Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?
For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.
But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.
For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.
1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series). Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.
1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.
1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.
1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies. The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.
1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.
There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.
Firstly, Rangers fans should be delighted by the headline – my 2011 predictions have been execrable (according to this blog, the series opens in Atlanta tomorrow night with the Red Sox as the visitors – or maybe it’s in Boston; maybe I got the All-Star Game wrong too).
Worse still I have a great affection for Ron Washington, his third base coach Dave Anderson, and his Game One starter C.J. Wilson. Beyond that, there is no love lost between me and Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. The purist in me is offended that the regular season is so irrelevant that what it proved was the fourth best team in the National League is my pick to win the Series. And I happen to hate team catchphrases and don’t particularly care about whether the Cardinals’ flights are happy or morose.
Nevertheless, here are a few points that made this forecast unwelcome but necessary. You know that dreadful Cardinals’ starting rotation? Its post-season ERA is a nauseating 5.43 – and the Rangers are at 5.58. That anemic St. Louis line-up with the pitcher and the relief pitchers and a few popgun bats off the bench all hitting? It’s batting .288, getting on base at a .345 rate, slugging .448, for an OPS of .793. The awe-inspiring Texas line-up so deep with the DH that Boomstick Himself hitting way down there in the seventh? .259/.330/.434/.764. Having thus far played one more game than the Rangers, the Cardinals have outscored them 62 to 55.
Speaking of Boomstick, what if that tweak in Game 6 of the ALCS, that seeming oblique injury, merely hinders Nelson Cruz in the Series? What happens to a slugger who can’t twist his body fully without searing pain? Cruz has been fragile enough that to begin with his health is always in doubt. Worse still, there are probabilities in play here, and if your performance in the Division Series was 1-for-15 with no homers and no RBI, and then your performance in the Championship Series was 8-for-22 with six homers and 13 RBI, your performance in the World Series is much likelier to look like the first set of numbers than the second.
The DH “thing”? The Cardinals led the majors in hitting on the road, finishing third in road home runs behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cardinals, thought to be comparatively weak sisters at the plate, basically led the National League in every offensive category except home runs, and struck out the fewest times in the NL. To be fair, Texas struck out even less – 48 times less – but without pitchers hitting the stat is slightly deceptive for comparison purposes. Cardinals’ pitchers struck out 111 times as batters during 2011, meaning their eight position players (and pinch-hitters and DHs) only struck out 867 times in total.
Then there is the little matter of the efficacy of starting three lefthanders against the Cardinals (in point of fact, if all three games scheduled for Arlington are played, St. Louis would face the three southpaws in a row). I appreciate the fact that the Cardinals did better against righties than any other NL team (and overall sit behind only Texas throughout the sport), and I’m aware that the key to beating the Cards this year has been to make Lance Berkman bat from the right side, where he is useful but not a force. But it still strikes me as inherently dangerous to offer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a blossoming David Freese, and Allen Craig the opportunity to face the likes of Wilson, Holland, and Harrison. To me the play is to bag one of the lesser two and opt for Alexi Ogando, rather than waiting for Holland to blow up again and then going and getting Ogando. Against lefties in the post-season the Cardinals battered Cliff Lee, were bewildered by Randy Wolf, and held their own in a loss to Cole Hamels.
The bullpens have both been superb – the Cardinals’ particularly – and the fact that neither team had to go to a seventh game in the LCS means both sets of relievers are likely to be fresh. If there is one intangible in Texas’s favor in this series, it’s that they’ve faced Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski this year, with some success. In fact they hung a loss Rzepczynski as recently as July 23, even though the Eyechart Man was effective against David Murphy (0-2) and Mitch Moreland (0-1) in four appearances. As images of Rzepczynski nearly getting Pujols killed Saturday night dance in the heads of Cardinals fans, it is trivially noteworthy to remember that his loss in Arlington nearly three months ago resulted from his own throwing error on a Moreland sacrifice.
So if you want to get an exotic wager in on the weirdest thing that could happen in the World Series, it would be Rzepczynski blowing an inning, or a lead, or a game, by picking up a bunt and running face first into Pujols for a solid E-1 and possible concussion.
Of course, just picking the Cardinals is an exotic enough wager.
So the last time we saw Mark McGwire he was giving the worst possible answer to questions from Congress about steroids. And then he vanished without a trace, and the location of his supporters and defenders shrank to one area code in Missouri, and every day somebody hoped he’d figure it out: his reputation was shot anyway, he wasn’t going to the Hall of Fame, he had been given by fate a license to tell kids not to get involved with performance-enhancers and thus redeem much of his own unacceptable but easily forgiven perfidy.