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"The relationship we have is like family," La Russa said of his bond with Pujols. "I can't say it's unlike some other ones I've had. There were guys like Stew [Dave Stewart] and Eck [Dennis Eckersley] and other guys, but yes, it's like family with Albert. What's important is that everyone on our staff—it's not about me—treats everyone with respect.
"I'm really proud of what we've done over the years to make this a place where players like to come to our organization."
The World Series showcased two of La Russa's signature traits: aggressive bullpen usage and a fierce defense of his star players. In Game 1, La Russa used five relievers to secure the last nine outs after ace Chris Carpenter handed over a 3--2 lead. Washington, mindful of La Russa's reputation, had cracked before the Series that not even he expected to "match a wit" with the manager with more wins than any other except Connie Mack and John McGraw. Sure enough, in his last, best shot at tying Game 1, Washington used Esteban German—a guy who hadn't taken an at bat in 22 days—as a pinch hitter with the tying run at second with two outs in the seventh inning. St. Louis reliever Marc Rzepczynski fanned him on three pitches.
Washington, however, won the Game 2 chess match. The Rangers, trailing 1--0, were three outs from going down two games to none when they thwarted La Russa's bullpen machinations to score twice and win, 2--1. The key play occurred with no outs when Pujols, near the mound as a cutoff man, misplayed a throw from centerfielder Jon Jay, allowing the Rangers' Elvis Andrus, representing the potential go-ahead run, to advance from first to second. Andrus then went to third and finally home on fly balls. The deciding run was unearned because of Pujols's error.
After the game, a swarm of reporters gathered at the first baseman's locker for an explanation of the key play. Pujols, however, left Busch Stadium without making himself available to the media, as did veterans Holliday and Lance Berkman, leaving youngsters such as Jay and losing pitcher Jason Motte to answer questions. At the very least, it was an ignorance of his responsibility as a franchise player involved in the key play of the ninth inning of a World Series game. The next day Pujols, whose no-show brought national criticism, defiantly maintained he had done nothing wrong because the media had not asked for him. Though his position was not rooted in any postseason protocol—star players, especially when involved in key plays, are available by expectation, not invitation—La Russa aggressively defended him.
"If anybody had said, 'We need to talk to Albert,' he would have stayed," La Russa said. "So I think we have responsibility. We're willing to live up to it, but somebody has got to be fair with us. I heard the criticism, and it offends me because I know our attitude as an organization is 180 degrees different from the way it's being portrayed. Nobody asked for those guys, and they got out of there. They had other things to do."
A day later, thanks to his historic night, Pujols was a media darling. Indeed, with his bat he had provided baseball with something of extraordinary value that had been missing for a decade of World Series play: a performance that becomes an instant addition to the game's oral history, like the three homers from Reg-gie that happened so long ago that Pujols himself had yet to be born. "This is certainly something you can tell your grandkids about," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "What makes it even more special is, he has carried the pressure of an entire city on his shoulders night in and night out for more than a decade. He deserves it."
Nothing, however, better defined the fast-changing nature of this postseason than what happened after the Game 3 Cardinals outburst. The very next night Pujols went 0 for 4 and St. Louis was bechilled by Holland and closer Neftali Feliz, 4--0, on two hits. There have been 63 World Series games in which a team scored at least 10 runs. This was only the third time such a hot-hitting team came up with nothing in the next game.
Holland seemed a most unusual candidate for such superlative pitching, and not only because of his youth (he just turned 25) and comically sparse hair above his upper lip. In two ALCS starts he had an ERA of 8.59 and was pitching on Sunday with seven days of rest. Before Game 4, Washington literally grabbed him on the top step of the dugout and forcefully lectured him on the importance of pitching inside—but not so recklessly as to hit St. Louis batters, particularly since it might look like leftover frustration from the 16-run beating the night before. Washington capped his pep talk with the exclamation of a slap across the pitcher's not-so-fuzzy cheek.
"It's like a handshake we have," Holland said.