Monday, December 14, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Philadelphia A's

We went over the feast-or-famine history of the A's franchise last time, so let's start off by hitting their Philadelphian feasts. They were solid in the first decade of the 20th century, including a pennant in 1905, but the two best Connie Mack A's teams were the $100,000 infield, which won four pennants from 1910-14, and the Grove-Foxx-Simmons-Cochrane squad in the late '20s, which won three pennants in a row from 1929-31.

Both teams are deservedly famous, all the more because Mack's finances forced him to break them up when they were still at their best. But they didn't necessarily play too many famous games - and the ones that they did play tended to be of types that WPL doesn't care for.

But we'll get to that later. For now, the selection - 1911 World Series Game 3: A's 3, Giants 2 (11). The Series was tied at one game each, with the Giants having come from behind to win a 2-1 duel in Game 1, and the A's taking Game 2 thanks to a sixth-inning homer by Frank Baker. In the third contest, the A's started Jack Coombs, who I always thought of as a mainstay of this team's pitching staff - and he kind of was, but what fame he has comes mostly from his teammates. In 1911, he pulled off the odd feat of leading the AL in both wins (28) and earned runs allowed. His 3.53 ERA would be solid or good in most modern contexts, but it was substantially below average in the deadball era.

Coombs also led the league in hits allowed - and as it happens, his opponent on the mound did the same in the NL. But Christy Mathewson still managed to take the NL ERA title while pitching over 300 innings.

Both pitchers started off well, as neither team managed a baserunner in the first two innings. Jack Barry led off the top of the third with a single and stole second, but Mathewson then induced a line drive double play, and the Giants grabbed the lead in the bottom of the inning when Chief Meyers and Mathewson singled to put runners on the corners and Josh Devore grounded into a force to score Meyers. Devore was then caught stealing to end the inning.

Eddie Collins singled and stole second in the top of the fourth; he was left on, but at least the A's had ensured that Mathewson wouldn't face the minimum number of hitters for the day. Philly mounted a much bigger threat in the fifth, starting when Danny Murphy reached on a Buck Herzog error. Harry Davis singled, and Barry bunted the runners to second and third. Jack Lapp grounded back to the mound, and Mathewson threw Murphy out at home. Coombs then popped up to leave the remaining runners on. Herzog walked and was caught stealing in the bottom of the fifth, and nobody reached base after that until the seventh, when Red Murray drew a two-out walk and ended the inning on first.

The A's assembled their next rally in the eighth, starting with a leadoff double by Barry. Lapp singled, moving the runner to third, and Coombs... well, first, it's worth pointing out that Coombs was allowed to hit for himself in the eighth inning of a World Series game with the tying run at third. This is slightly less crazy than it sounds; Coombs was actually a very good hitter for a pitcher, and in 1911 had been a pretty good hitter, period, hitting .319/.356/.418 (117 OPS+) in 152 PA. (Which might have something to do with how he won 28 games while not pitching all that well.) He wasn't that good a hitter in most years, but he did end up with a career OPS+ of 74, which wouldn't be a number that you'd necessarily want in the lineup regularly, but it doesn't automatically demand a pinch hitter either.

Anyway, Coombs grounded to second, getting Barry thrown out at home. Leadoff man Bris Lord then grounded to second as well, and the Giants went for the force, but Art Fletcher mishandled the throw; they would have had the bases loaded with one out, but Lapp broke for home, got hung up in a rundown, and was tagged for the second out. Rube Oldring then whiffed to leave two runners on.

Coombs was perfect in the eighth, but the A's still trailed by a run against one of the best pitchers in baseball history, and in a game in which they'd had no less than three runners thrown out trying for home. It seemed it was not going to be their day.

At least, it seemed that way until Frank Baker homered with one out to tie the game.

Murphy reached on an error immediately after Baker's homer, but was left on; Coombs then set the A's down in order to force extras. Mathewson was spotless in the tenth, and the Giants kind of threatened in the bottom of the inning; they'd have done better if they'd stayed out of their own way, as Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle both walked, but Snodgrass was thrown out trying to advance on a not-wild-enough pitch, and Merkle was caught stealing.

In the eleventh, the teams really brought out the wackiness. Collins singled with one out, and Baker followed with a single of his own; Collins moved to third on a Herzog throwing error, with Baker advancing to second behind him. Murphy then grounded to short, where Fletcher committed a miscue that allowed Collins to score (and Murphy to reach on a Giant error for the third time in the game). Davis singled Baker home for a 3-1 lead, although Murphy was thrown out at third on the play; Davis was then caught stealing to end the inning.

Herzog led off the bottom of the eleventh with a double, and moved to third on a one-out grounder. Pinch hitter Beals Becker then reached on a Collins error to score Herzog and bring the Giants within one, but was promptly caught stealing to end the game.

It's a little hard to capture how huge Baker's game-tying homer was, because in 1911, nobody ever hit home runs. Baker had actually led the AL in longballs for the year - with eleven. Meanwhile, Mathewson had allowed all of five homers in his 307 innings pitched, a figure which was entirely typical for him over the course of his career. That works out to roughly one home run allowed every seven completed games. And since Baker had hit the go-ahead homer in the previous game as well... the baseball world generally went nuts for the guy.

And that's how a player with less than 100 career round-trippers (even if you include the postseason) ended up with the nickname Home Run. The moniker stuck to Baker so thoroughly that Baseball Reference lists him as "Home Run Baker" rather than Frank.

(Irrelevant side note: B-R also lists Grover Cleveland Alexander under his nickname, Pete. I do not understand this at all. "Pete" is among the most generic names a man can have. On the other hand, "Grover Cleveland Alexander," taken in full, is a spectacular name, even if you don't account for the fact that it's spoken in perfect trochaic tetrameter. Nicknames should be allowed to replace given names only when they are a clear upgrade. All right, back to the A's.)

Between the bestowal of a retrospectively incongruous but exceptional nickname, both starters pitching into extras (and batting for themselves in a close game), six errors, and five runners caught stealing, the story of the game that made Home Run Baker may be about the best single representation available for how much baseball has changed over the century since these events took place.  Also, the game has the side benefit of being a great one on its own merits. It ranks just outside the top 100 postseason games of all time by WPL, but through the completion of its own World Series, it was #3 - and given that one of the two games ahead of it was a tie and the other was in Game 4 and resulted in the winning team barely staving off a sweep, this probably became the most famous postseason game ever when it was played.

On to the honorable mention section. 1930 World Series Game 5 was a scoreless tie between George Earnshaw and Burleigh Grimes through seven; Earnshaw was lifted for a pinch hitter in an eighth inning in which the A's left the bases loaded, but they had Lefty Grove available to relieve him, and Jimmie Foxx broke the tie with a two-run homer in the ninth. 1913 World Series Game 1 kind of went back and forth some, but the last time the outcome was really in doubt was the seventh inning, when the Giants had the tying run at third with one out before Art Fletcher hit into a double play. On the other hand, Home Run Baker lived up to his nickname in this one.

Arguably the two most famous Philly A's postseason wins outside of the Baker game were Game 1 and Game 4 of the 1929 World Series; WPL finds both of these games to have been... OK. In Game 1, aging right-hander Howard Ehmke shut down the vaunted Cubs' lineup, allowing only one unearned run and striking out 13 in a 3-1 win; the game stayed fairly close throughout and was certainly a fine performance by Ehmke, but it wasn't the kind of nailbiter WPL looks for. Game 4, meanwhile, was the other kind of legendary game that WPL generally shrugs at - the huge comeback. The A's trailed 8-0 going into the bottom of the seventh, then rallied for 10 runs against four Cub pitchers. The comeback inning itself was, of course, thrilling (and kind of horrifying; one of the key hits was an inside-the-park homer that Hack Wilson famously lost in the sun). But the process of building an 8-0 lead is not generally a very engaging one, and the Cubs didn't so much as put a runner on base after blowing the lead, and WPL prefers games that have more than one interesting half-inning.

For our next entry, we'll stick around Philly and pay a visit to the team that still plays there - and to one of the most underrated postseason series ever.

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