Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Milwaukee Braves

The Milwaukee Braves are, I believe, the shortest-lived team to have an entry on this list. The Braves are one of the two franchises to have moved twice; the other, the Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics, did not make the playoffs in their middle iteration. But the Braves had something going for them that the A's didn't: Hank Aaron. And Eddie Mathews. And... well, let's forgo listing all of their players and just say they were a highly talented team - one that arguably should have won more than they did.

But here at Best Postseason Win, we're focused on the positive. And the positive in this case is a good one: 1957 World Series Game 4, Braves 7, Yankees 5 (10). New York's starter was Tom Sturdivant, who spent most of his career as a reliever; '57 was his only all-starting season, and it was a good one. He went 16-6 in a career-high 28 starts, with a 2.54 ERA.

The Braves replied with the guy who would have been next on the above list of great players: Warren Spahn, who in 1957 had essentially an average season - for Warren Spahn. Which means that he went 21-11, 2.69.

(No, seriously, this was almost exactly his average, in all respects. Spahn's full numbers were 21-11, 2.69 ERA (130 ERA+), 35 starts, 18 complete games, 271 innings, 111 strikeouts, 78 walks, 23 homers allowed, and 4.7 WAR per Baseball-Reference, His averages over a 17-year span, from 1947-63, were (with some rounding): 20-12, 2.96 (124 ERA+), 35 starts, 21 complete games, 278 innings, 138 strikeouts, 75 walks, 22 homers allowed, and 5.4 WAR. Eleven times in those 17 years, Spahn's total WAR was between 4 and 7. Ten seasons of the 17, he won either 21 or 22 games.)

(We'll get to the game in a minute, I promise, but one more Spahn note first: His 1957 was probably not quite as good as his average season - and he won the Cy Young. And this was in the early days of the Cy, when they only gave out one award for all of MLB.)

The Yankees started off trying to play small ball against their formidable opponent, as Tony Kubek led off with a bunt single and Hank Bauer moved him to second with a groundout. But Mickey Mantle grounded back to the mound, and Spahn caught Kubek too far off of second (or the runner tried to advance and Spahn threw to the shortstop covering third, it's hard to tell from basic play-by-play). New York recovered, however. Mantle had reached first on the prior play and moved to second when Yogi Berra walked. Gil McDougald followed with a single that drove in the game's first run.

Out of the next six half-innings, only one saw a runner reach base; it was the bottom of the second, in which Hank Aaron led off with a single. He was forced at second, but Wes Covington then stole second and moved to third on a groundout before being stranded. After that, the game passed quietly until the bottom of the fourth, when the Braves made some noise: Johnny Logan led off with a walk, Eddie Mathews doubled him to third, and Aaron homered to take a 3-1 lead. One out later, Frank Torre went deep as well to make it 4-1.

With a three run lead and Spahn on the mound, things looked very good indeed for the Braves - and they stayed that way for some time. Spahn allowed singles in the fifth and seventh, but erased both runners on double plays. Meanwhile, Sturdivant was pulled at the end of the fourth, and Bobby Shantz threw a trio of scoreless innings to keep the game from getting too out of hand. In the top of the eighth, Andy Carey led off with a double, and pinch hitter Jerry Lumpe singled him to third with one out, but Kubek then hit into a double play. Johnny Kucks got into trouble in the bottom of the inning, thanks to a leadoff double by Red Schoendienst, but after a two-out walk to Aaron, Tommy Byrne relieved and struck out Covington to strand both runners.

Spahn retired the first two batters in the ninth. He then allowed singles to Berra and McDougald, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of Elston Howard. At this point in his career, Howard's playing time was still severely curtailed by Berra, who occupied Howard's natural position behind the plate; since Berra almost never took a day off, the Yankees were force to find other places for Howard, primarily the outfield. In this particular game, he had started at first base, and went 0 for his first 3.

But in his fourth at bat, he homered, tying the game at 4. Byrne was spotless in the bottom of the inning, forcing extras, and in the tenth, the Yanks once again rallied with two outs, courtesy of a Kubek single and a Bauer triple. Spahn struck out Mantle to keep the margin to a run, and that run reached base in the person of pinch hitter Nippy Jones, who Byrne hit with a pitch to lead off the bottom of the inning. Bob Grim relieved, Felix Mantilla pinch ran, and Schoendienst bunted the new runner to second.

I don't usually spend too much time talking about defensive substitutions unless they're particularly notable - but the one the Yankees made at this point qualifies, I think. They inserted Enos Slaughter, who was 41 years old, to play left field. That's not too crazy on its surface; Slaughter was not bereft of speed in his younger days. But the accompanying move caught my attention: they moved Tony Kubek from left field to center, and sat Mickey Mantle. First, that means that Kubek started the game in left - which apparently wasn't terribly unusual in '57, Kubek's rookie year. I always thought of him as a guy whose high-quality glove at shortstop was the only thing that kept his subpar bat in the lineup, but in '57, less than a third of his defensive innings came at short; the rest were split between left, center, and third base.

Second, it also means that Casey Stengel felt he was better off trying to hold a one-run World Series lead with an aging reserve and an out-of-position shortstop in the outfield than with the two-time defending AL MVP. Not to sound like an old man, but can you IMAGINE the reaction if someone pulled Andrew McCutchen or Mike Trout in that situation today?

All right, back to the game. Logan doubled (to Slaughter's new territory in left, amusingly enough - I have no idea if it was a play that anyone else could have made), and scored Mantilla with the tying run. Mathews then promptly rendered defensive alignment irrelevant, launching a walkoff homer to right.

The Braves won a total of seven postseason games during their 13-year stint in Milwaukee: three in 1958, and four (and therefore, the World Series) in 1957. Out of those seven victories, WPL doesn't even see this as the best one; it prefers our lone honorable mention entry, Game 1 of the 1958 Series. There is certainly an argument to be made for that one. For starters, it also went 10 innings (and also had Warren Spahn pitch all of them). Moreover, unlike the '57 entry, this game pitted Spahn against the also-great Whitey Ford, who outpitched his fellow Hall of Fame lefty until the eighth, in which Mathews and Aaron knocked him from the game while sparking the tying rally. Both teams put go-ahead runs in scoring position after that without bringing them home (Milwaukee's was actually Spahn himself, as he singled in the ninth and moved to second on a walk); the Braves finally won in 10 on a two-out walkoff single.

I can see why WPL prefers that contest, and normally, I would pick it as well to make WPL's point: the margin in that game was never greater than a run, whereas the 1957 game had a 3-run gap for about half of regulation, and the Yankees mounted very few threats during that period. Also, more of the scoring in the 1958 matchup was based in extended rallies, which draw out the tension rather than providing the immediate resolution of a home run. (Calling home runs "rally killers" is justifiably mocked, but there's generally not much suspense remaining AFTER someone hits one.)

Two things ruled against that choice. First, the Braves won the 1957 Series, whereas they lost in '58. And second... this game had a go-ahead home run by Hank Aaron, and a game-tying homer by Elston Howard off of Warren Spahn, and a walkoff homer by Eddie Mathews! If there are any Milwaukee Braves fans left, this is certainly the game they would pick between the two, for either one of those two reasons.

The Braves, of course, eventually had a rather more sustained run of success following their move to Atlanta - and next, we'll be following them south to check in with their modern iteration.

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