Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Washington Senators

The Washington Senators were one of the original American League franchises in 1901, and relocated to Minnesota in 1961. (They were replaced by another iteration of the Senators that year; that team would relocate to Texas a decade later and become the Rangers. The second Senators did not make a single postseason appearance, so this is the only mention they'll get in this series.)

In their 60 years of existence, the original Senators won the AL pennant a total of three times. They weren't quite the St. Louis Browns, but they still very much earned the line: "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." They were so bad, in fact, that even the presence of arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history wasn't enough to pull them entirely out of the doldrums; in the first 17 years of Walter Johnson's career (1907-1923), they had fewer winning records (6) than bottom-two finishes (7), only twice finished within 10 games of first, and won no pennants.

Until 1924, that is. The 36-year-old Johnson was still effective that year, and finally had a quality team built around him, with future Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Sam Rice in the outfield, future AL MVP Roger Peckinpaugh at shortstop, and a solid group of pitchers, including Firpo Marberry, regarded as one of the first relief aces. (He had almost as many starts - 14 - as saves - 15 - in 1924. Suffice it to say that the "relief ace" standards have changed a little in the intervening 90 years.)

That team finally claimed Washington's first pennant, setting up a World Series against the New York Giants, who had won their fourth NL flag in a row. The Series itself was a really good one, and culminated in one of the most famous games in baseball history.

Game 7, 1924 World Series: Senators 4, Giants 3 (12).

New York's starter was Virgil Barnes, who was a full-time starter for the first time at age 27 and posted a solid campaign. The Senators countered with 23-year-old right-hander Curly Ogden... sort of. But two batters into the top of the first (a strikeout and a walk), young player-manager Bucky Harris yanked Ogden in favor of veteran lefty George Mogridge, leaving the Giants with the wrong side of a platoon in the lineup (lefty first baseman Bill Terry instead of right-handed outfielder Irish Meusel - George "Highpockets" Kelly moved from the outfield to first as needed to make the platoon work).

Mogridge closed out the first without further incident, and allowed only intermittent baserunners in the game's early innings (an error and a single in the second and a bunt hit by Frank Frisch in the third). The pitching for the Giants was rather less adventurous; Barnes retired the first ten Senators he faced, a streak that was ended by Harris's solo homer in the bottom of the fourth that put the Senators in front 1-0.

Mogridge worked around a two-out double by Freddie Lindstrom in the fifth, but the Giants broke through in the sixth. Ross Youngs led off with a walk, and Kelly chased Mogridge with a single. Marberry came on in relief and allowed a game-tying sacrifice fly to Meusel, who was pinch hitting for Terry. Hack Wilson then singled Kelly to third. The next two batters both hit grounders that the Washington infield turned into errors (by first baseman Joe Judge and shortstop Ossie Bluege, respectively), putting New York in front 3-1 before Marberry could end the inning on a flyout and a strikeout.

Meanwhile, Barnes had quickly regained control after Harris's homer, working 1-2-3 innings in both the fifth and sixth. Harris singled in the seventh, as did Goslin, but Rice's double play ball removed Harris from the bases before Goslin's hit, keeping any semblance of rally from materializing. Marberry withstood an error in the eighth to keep Washington within range, but with only two innings to go and the New York starter having allowed only three baserunners in the game so far, the situation looked grim indeed for the Senators.

After Bluege fouled out to open the bottom of the eighth, pinch hitter Nemo Leibold doubled, and Muddy Ruel singled him to third. Pinch hitter Bennie Tate walked to load the bases with one out, but Earl McNeely flied to left, apparently too shallow to bring Leibold in from third. With two outs, the batter was once again Harris, who until this inning was practically the only Senator to do anything against Barnes.

Harris hit what should have been a routine grounder toward Lindstrom at third. Instead, the ball hit a pebble and leaped over Lindstrom's head into left field and history. Two runs scored to tie the game. Barnes was pulled for Art Nehf, who retired Rice to leave the go-ahead run in scoring position.

And the game was just getting started.

In the top of the ninth, Walter Johnson took the mound. You can imagine the palpable sense of drama as the old war horse stepped into not just the most important situation of his career, but the most important situation baseball has to offer. Naturally, Frisch ruined the moment by hitting a one-out triple, forcing Johnson to scramble to leave him at third (intentional walk, strikeout, trail runner steals second, groundout).

Washington mounted a threat of its own in the bottom of the ninth; Judge singled with one out, and Bluege grounded into what might have been a force, but Travis Jackson mishandled the throw to second, putting runners on the corners. Up stepped Ralph Miller, who had 16 plate appearances in the 1924 regular season (his first in the majors since 1921), but due to (I think) an injury to Peckinpaugh, played four games in the World Series. Miller had come on at third base after Leibold pinch hit for Tommy Taylor an inning earlier; he now found himself in perfect position to become one of the least-accomplished heroes in baseball history. All he needed was a single, or a medium-depth flyout, or a decently-placed weak grounder. Instead, Hugh McQuillan coaxed him into a 6-4-3 double play that sent the game to extra innings.

Johnson countered a walk with a double play in the tenth, while McQuillan set Washington down in order. Heinie Groh led off the eleventh with a pinch single and was bunted to second, but Johnson allowed him to advance no further. The Senators also threatened on a two-out Goslin double, but Judge was intentionally walked and Jack Bentley then retired Bluege to end the inning.

Meusel led off the twelfth with a single, but his teammates were unable to advance him. Miller led off the bottom of the inning with a groundout, bringing Ruel to the plate. He hit a popup behind the plate, which should have been an easy second out - but Giant catcher Hank Gowdy incorrectly disposed of his mask, and ended up stepping in it and dropping the ball. Granted a reprieve, Ruel took advantage with a double. Johnson grounded to short, where Jackson committed his second error in a potential walkoff inning; Johnson reached safely, with Ruel holding at second. Up next was McNeely, who to this point was 0 for 5 and had made a huge out in the eighth inning. He grounded to third, and in probably the most famous case of deja vu in baseball history, the ball once again pebble-hopped over Lindstrom, sending Ruel home from second with the Series-clinching run.

This game... well, let's say it has a lot going for it. Its WPL of 6.11 is 21st all-time among postseason games, seventh among World Series games. And five of the six games ahead of it were either Game 1, 2, or 3 of the Series in which they occurred, muting their dramatic impact in comparison to this one. It is easily the highest-scoring Game 7 in any World Series, and as such, it has a strong WPL-based argument as the most dramatic game in baseball history.

And that's not even accounting for all of the additional drama-heightening factors. It was the seventh game of a tightly-contested series which was a classic David and Goliath matchup - John McGraw's perennial powerhouse Giants facing the perpetual sad-sack Senators. Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher the game had seen to that point, was finally in his first World Series and had lost two earlier games, one of them in 12 innings; he came on in relief in the ninth inning of a tie game and threw four eventful but scoreless innings. And the game itself was a stunning combination of drama and surrealism; three of the seven runs that scored were unearned, and that only includes one of the three that came in because of a fortuitously-situated rock. There's so much packed into this game that the fact that the losing team's catcher contributed hugely to the game-winning rally by stepping in his own mask is often left out of quick game summaries.

In total, this is probably one of the five most dramatic games in the history of baseball - and has a very strong case for the #1 spot.

Because of that (and because the Senators had only eight postseason wins in their 60-year existence), there's little point in an honorable mention section (if you're interested, their second-best playoff win was Game 3 of the 1925 Series, in which they came from behind twice, then held a one-run lead in the ninth by leaving the bases loaded).

Also, since there's no way the next game we cover will be better than this one, we might as well come down hard, and visit the best postseason win in the brief history of the Senators' modern cousins, the Washington Nationals.

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