Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Pittsburgh Pirates

If you have a guess about which game is going to be picked here, you are almost certainly correct.

There have been a few times in this series when I have overruled WPL's selection for a team and picked a different game than it preferred. I was very much prepared to do that in this case as well - except that it proved unnecessary, because while WPL doesn't absolutely love this particular entry (ranking it just outside the top 100), it does still recognize it as the Pirates' best playoff win.

1960 World Series Game 7: Pirates 10, Yankees 9. The games preceding this one had made it probably the most mistmatched series ever to last the full seven; Pittsburgh's margins of victory had been 2, 1, and 3, while the Yankees won their games by 13, 10, and 12. The seventh and final game pitted 1958 Cy Young winner Bob Turley against 1960 Cy Young winner Vern Law.

Law threw a 1-2-3 first, and the Pirates went to work in the bottom of the inning when Bob Skinner walked and Rocky Nelson homered. Law kept the bases Yankee-free again in the second, and Smoky Burgess led off the bottom of the inning with a single. At that point, Casey Stengel decided he'd seen enough and pulled Turley for Bill Stafford. Don Hoak walked and Bill Mazeroski reached on a bunt hit to load the bases with nobody out; Law grounded into a 1-2-3 double play, but Bill Virdon singled in both of the remaining runners to push the lead to 4-0.

Both teams put lone runners on in the third; the Yankees left pinch hitter Hector Lopez on base, and Bobby Shantz, the third New York pitcher in as many innings, induced a double play from Roberto Clemente to erase Nelson. Mickey Mantle's two-out single in the fourth made him the only runner on either team to reach in the inning. There was also only one baserunner in the fifth, and this one was of a more ephemeral variety, as Bill Skowron trotted around the bases and back into the dugout after his leadoff homer put the Yankees on the board.

Shantz worked his third straight three-batter inning in the bottom of the fifth, and the New York lineup really went to work in the sixth. Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek started the inning with a single and a walk, chasing Law from the game. Roger Maris fouled out against Roy Face, but Mantle singled Richardson home, and Yogi Berra followed with a three-run homer that put the Yanks ahead 5-4.

You'd think that Yogi Berra's sixth-inning homer to put the Yankees ahead in Game 7 of the World Series would be better-known than it is - at least, if you weren't aware that this was the best postseason win for the other team. But the game looked to be going New York's way for a while, as Shantz threw a perfect sixth; he allowed a leadoff single to Burgess in the seventh, and the Pirate catcher was lifted for pinch runner Joe Christopher, but Mazeroski hit into a double play one out later to end the inning.

Hal Smith replaced Burgess behind the plate in the eighth, and Face retired the first two Yankees he saw in the inning. But Berra walked, Skowron singled, Johnny Blanchard singled Berra home, and Clete Boyer doubled Skowron around to push the lead to 7-4. Shantz hit for himself and lined out to end the inning, but New York was still only six outs away from yet another world title.

Pinch hitter Gino Cimoli led off the bottom of the eighth with a single. Virdon then grounded what could have been a double play ball to short, but it a bad hop and struck Kubek in the throat. Both runners were safe, and Kubek was injured badly enough that he left the game. Dick Groat singled to score Cimoli and chase Shantz in favor of Jim Coates. Bob Skinner bunted the runners to second and third, putting the tying run in scoring position. Nelson flied out, but Clemente reached on an infield hit to bring Virdon home and pull the team within a run. Up next was Smith, who'd just come off the bench; the journeyman catcher worked a 2-2 count against Coates, then walloped the ball over the left field wall to take a 9-7 lead.

You'd think that Hal Smith's eighth-inning homer to put the Pirates ahead in Game 7 of the World Series would be better-known than it is, if you hadn't read the final score in the intro to this post. Ralph Terry relieved Coates and got the last out of the inning; Bob Friend took over in hopes of preserving the two-run lead in the ninth, but was pulled after allowing singles to Richardson and Dale Long. Harvey Haddix relieved and coaxed Maris to foul out, but Mantle singled, bringing in one run and moving the tying run to third.

Berra then grounded sharply to first, for what should have been a game-ending double play. But instead of throwing to second and then taking the return throw, Nelson stepped on his own base first, thereby eliminating the force at second - and Mantle, instead of breaking for second, then dove back safely to first base. It was a bizarre play on both sides, but it worked out tremendously well for the Yankees, as pinch runner Gil McDougald came home from third with the tying run.

(On a side note, this is just about the last thing Gil McDougald ever did as a major league player. In the ensuing offseason, he was taken in the expansion draft by the Angels, and retired rather than leave New York.)

Haddix got Skowron to hit into a force, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth - all two pitches' worth of it. On a 1-0 offering from Terry, Mazeroski homered to end the game. It was the first Series-ending home run ever hit, and still stands as one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.

Mazeroski's homer (understandably) got the lion's share of the attention, but it's worth pointing out that Hal Smith's eighth-inning shot that turned a deficit into a lead was more important, per WPA; it swung the Pirates' win expectancy by 64%, making it not just the biggest hit of the day, but the single play with the most championship impact in the history of baseball.

So that's pretty cool.

The honorable mention section is highlighted by another World Series Game 7, this one from 1925. It also featured a number of multi-run comebacks - but in this case, all of them were by the Pirates, and all of them came against Walter Johnson, who really should have been pulled from the game at some point. Had the Senators not won the World Series in dramatic fashion the previous year, Big Train being left on the mound to blow Game 7 multiple times would likely be seen as one of baseball's biggest on-field tragedies. It's a little on the tragic side as is.

The other options are a pair of Games 2 from 1979. In World Series Game 2, both teams left the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a tie game, and the Orioles put runners on first and second with one out in the eighth and failed to score as well. The Pirates finally broke the tie on a two-out ninth-inning single by Manny Sanguillen. A series earlier, in the second game of the NLCS, the Reds rallied from 2-1 down to tie it with back-to-back doubles in the ninth, but Pittsburgh retook the lead in the tenth on a Dave Parker RBI single and held on.

Speaking of the Reds, we'll be sticking with the NL Central, original franchise, rust belt theme and jumping over to visit them next.

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