Texas manager Ron Washington joked about not being able to match wits with Tony La Russa.
Who can, these days?
The St. Louis boss looked like a genius once again in Game 1, especially when Allen Craig pinch-hit for ace Chris Carpenter and delivered a go-ahead single that sent the Cardinals past the Texas Rangers 3-2 on Wednesday night.
Craig's slicing hit with two outs in the sixth inning fell inches in front of sliding right-fielder Nelson Cruz. Game 1 was just that tight throughout a cold, damp evening.
It was a game perfectly suited for La Russa — lots of bunts, intentional walks and pitching changes. And in a post-season in which he's made all the right moves, the 67-year-old manager was at the top of his game.
"It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out," Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman said. "But I feel like we have to win the National League-style games if we're going to win this thing and tonight was a National League-style game — 3-2, good pitching, good defence, timely hitting.
"I don't think that we want to get into a gorilla ball-type series with these guys. We'll see what happens when we add the DH and go to the American League ballpark, but I think when we have the National League style and we have the advantage we have to capitalize."
The Cardinals did, barely. A sliding stop by first baseman Albert Pujols helped prevent Texas from taking the lead on Carpenter's final pitch in the sixth.
St. Louis even won without its Rally Squirrel. There were no sightings of the elusive critter still roaming Busch Stadium — good thing for the rodent, too, because La Russa probably would've devised a way to catch him.
Game 2 is Thursday night, with Jaime Garcia starting for the Cards against Colby Lewis. Texas has not lost two straight games since Aug. 23-25.
In a post-season where St. Louis and Texas starters have struggled, Carpenter and C.J. Wilson each pitched well enough. They both left in the bottom of the sixth when the managerial wheels started to spin.
It was 2-2 when the Rangers worked around eighth-place hitter Nick Punto with a four-pitch walk that put runners at the corners with two outs.
La Russa did not hesitate, pulling Carpenter and sending up Craig, a versatile player who was injured for much of the season. Washington countered by bringing in hard-throwing reliever Alexi Ogando.
"I know they had either Carpenter coming up or a pinch-hitter, and with Ogando warming up behind me, I have confidence that he's going to come in and get that guy out," Wilson said.
Rather risky lately, trying to play baseball chess with La Russa. As Washington said a day earlier: "Well, I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa."
La Russa liked Craig's chances.
"Cold weather game, sitting on the bench, Ogando. It's not a very good situation," La Russa said. "But he's got a history in our system, that's why we like him so much. He should have a really good career."
All the pieces in place, it was time to play — and what followed was the play of the game.
Craig swung through two fastballs, then hit a drive toward the right field line. Cruz tried to make a sliding catch, except the ball bounced just before it reached him and thudded off his left leg for an RBI single.
Craig's single scored NL championship series MVP David Freese, the St. Louis area prep star who led off with a double. Freese has hit in 11 straight post-season games.
"Man, he's tough," Craig said of Ogando. "He came right at me with fastballs, and I missed the first two. Then that last one I was trying to get the barrel on it, make the defence make a play. Fortunate, kept it fair, and Cruz made a great attempt on that. It was a great play all-around."
Ahead, La Russa coaxed three scoreless innings from his deep bullpen. Five relievers did the job, with Jason Motte closing for his fifth save of the post-season.
This was the first time Texas had ever played in St. Louis. Yet Josh Hamilton, Cruz and the big-hitting Rangers looked a lot like the team that fizzled at the plate in last year's World Series against San Francisco.
Each team wound up with six hits. The wild-card Cardinals just did more with them.
Berkman put St. Louis ahead with a two-run single in the fourth. Mike Napoli tied it with a two-run homer in the fifth.
Carpenter earned his eighth post-season win, breaking the team record he shared with Bob Gibson. Of course, all of Gibby's victories came in the World Series.
Texas nearly took the lead on Carpenter's final pitch. Instead, Pujols smothered Michael Young's grounder behind the bag and tossed to Carpenter to end the sixth with a runner on third.
Carpenter helped himself with a nifty play in the first inning, diving to catch a toss from Pujols and tagging the bag with his glove. He didn't argue when La Russa removed him — all the Cards know too well to doubt La Russa's smarts.
Cardinals relievers Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, Arthur Rhodes and Motte finished.
Wilson fell to 0-5 in his last seven post-season starts, dating to last year.
The Texas lefty recently spent 2 1/2 minutes in a Dallas cryotherapy chamber, where liquid nitrogen lowered the temperature to 295 degrees below zero trying to speed body recovery. It was a bit warmer at the ballpark, at 49 degrees for the first pitch.
Wilson became the first pitcher to lose an all-star game, an AL division series game, an AL championship series game and a World Series game in the same year, STATS LLC said.
Napoli kept up his season of slugging, hitting a two-run homer in the fifth that made it 2-2. He had come into the game 3 for 3 lifetime against Carpenter and had been the only Texas hitter to homer off him, but he bounced into a double play with two runners on his first time up. He avenged that with an opposite-field drive to right.
Traded twice within a week last winter, Napoli blossomed in Texas, prompting Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon to pronounce it "The Year of the Napoli" during the AL playoffs.
The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the fourth after Pujols hit — or was hit by pitch, more precisely. The St. Louis star was plunked on the lower left leg to start the inning, Matt Holliday sliced a double and Berkman chopped a two-run single down the first base line.
Players, umpires and techs needed a little time to work out the kinks.
Freese saw Ian Kinsler's leadoff grounder glance off his glove at third base for a single, and stared at the glove that betrayed him. The next inning, Adrian Beltre doubled off Freese's leather.
Third base umpire Ron Kulpa missed his first call in a Series. He ruled Beltre caught Pujols' liner to third when the ball actually bounced in the opening inning.
And there was a glitch when "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery started to sing the national anthem. The microphone didn't work and he got a replacement. The delay came with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden standing on the mound to honour military veterans. The first lady's husband stood in the same place to throw out the first ball at the 2009 all-star game.