Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
— "Let Down," Radiohead
What if he caught it?
What would Thursday night and Friday and this weekend and the rest of our lives have been like if Nelson Cruz had broken on the ball properly, as Ron Washington said he should have, and didn't freeze, as Wash put it, and had gotten to the wall and caught the ball?
How different would we feel?
What if, on the 23rd pitch David Freese saw Thursday night, he saw his first breaking ball, or another Neftali Feliz four-seamer at 98 that was located in such a way that he couldn't get his arms extended on it?
Freese got what he got, and did what he needed to do with it, and Cruz didn't. But what if he did?
Would we still be talking about Mike Napoli hitting eighth, or Michael Young's defense, or Elvis Andrus's lazy play on Daniel Descalso not affecting the eighth but ensuring that Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman would hit in the ninth, or the decision not to bring Feliz back out for the 10th?
Would we be thinking about the staff's record-breaking 41 walks in the Series or the fatefulness of the Game Six rainout or the intentional walks and the pickoffs and the bunts and the hit batsmen or the curiosity that the only pitchers in the World Series who saw less action than Mike Adams were Mark Lowe and Arthur Rhodes?
Would we be obsessing over Jerry Layne's terrible officiating or the stupid, silly, gimmicky foolishness that is the league's tricking up of the All-Star Game into a key component in how the World Series is played out?
None of it.
One or two strides with more conviction from Cruz, and we're talking about none of that.
Instead we're celebrating the Year and the Month and the World Series of the Napoli, and the post-season prowess of Saint (Colby) Lewis and Cruz himself, and Andrus's and Ian Kinsler's genius on defense, and the world championship title that the great Adrian Beltre deserves, and Feliz the Lockdown Closer, and the coming of age of Derek Holland, and parades, and the undeniable station of the Texas Rangers as baseball's newest powerhouse, a behemoth built by Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels into an exemplary franchise in all phases, backed by a hungry and impressive ownership group and positioned to make American League noise for a long time.
A couple strides.
A couple strides and we'd be lionizing Cruz's running catch at the wall and preserving it in video and stills with the force of Feliz's slider to Alex Rodriguez a year and a series earlier, and then some.
But it happened the way it happened, and we'll still be confronted with images of that moment forever, only instead of chills they will elicit that type of sports pain that is so much more acute and profound when it's playoff pain.
* * *
It was like coming this close to your dreams . . . and then watching them brush past you like strangers in a crowd.
— Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, Field of Dreams
I waited 14 years for this, and I was just one strike away twice. And it didn't happen. To let it get away, after being so close . . . .
— Adrian Beltre
I can't swear I'm not worried about Cruz and Feliz more than a little bit.
We'll see that count and that pitch and that swing and that path and that result a thousand times, and those two will, too. The highlights will be meant to honor Freese, but of course the other two key figures played key roles - a tremendous baseball player whose big league career got started abnormally late, the other's remarkably early. For Cruz you hope it doesn't label his career. For Feliz you hope he doesn't let that happen.
He's going to wear the memory of that two-strike pitch to Freese for a long time. Scott Feldman will relive the 2-2 fastball he threw to Lance Berkman an inning later, too, also a strike away from a team pile-up on the mound.
But not like Feliz, who according to several accounts was despondent after failing to get the final out of the World Series (which may help explain why he wasn't brought back out for the 10th by his manager, who reminded us after the Series that "I know my team better than anyone in this room").
Baseball's a game of failure, a game in which mistakes and the ability to exploit them are key every night. Credit Freese, who told reporters afterwards he was sitting fastball "all the way." The pitch Feliz made and the play Cruz made don't change who they are as players.
At least we hope not.
I do feel awful for Beltre, who at some point this summer cemented himself as my favorite Texas Ranger (ever) and who had played for lots of good teams but had never won a playoff series, let alone had the opportunity to play in a World Series. He hit .300/.323/.567 against the Cardinals, played virtuoso defense, and the only complaint I can come up with about his Series and Mike Napoli's (.350/.464/.700) was that they injured Matt Holliday's finger in Game Six, and Holliday's absence from the lineup and the outfield in Game Seven turned out to hurt Texas.
The additions of Beltre and Napoli were among the big stories for Texas all season, as was the tremendous work its starting rotation turned in. No American League team had more quality starts than the Rangers during the regular season. With a bullpen that was undermanned for four of six months, the rotation absolutely carried the staff, but as for the intense workload - for a starting five that needed almost no help over 162 and included two very young pitchers and two older ones who were relatively new at starting and the rigors that go along with it - maybe it caught up to them in October.
As a result, the bullpen was asked to return the favor, to carry the load in the post-season, and it worked out beautifully against Tampa Bay and Detroit.
But then, against St. Louis, the bullpen seemed gassed by all the short starts in the ALDS and ALCS, no more evident than in the case of Alexi Ogando (0.00 ERA and .111 opponents' average in 2.2 ALDS innings, 1.17 and .115 in 7.2 ALCS innings, 10.13 and .500 in the World Series).
Against Detroit, the Texas bullpen went 4-0, 1.32 collectively, holding the Tigers to an anemic .161/.220/.312 slash and issuing six walks in 27.1 innings.
Against St. Louis, the Texas bullpen went 2-1, 7.43, getting tuned up by the Cardinals' offense at an absurd .311/.447/.533 clip and issuing 20 walks in 23 innings.
The inability of the Rangers' starting pitchers to get deep into games against the Rays and Tigers helped make the club's bullpen the inferior one in the World Series.
I hate it that Arthur Rhodes was right.
* * *
It's difficult for me to gather up a whole lot of hate for the St. Louis Cardinals, which isn't to say that Allen Craig won't go from virtually anonymous to a key figure in Rangers history, or that Rafael Furcal won't have a couple Edgar Renteria moments, or that Jaime Garcia won't turn in a Madison Bumgarner performance. Or that Albert Pujols might not go all Miguel Cabrera on the Rangers, and then some.
— Oct. 18, 2011 Newberg Report
Craig did. Furcal didn't. Garcia did, but in a game Texas ultimately won.
And Pujols did, but really on only one night.
I have a ton of respect for the Cardinals. The way that club battled was extraordinary. We talk about how Texas, before dropping Games Six and Seven, had not lost consecutive games since August 25. On that same date, St. Louis was a massive 10.5 games out in the Wild Card race, which it would eventually prevail in by going 22-9 thereafter.
Tony LaRussa and his mystique are easy to dislike. Berkman's comments, like C.J. Wilson's, are the type that rouse up fans of the opponent. Chris Carpenter's mound demeanor, same thing.
But I have a hard time hatin' on the Cards, aside from the fact that they got in the way.
(And that they're a lot more awesome than Texas, coincidentally, when Layne is calling balls and strikes.)
But I respect the Cardinals a lot. They battled a fantastic baseball team, and came out on top.
It was a spectacular World Series, something I couldn't let myself think about in the midst of the battle but that's impossible not to admit now, result notwithstanding. Ask me in five years to name the 20 most memorable moments in the Rangers' first two World Series appearances, and there would be, what, 18 or 19 from the clash with the Cardinals?
Texas-St. Louis was an extraordinary, compelling display of baseball theater, of reality TV, a Fall Classic in every sense, and I'm proud my team was there to make it what it was, right up to the minute when Bud Selig carefully recited his Congrats-to-the-Car-di-nals script (could have sworn I saw him shed a tear as he realized the speech didn't include the words "Red Sox" or "Yankees") and even more so in the aftermath of what was a riveting heavyweight fight in which momentum, up until Game Seven, had no place.
I happened to flip to a Glastonbury concert on Palladia last night, and it included a Tinie Tempah set that included the "Written in the Stars" song that so many of us had grown really, really tired of throughout the playoffs.
As I thought I might, removed from it for just a few days, I loved it.
The entire last month of baseball, starting with a historically great final night of the regular season, was majestic. A baseball post-season in which every series gets maxed out results in 41 playoff games. Remarkably, the league played 38 of those games this year. The only three made unnecessary were a fifth Texas game against Tampa Bay, a seventh Texas game against Detroit, and a seventh St. Louis game against Milwaukee.
Thirteen of the playoffs' 38 games were decided by one run. Of those, six involved the Rangers. After a season in which the club won 96 games, a .593 win percentage, Texas won 10 playoff games and lost seven, basically an identical win rate.
Yes, Texas was the final out. But that playoff pain is coupled with a pride in these players, this team, this organization. It was the best Texas Rangers season ever, and every part of it - the great moments, the (far less frequent) brutally bad ones, the intensity and the dramatics and the endless supply of adrenaline it took to get through 162 and another 17 after that - was worth investing as much of myself in as I did.
In beating St. Louis three times and lining up at the goal line for a decisive fourth win, the Rangers recorded 107 outs, some in ways I'll never forget, and put themselves in great position to get that 107th and final win of 2011, to finish off the 107th World Series. The inability to get that final strike, that final out, that final win, will unfortunately be what sticks, because the whole point of this game is to win championships. But that doesn't diminish the greatness of the season. And I've never been more excited for Pitchers & Catchers to Report, which is just about 107 sleeps away.
I won't back off my disgust that an exhibition game in July played by players from all 30 teams put Games One and Two and Six and Seven in Busch Stadium. I can get over the home field advantage from the standpoint of crowd energy and which team gets to bat last, factors that come into play in the DS and CS, but in a sport in which the rules differ significantly between the two leagues, to allow a Wild Card team the advantage of home field against a club that won its division and more baseball games - on the basis of which exhibition squad beat the other in July - is just stupid.
And I wish St. Louis had traded Berkman in August.
But we can't go back and trade Berkman away, or execute Neftali Feliz's 1-2 pitch to David Freese differently, or alter the manner in which Nelson Cruz went back on the ball.
We can't change those things, and as painful as Thursday was and as empty as Friday was, I can't sit here and complain too much about a season that twice was one strike away from something different - admittedly, something very different - just because the way that the scales tilted on the mistakes and on the moments of great baseball ended up favoring the other team, by the most narrow of margins. Late October pain beats late September fumes. By a lot.
What if he caught it?
Our team would be World Champions.
That's a difficult what-if to accept, but sometimes, as we've come to learn, that's just going to be how baseball go. The wins and losses are more clearly defined in sports than they are in most other places, even though sometimes the difference between one and the other, the turning point, the pivotal moment that puts you in one category in the record books and in our sports memories and not the other, can be a pitch located an inch away from where it was intended, or a split-second hesitation in the path to a ball hit in the air and towards a fence.
This season might be the hardest I've ever had to say goodbye to, and may always be that, largely because of how it ended, which I don't plan on getting used to, but also because I've never been more fulfilled as a sports fan as I was by the 2011 Texas Rangers.
* * *
If the Rangers suffer from any curse at all, it has been the curse of irrelevance.
— Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, following Game 5
Not any more.
Far, far from it.
Not any more.
* * *
And so ends a baseball season, and a book, leaving us with the shortest possible amount of time to wait for spring training. There will be huge free agency decisions in the meantime, and probably an impact trade or two, if not a dramatic posting contest engaged in. A lot of it will play out in North Texas, where the Winter Meetings will be held December 5-8.
"We've got to find ways to get better," says Jon Daniels, whose team so many others now chase, but whose mindset (shared by the people who lead every department and every facet of this franchise) would never allow a hint of complacency or a sense of artificial accomplishment or half-baked satisfaction.
Much will happen between now and spring training, but given where this team is right now, this may be one of those rare off-seasons for the Texas Rangers in which the winter work to be done, while important and energizing in its own right, feels like a bridge to a much more important time on the baseball calendar, a time when those buckets of baseballs, stitched 108 times each, are once again pitched and hit and caught and thrown, as the effort to build off of a season that fell one strike, one out, one win short gets underway, and the train that carried us for the last eight months starts moving down the track once again, starting and then stopping, taking off and landing, headed relentlessly toward the greatest of feelings that baseball has to offer.
And maybe next time Nellie catches it.