Mitch Moreland strikes early, Rangers hold on to win Game 3

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The Rangers started the season with Chris Davis at first base, then went to Justin Smoak when he didn’t pan out. In July, after Smoak was used as the key piece in the Cliff Lee deal, they went back to Davis. Finally, at the end of the month, they acquired Jorge Cantu from the Marlins to start against lefties.

Yet there was Mitch Moreland penciled in at first base and as the No. 9 hitter in Game 3 against southpaw Jonathan Sanchez with the Giants up 2-0 in the World Series.

One of only two left-handed hitters in the Texas lineup.

And he proved to be the hero.

Moreland, who had been 1-for-8 against lefties, launched a three-run homer off Sanchez in the second inning Saturday to give the Rangers a comfortable early lead in a game they won 4-2.

The liner to right ended a masterful nine-pitch at-bat. Moreland was backed into a corner early, when a borderline fastball was called a strike to even the count at 2-2. He then fouled off four straight before connecting with a low fastball that caught a bit too much of the plate. The bullet was a no-doubter, and Sanchez, who had held left-handers to a .181 average during the regular season, found himself in an early deficit for the second time in two starts.

Sanchez seemed to pitch around Bengie Molina to get to Moreland with two outs. Nelson Cruz led off the frame with a double, advanced to third on Ian Kinsler’s grounder and then stayed put when Jeff Francoeur hit a first-pitch grounder right at third baseman Juan Uribe. With Molina having driven in eight runs in the postseason, Sanchez worked him carefully and walked him even after getting him to swing wildly at a curveball for a strike. He didn’t imagine Moreland hanging so tough. He certainly didn’t see Moreland hitting his first career homer versus a lefty.

Moreland, who was platooned after being called up at the end of July, had just 20 regular season at-bats against southpaws, hitting .200.

With the blast, Moreland is batting .341 in 41 postseason at-bats. His surge at the end of the regular season, which included a pair of two-homer games on Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, helped earned him the nod over Cantu against lefties this month, but it certainly hasn’t hurt that he’s the superior defensive first baseman.

At the end of September, it was still up in the air whether he’d get a chance to retain a starting job headed into 2011. There will be several established first basemen available in free agency this winter, and at least a couple of them will end up coming fairly cheap. Moreland, though, has made a great case for holding on to the job. Often an outfielder in the minors, he’s improved defensively since he’s gotten the chance to concentrate on playing first, and he has a very good approach at the plate. Power has been the question mark, but tonight, he kept the Rangers in the World Series with an exclamation point.

Yankees oust Aroldis Chapman from the closer’s role

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The writing was on the wall, but the Yankees made it official on Saturday: Aroldis Chapman is no longer closing games for the Bronx Bombers. Comments from manager Joe Girardi suggested that the move is a temporary one, however, and he told reporters that Chapman will be utilized at “different points” in the game as the Yankees try to pinpoint the source of the left-hander’s struggles.

There’s no question that the flame-throwing southpaw has been off his game for a while, and his season 4.29 ERA, 4.3 BB/9 and 12.6 SO/9 hints at some of the issues he’s been facing. He imploded in each of his last three appearances, issuing a cumulative five hits, six runs and five strikeouts over just 3 1/3 innings. It seems plausible that the left rotator cuff inflammation that sidelined him several months ago has resurfaced, but the veteran lefty said Friday that he doesn’t believe any physical issues have caused his decline.

While Chapman works out the kinks in his mechanics, the Yankees will look to some combination of Dellin Betances and David Robertson to cover the ninth inning. Girardi wouldn’t commit to either reliever in the closer’s spot, however, and said he’d take it on a case-by-case basis depending on the match-ups in any given game. The long-term plan is still to reinstate Chapman, whenever that might make sense for the team.

“He’s been scuffling over the past 10 days, two weeks,” Girardi said. “I just thought for us to get him back on track, maybe the best way would be to move him around a little bit until he gets going. When we get him going like I believe he’ll get going, there’s a good chance I’ll put him right back in that closer’s role.”

Nationals activate Stephen Strasburg off the disabled list

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The Nationals officially activated Stephen Strasburg off the 10-day disabled list, the team announced Saturday. They’ll pencil him into the starting lineup for their second set against the Padres on Saturday night. Strasburg is expected to assume Max Scherzer‘s roster spot after Scherzer landed on the disabled list with neck inflammation prior to Friday’s series opener. No other roster moves appear to be necessary for the time being.

Strasburg, 28, is finally looking stable after serving a 26-day stint on the DL with a right elbow nerve impingement. It’s the first serious injury he’s sustained since last August, when he missed 20 days with inflammation in his right elbow, and one the Nationals are taking seriously as they juggle multiple stints for their elite starters. He’ll enter Saturday’s competition with a 10-3 record in 20 starts, supplemented by a 3.25 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 10.4 SO/9 through 121 2/3 innings.

Elbow issues are nothing to be played around with, but Strasburg’s performance in his lone rehab outing relieved any residual apprehension the Nats might have had about his activation this weekend. He tossed 66 pitches for High-A Potomac, hitting 95 MPH with his heater and logging three hits, one run, one walk and five strikeouts over five innings. Club manager Dusty Baker is hoping for a similarly dominant start against the Padres, and told reporters that he’ll hold Strasburg to a performance count as the righty works his way back to a full-time gig.