napoli — for the second night in a row — delivered the game's key hit.
This time, a two-run double to right-center off Marc Rzepczynski in the bottom of the eighth made the difference — and put the Rangers one win away from their first-ever World Series title.
And when you add in that Napoli threw out two would-be base-stealers in Game 5, his three-run homer broke open a 4-0 victory in Game 4 — and don't forget his two-run shot in Game 1 off Chris Carpenter — you have your leader in the clubhouse for the World Series MVP award.
There's even an intriguing little strategy decision that makes this story line even better: Napoli settled into the sixth spot in the lineup mid-season, when his numbers started to take off, and he stayed there even when Nelson Cruz returned from the disabled list. But in this series, he was dropped to seventh for the first three games, and down to eighth for the last two.
Rangers manager Ron Washington's explanation for this is logical enough — he wanted a right-handed hitter placed between left-handed batters David Murphy and Mitch Moreland at the bottom of the order, so that would force Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to use more relievers in late-inning match-up situations.
And wouldn't you know it, Napoli in the eighth spot keeps coming up in key situations. Not that he cares where he hits, of course.
"It doesn't matter to me,'' Napoli said. "Whatever Wash wants me to do, I'm going to do. We've got a deep lineup, and like I said, we all do it together.''
Ah, but there is a far more unusual — and certainly hard-to-believe — storyline from the other side of the field. And it's a big part of the reason why Napoli got to face the left-hander Rzepcynski in a situation that called for a right-hander — specifically, Cardinals' closer Jason Motte, given it was a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning of a critical game.
Call it MotteGate or whatever you'd like, but ultimately, this craziness falls on future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa:
After a leadoff double by Michael Young, a strikeout, and an intentional walk to Nelson Cruz, La Russa replaced right-hander Octavio Dotel with Rzepczynski, who has been very effective in this series, to face left-handed-hitting David Murphy.
La Russa said that during his first call to the bullpen, he asked for Rzepczynski and right-hander Jason Motte to get ready. But after the tough break of Murphy hitting a ball of Rzepczynski that deflected away for a single that loaded the bases for Napoli, there was no Motte warming up.
"I made the call (to bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist),'' La Russa said. "They heard 'Rzepczynski' and they didn't get 'Motte'. So I called back for Motte, and then they got (Lance) Lynn up.
Problem with that was Lynn was supposed to get the day off. So La Russa had to let Rzepcyznski pitch to Napoli, and you already know the result. Rzepcyznski then struck out Moreland, and it got even more bizarre.
La Russa called in Lynn, and knowing he didn't want to use him, he had him issue an intentional walk to Ian Kinsler — all the while allowing Motte to finally get ready and come into the game three batters too late.
Not one, but two miscommunications with the bullpen? From the game's third-winningest manager all-time, second-winningest manager in postseason history? And never mind that 'Motte' sounds nothing like 'Lynn'.
"It's loud down there (in the bullpen),'' La Russa said. "And sometimes you call down there, and you have to wait until the crowd (quiets down), and so a (reliever) gets up late. I mean, this is not unusual. They just didn't hear.''
That's TLR's story, and he's sticking to it for now. But you have to wonder if maybe something else was amiss.
Because this was a night that won't go down on La Russa's Hall of Fame resume. Besides the bullpen communication snafus, there were a handful of other questionable decisions made: La Russa's explanations:
"I trusted Albert could put the ball in play,'' La Russa said. "The two swings that he fouled the ball off with the second baseman going over (to cover second on the stolen-base attempt), the hole was there, and all of a sudden, (it could have been) first and third and nobody out.
I liked sending (Craig) and having a chance to open that inning up. But it didn't work out.''
Protecting his player, La Russa simply said, "it was a mix-up, and that's all I'm going to say.''
But in the clubhouse, the word was Pujols put the hit-and-run on himself by relaying a signal to third-base coach Jose Oquendo, who then flashed it to Craig. But then Pujols didn't swing at the pitch, which Ogando threw high and away.
"They're not going to pitch to (Pujols),'' La Russa said. "So what you do is you get the base (with the sacrifice bunt that advances runners). This gives Matt a chance, and I'll take our chances with Matt.''