Column by EVAN GRANT / The Dallas Morning News
ARLINGTON – In 1996, the last time a team came back from being down two games to none in the World Series, a single at-bat defined the New York Yankees' march to the title.
The Rangers now have an at-bat to match Jim Leyritz's series-changing home run from 1996.
It came from the most unlikely of places: No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland.
Moreland's second-inning, two-out, three-run homer put the Rangers on top Saturday in what turned out to be a 4-2 win in Game 3 of the World Series. To say it gave the Rangers a lead would be an understatement. To say it gave the Rangers life might be an understatement, too.
"It was the one shot we'd needed," said Jeff Francoeur. "When we've won, we've scored a couple of runs early and given our pitchers room to operate and dominate. All of a sudden, we had that."
Francoeur knows just how important the at-bat was. He had made the second out of the inning just moments earlier, failing to get a ball in the air so that Nelson Cruz, who was at third after leading off the inning with a double, could score.
When Moreland came to the plate, the Rangers were in danger of wasting another opportunity. Their Game 1 loss was filled with wasted opportunities. In Game 2, the Rangers went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position in a 9-0 loss.
Wasting another opportunity early in Game 3 might have sucked the air out of the largest crowd ever to watch a game in Arlington (52,469) and sapped the fabled resiliency right from this Rangers team.
Moreland made sure it didn't happen.
After San Francisco lefty Jonathan Sanchez pitched around Bengie Molina to get to the left-handed hitting Moreland, the rookie calmly took the first two pitches to get to 2-and-0. But he fouled off a fastball, seemingly missing a great chance to capitalize, then took a second called strike.
Only then did the at-bat really begin. Moreland, whom the Rangers drafted as much for his pitching ability as his bat, dug in, determined to get something up in the strike zone with which to do something. Sanchez was determined not to give him another fastball.
And so the war waged. Moreland fouled off a pair of sliders. Then Sanchez threw successive changeups. Moreland fouled both of those off. It left Sanchez virtually no option but to come back with a fastball. He left it in the hitting zone, and Moreland drove it out of the park, changing the game.
"I knew he was going to pitch me tough," said Moreland, whose repertoire as a left-handed pitcher pretty much mimicked the low 90s fastball, slider, changeup combo that Sanchez threw at him. "I feel like I've had a couple of tough situations, long, drawn-out at-bats, and that helped my confidence."
It would not be a stretch to say Moreland's at-bat may have been the biggest of the 213,498 the Rangers have taken since they moved to Texas in 1972.
It would also not be a stretch to say that when the season began, he would be one of the more unlikely candidates to take such an at-bat.
He was still buried on the organization's depth chart behind golden prospects Justin Smoak and Chris Davis . Even after Smoak was traded and Davis was demoted, Moreland was called up only to be a platoon first baseman to face right-handers while Jorge Cantu faced lefties. The Rangers went into the playoffs with that arrangement.
But Moreland has grinded out at-bats all October while Cantu went hitless. He played better defense than the Rangers expected. And so, after Cantu started the first games against lefties in the AL Division Series and AL Championship Series, manager Ron Washington turned to Moreland for the club's first game against a lefty in the World Series.
The reason is simple.
"We've watched him grow up before our eyes," hitting instructor Clint Hurdle said. "He's a tough kid who has showed up at big times. Tonight, he really battled in a big situation. There he is, your No. 9 hitter, a rookie, playing up in a big moment."
He got the Rangers back into the World Series. It doesn't come much bigger than that.
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