NEW YORK – So.
So about those New York Mets blitzing through the National League Championship Series.
So much for that.
So about those St. Louis Cardinals' bats that parked themselves in a mortuary for Game 1 of the NLCS.
So much for that, too.
So about So. That's his real name. It's rather common in Japan, where So Taguchi spent the first 32 years of his life. He was a good player, always overshadowed by his Orix Blue Wave teammate Ichiro Suzuki. He was not a power hitter, not at 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds, not by any definition, and certainly not the type one would expect to launch a ball 375 feet, win a playoff game and salvage a season.
So, of course, he did just that late Friday night, in the ninth inning, off New York Mets closer Billy Wagner of all people. He worked for eight pitches, fouling off four, ignoring the fact that he was hitless in five career at-bats against Wagner, and then he eyed a 96-mph fastball and swung, short and compact like all his swings, and wouldn't you know that ball flew and kept going all the way over the left-field fence at Shea Stadium. Just like that, the Cardinals held their first lead, and they tacked on two more runs in a 9-6 victory that sends the series back to St. Louis tied 1-1 with Game 3 set to start at 8:05 p.m. ET, almost exactly 20 hours after Game 2 ended.
"I couldn't recognize what happened," Taguchi said. "I didn't know what I should do. So I just ran."
What were his other choices? It's not like Taguchi has a seasoned home-run trot. In 960 at-bats over his five seasons with the Cardinals, Taguchi hit 16 home runs. Yet somehow, in both of his playoff at-bats this year, Taguchi has cranked home runs – this after a regular season in which he hit two in 316 at-bats.
"We think we found our secret weapon," Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said.
Deep on the recesses of their bench he sits, knowing to limber up in the seventh inning or so. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa usually inserts Taguchi as a defensive replacement around that time, and with the left-handed Wagner warming in the bullpen during the eighth inning, La Russa slid Taguchi into left field for the left-handed-hitting Chris Duncan, just one move of a handful that helped win him Game 2.
For all of Scott Spiezio's clutch hitting and his relievers' shutdown work in aid of an off-his-game Chris Carpenter, La Russa appreciated Taguchi's effort the most. Strolling into the interview room to spell Taguchi from the dais, La Russa paused, clapped his hands together and bowed.
"Arigato," La Russa said.
Thank you, indeed.
"You know, you're expecting a single or double, not expecting a home run, especially off a guy like Billy Wagner," La Russa said. "But he handles that situation. You can tell with his experience in Japan he was a big-time player and he's not intimidated by it."
Following a 10-year career in Japan, Taguchi held an open workout for major-league teams in the winter of 2001 to showcase himself. The Cardinals, intrigued by his defense and speed, signed him to a three-year contract.
At the end of spring training, Taguchi was sent to Triple-A, and when he struggled there, the Cardinals dropped him to Double-A. He worked back to the big leagues by the end of the season, split 2003 between Triple-A and St. Louis and didn't stick for good until the end of 2004.
By then, he had acclimated himself to the United States, learning English with the help of his wife, Emiko, a television reporter fluent in the language, and movies such as Finding Nemo and Monster's Inc. He had carved his niche in the clubhouse, too, the friendly sort, always smiling, and with a throng of Japanese reporters trailing and detailing his every move.
Did they ever have a story to relay home Friday.
"I was just hoping he'd bunt or walk or somehow get on ahead of Albert (Pujols)," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. "Then he hits the home run."
When Taguchi's home run cleared the fence, even the mild-mannered Jocketty had to jump. The Cardinals had erased 3-0, 4-2 and 6-4 leads. They had spoiled two home runs from Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado. They had seen 200 pitches, fouling off 55 of them and breaking down a Mets bullpen that led the NL with a 3.25 earned-run average during the regular season
"He got the good part of the bat on the ball," Wagner said, "and throwing 98, that's going to happen."
Maybe with Pujols, who was on deck and blistered a double off Wagner. Or perhaps with Spiezio, who got the start for an ailing Scott Rolen and drove in three runs, including an RBI double in the ninth. Even with Juan Encarnacion, whose single sent Spiezio home, it seems feasible.
But So Taguchi?
"It's crazy," Eckstein said. "The homer he hit off (Padres reliever Scott) Linebrink the other day, too. It was a nasty slider and he was able to hit it out. The shadows were horrible. We couldn't even see the ball. And then he steps in today, has just a fantastic at-bat and is able to do that. It's something you wouldn't predict but is fun to watch."
For everyone except the 56,349 at Shea and the millions tuning in around the five boroughs. La Russa said it might have been the greatest comeback he has seen from any team of his, so special, in fact, that he tucked the lineup card into his jacket pocket and planned on giving it one more look on the flight home.
The Cardinals' charter was set to leave around 2 a.m., which would land them in St. Louis at 3:30 a.m. CT. By the time they drove home, it would be around 4 a.m., and thanks to the Game 1 rainout, sleep would be a commodity in short supply.
As the Cardinals packed their bags, the idea didn't seem nearly as daunting as it would have without Taguchi's home run, one that, an hour after it happened, he still couldn't quite process.
"It's very tough," Taguchi said. "I think (Wagner) is one of the best closers in the big leagues. So (you) probably can't imagine."
No, you can't. The feeling, the energy, the joy. It was good.
- Tony La Russa