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.

Max Scherzer will not be ready for Opening Day

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Ten days ago Nationals ace Max Scherzer said he’d be ready for the start of the regular season. “I’m gonna do it,” Scherzer said.

[Ron Howard from “Arrested Development” voice] — No, he’s not:

Nationals manager Dusty Baker said that Max Scherzer is not on track to be the team’s opening day starter, and will most likely open the season as the third pitcher in the rotation.

He’s still projected to make it to the opening rotation, taking the hill, most likely, on Thursday April 6 against the Marlins. At least if the schedule doesn’t slip any more.

Scherzer, as you probably know, has a stress fracture in the knuckle of his right ring finger, which has messed with his preparation and has caused him to alter his grip a bit. As of now Stephen Strasburg will get the Opening Day nod.

Theo Epstein named The World’s Greatest Leader

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Fortune Magazine has put out a list of The World’s Greatest Leaders. Not the greatest business leaders, not the greatest leaders in a given industry, but the Greatest Leaders, full stop. The greatest according to Fortune: The Cubs’ Theo Epstein.

For some context, Pope Francis was third. Angela Merkel was 10th. Lebron James was the next greatest sports leader, ranked 11th. Take Fortune’s methodology with a grain of salt, however, given that it has John McCain above Merkel — what, exactly, does he lead now? — and Samantha Bee in the top 20.

So what makes Theo the world’s best leader according to Fortune?

The Cubs owe their success to a five-year rebuilding program that featured a concatenation of different leadership styles. The team thrived under the affable patience of owner Tom Ricketts, and, later, under the innovative eccentricity of manager Joe Maddon. But most important of all was the evolution of the club’s president for baseball operations, Theo Epstein, the wunderkind executive who realized he would need to grow as a leader in order to replicate in Chicago the success he’d had with the Boston Red Sox.

I don’t want to take anything away from what Theo has done — he’s a Hall of Fame executive already in my view — but I feel like maybe one needs to adjust for the fact that this is a baseball team we’re talking about. They’re the whole world to us and their brands are nationally and even world famous, but as an organization, sports teams are rather small. There are guys who run reasonably-sized HVAC companies with more employees than a baseball team and they don’t get the benefit of an antitrust exemption and a rule which allows them to get their pick of the best new employees if they had a bad year the year before.

Really, not trying to throw shade here, just thinking that being the spiritual father for 1.2 billion Catholics or running a foundation that serves 55 million needy children — like the woman who comes in at number 14 — is a bit of a tougher trick.

But this will make a great framed magazine article on Theo’s wall in Wrigley Field.