St. Louis second baseman Nick Punto singles during the third inning of the… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)
ST. LOUIS — One of the beauties of baseball is that every game you see something you've never seen before. That was certainly the case in Game 1 of the World Series.
To no one's great surprise, a St. Louis Cardinal hitter was intentionally walked twice. To everyone's surprise, the guy who was walked twice was Nick Punto, not Albert Pujols.
Yes, the same Punto who has played 11 seasons and never driven in more than 45 runs. The .245 hitter. The guy who was one for 11 playing for Italy in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
That Nick Punto.
But with the designated hitter rule not in use, Texas Rangers Manager Ron Washington wound up treating him like he was Mickey Mantle, and the sixth-inning sequence in which Washington worked around Punto to get to the pitcher's spot wound up being the difference in a 3-2 win that puts the Cardinals in control of the World Series.
This was another good night for Manager Tony La Russa, who has had hundreds of them in his career, and suddenly the team that was 101/2 games out in the wild-card race Aug. 25 is in position to win the last game of the season.
A couple quick numbers, which Cardinals fans should enjoy.
The team that has won Game 1 has won 12 of the last 14 World Series. The team that plays host to Game 1 has won 20 of the last 25 World Series.
The deck wouldn't appear to be stacked against the Rangers at this point, not after nine innings, but the numbers sure favor the Cardinals.
On the eve of the World Series, the Rangers manager was asked how he would try to keep up with the speed chess certain to be played by the Cardinals grandmaster.
"Well, I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa," Washington said. "But what I will try to do is put my players in the right position, and if my players perform, I don't have to worry about matching wits. They'll take care of things."
There's always pressure on an American League manager running World Series games in a National League park, without a designated hitter in the lineup. It's especially true when the guy in the other dugout has taken teams to the Series five other times and won 2,728 regular-season games, third all-time.
The Cardinals felt they had an advantage at Busch Stadium, where 46,406 cheered them throughout, and they took advantage of it.
"We have to win the National League-style games if we're going to win this thing," said Lance Berkman, who delivered a two-run single. "Tonight was a National League-style game."
La Russa made a debatable decision in the fifth inning, with the score tied, 2-2. He had Jon Jay bunt leadoff man Rafael Furcal to second base, which made it easy for Washington to walk Pujols. Matt Holliday hit into a double play, making it a wasted opportunity.
The key decision of the chilly night came an inning later. David Freese was on third base with two outs and Punto, the No. 8 hitter, was coming to the plate. Washington had to decide whether to pitch to Punto or walk him to get to pitcher Chris Carpenter's spot, knowing that the latter move would cause La Russa to go to a pinch-hitter.
The Texas manager decided he'd seen enough of Carpenter, and was willing to take his chances against the St. Louis bullpen. C.J. Wilson tried to get Punto to chase two pitches in the dirt, but when he didn't, the Rangers intentionally walked him.
This was an interesting call, because it allowed La Russa to use Allen Craig, a guy he feels is a weapon off the bench. The Rangers lifted Wilson for power right-hander Alexi Ogando, getting the platoon advantage, and Ogando was dealing.
His 1-and-2 pitch to Craig was a 98-mph fastball, and the 27-year-old outfielder got his bat around just in time to hit a liner down the right-field line. Nelson Cruz raced over but couldn't quite grab it. Score one for the Cardinals and La Russa.
"I think in the end you have to give Craig credit," Washington said. "He beat him. We certainly didn't lose tonight. We got beat."
Not by Nick Punto, they didn't.