Texas Rangers left fielder Hamilton celebrates with teammates Cruz and Chavez after the Rangers defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of MLB's World Series baseball championship in St. Louis

Cardinals’ bullpen finally cracks, Rangers stage comeback to even World Series

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Two games in, this World Series has the look of an instant classic. Wednesday’s thrilling Game 1 saw late-inning heroics that sent a 3-2 victory St. Louis’ way. In Game 2 on Thursday, it was the Rangers who benefited from a dose of last-minute magic.

Facing a 1-0 deficit in the top of the ninth inning, and a closer in Jason Motte who had been nearly untouchable all postseason, the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler blooped a leadoff single over the head of Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal to get the ball rolling. Kinsler then swiped second base, beating Yadier Molina’s on-target throw by inches, and Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus followed with a sharply-struck base hit to right-center field that advanced Kinsler to third.

Those back-to-back hits led Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who’s pulled correct string after correct string throughout these playoffs, to fall back into the trap of over-management. Opting for a lefty-lefty matchup on Rangers slugger and No. 3 hitter Josh Hamilton, he pulled Motte from the 1-0 game in favor of 41-year-old southpaw Arthur Rhodes, who promptly surrendered the tying run on a sacrifice fly to right field.

Hamilton only had to flick his wrist to do the deed on a floater from Rhodes. One has to wonder if the game-tying sacrifice would have been so easily converted against Motte, who can touch 100 mph.

Hamilton’s groin injury — the one he’s been battling since the final month of the regular season — limits his ability to turn his core quickly and effectively on pitches. He barely had to budge against Arthur.

Michael Young gave the Rangers their first lead of the Fall Classic one pitching change later, lifting a ball to deep center field against Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn to score the fleet-footed Andrus from third.

That 2-1 score would hold through the bottom of the ninth as the Cards failed to capitalize on a leadoff walk.

The loss shouldn’t fall solely on La Russa, just as Wednesday’s blame shouldn’t center completely around Ron Washington. Motte cracked against the top of the Texas lineup and the Cardinals couldn’t escape the jam. Jaime Garcia was great. Allen Craig again came through. But the results, in the end, weren’t there.

The Rangers awoke in the ninth and stole this one. They shocked a rocking Busch Stadium crowd and surely sent a sting through the St. Louis clubhouse. The Fall Classic is now a essentially a five-game series, and three of those games will be played in Arlington, Texas over the next four days. Advantage: Rangers?

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.