Friday, December 18, 2015

Best Postseason Win: St. Louis Cardinals

2011 World Series Game 6: Cardinals 10, Rangers 9 (11).

Like there was even the slightest chance it would be anything else. The Cardinals are probably the NL's most successful franchise overall, and I believe (without having checked) that their 130 postseason victories are the second-most of any team in baseball, and they've had their share of legendary outings, which we'll get to later on. But there's no real competition for this game.

The pitching matchup was Colby Lewis for Texas, and Jaime Garcia for St. Louis - but even if you don't know already, you can probably guess from the score and the length of the game that the starters didn't figure too heavily in the outcome.

In a lovely bit of foreshadowing, the game started off not just with a bang, but with several bangs, by both teams. The Rangers opened the scoring when Ian Kinsler walked and Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamilton singled to bring him around; they had an excellent chance to lead by more than a run, but Garcia retired the next three hitters to strand the runners on the corners. That became relevant almost immediately, as Skip Schumaker's one-out single was followed by a go-ahead two-run homer from Lance Berkman. However, Texas responded with equal swiftness. Mike Napoli opened the second with a walk, and Craig Gentry singled. Lewis bunted into a double play, but Kinsler followed that with a game-tying double. Once again, the inning could have produced more had it played out differently, but it was still a positive overall result.

The game settled down for all of an inning and a half, as Lewis posted back-to-back 1-2-3 efforts and Garcia induced a double play to cancel out the single he allowed. But the scoring started up again in the fourth once Fernando Salas supplanted Garcia, as Texas picked up an unearned run when Nelson Cruz reached on a Matt Holliday error and scored on a Napoli single. St. Louis promptly re-tied it when Berkman was safe on a Michael Young miscue, Holliday walked, David Freese hit into a force that moved Berkman to third, and Yadier Molina brought him home with a sacrifice fly.

The parade of unearned runs continued in the top of the fifth; Hamilton reached on a Freese error and Young doubled him home to take a 4-3 lead. Texas would go on to load the bases and leave them that way when Lewis struck out. Lewis worked a flawless bottom of the fifth, and Lance Lynn allowed only a Hamilton single in the sixth, keeping the game within range.

Berkman singled with one out in the bottom of the sixth, and Holliday then reached on another Young error. Freese walked to load the bases and chase Lewis from the game, and Molina greeted Alexi Ogando by working another walk to force in the tying run. With the bases still loaded, the Cardinals looked like a good bet to take the lead - at least until Napoli picked Holliday off of third. A wild pitch and a walk reloaded the bases, but Derek Holland relieved and retired Jon Jay to end the inning with the tie intact.

It didn't stay that way for long, as Adrian Beltre and Cruz started the top of the seventh with consecutive homers against Lynn. David Murphy singled with one out, and Octavio Dotel was brought in to relieve with two away; he wild pitched the runner to second, then allowed an RBI single to Kinsler that pushed the Texas lead to 7-4.

Holland was perfect in the bottom of the seventh, as was Marc Rzepczynski in the top of the eighth. Allen Craig homered with one out in the bottom of the eighth, and Holland was pulled after giving up a two-out single to Molina; Mike Adams then surrendered hits to Daniel Descalso and Jay before retiring Rafael Furcal to leave the bases loaded.

Jason Motte worked around a Napoli walk in the top of the ninth, and Neftali Feliz took the mound three outs away from giving the Rangers their first world title. Ryan Theriot struck out, but Albert Pujols doubled and Berkman walked. Craig watched strike 3 go past, leaving the Cardinals with one out left, and Freese fell behind in the count 1-2 before unleashing a line drive to deep right. Cruz did not make an especially admirable attempt on the ball; it's debatable whether he could have caught it with a better jump, but it's unquestionable that the ball fell in for a game-tying triple. Molina then lined out, sending the game to extras at 7 runs apiece.

The Rangers may have been fazed by missing a perfect opportunity, but it didn't show in the top of the tenth, as Elvis Andrus singled and Hamilton homered to take a 9-7 lead. But Descalso and Jay greeted Darren Oliver with singles in the bottom of the inning, putting the newfound lead in immediate jeopardy. Pinch hitter Kyle Lohse (yes, Kyle Lohse the pitcher) bunted the runners to second and third, and Theriot scored Descalso with a groundout. Pujols was intentionally walked, and Berkman worked a 2-2 count against Scott Feldman, once again putting the Cardinals down to their last strike. But just like Freese the inning before, Berkman came through, this time with a game-tying single that moved the winning run to third. Craig grounded out to extend the game by another inning.

Jake Westbrook worked around a Napoli single in the top of the eleventh, and in the bottom of the inning, Freese worked a full count against Mark Lowe, then crushed a walkoff homer to dead center. The Cardinals would wrap up the World Series the next day.

This is arguably the greatest postseason game ever played. WPL ranks it eighth (with one of the seven games ahead of it being the 2009 AL Central playoff, which is not technically a postseason game). You can get this one to the top spot in either of two ways - my unofficial innings adjustment, which I've mentioned before, puts it there (if you ignore the '09 ALC playoff), as does any accounting for the importance of the game itself; it's the second-best World Series game ever, and the better one was Game 3 of a sweep. The two LCS games that WPL prefers were both Game 5 of series that stood 3-1 at the time. None of those games hold anything like the importance of Game 6 of the World Series.

It's possible I'm a bit biased here, because this game holds a decent amount of personal meaning for me; it's definitely the most riveting (and surreal) game I've ever watched, and I say that despite the fact that I was pulling for the Rangers. But bias or not, the game had no fewer than SIX leads overcome by the trailing team: 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4, and 9-7. Five of those comebacks were by the Cardinals, and in two of those comebacks, they were down to what would have been the final strike of the season.

It should be noted that all five of the St. Louis rallies involved Lance Berkman in some significant capacity; he either scored or drove in the tying run in each of them. For all the (well-deserved) attention that David Freese gets for his inordinately timely hitting in this game, Berkman's contributions were nearly as important, and went nearly unnoticed.

But then, as I've written before, flying under the radar was nothing new to Lance Berkman.

If you insist on pretending there's any debate about this selection, the Cardinals have some pretty well-known options (even if WPL isn't as fond of all of them as history is). There's the extraordinary sixth game of the 2004 NLCS, which was a tremendous series that passed largely unnoticed because of the similarly great one occurring simultaneously in the AL. There was 1985 NLCS Game 6, in which Jack Clark's lead-changing ninth-inning homer clinched the pennant and gave Tom Niedenfuer what would have been his second blown save of the day if that was a permissible scorekeeping convention. There was 2005 NLCS Game 5, in which Lance Berkman hit a go-ahead seventh-inning homer only to have his spotlight was stolen (shocker) by Albert Pujols sending a ball into low-earth orbit for a go-ahead ninth-inning homer. There was 2006 NLCS Game 7, in which Endy Chavez made a spectacular catch to rob a home run, but Yadier Molina hit one a few innings later, and Carlos Beltran watched strike 3 with the bases loaded to end it.

And those are just the games that have occurred during my lifetime (or in one case, just over a week before it). There are a number of excellent games, both well-known and obscure, from further back in Cardinal lore. The two most famous are probably 1946 World Series Game 7, in which Enos Slaughter sprinted around from first while Johnny Pesky (maybe) held the ball too long, and 1926 World Series Game 7, in which Grover Cleveland Alexander came on in relief to strike out Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded, and then two innings later, Babe Ruth was caught stealing to end the Series.

Again, the Cardinals have 130 postseason wins; it's not a surprise that they have some really good ones. And if it wasn't for GAME SIX, I would have had a very difficult choice to make.

Up next... we'll be taking another week-long recess from this series. This is in part due to the upcoming holidays, but also because I need to get some tennis numbers running again before the 2016 season starts up, and I should have at least a couple of posts about them before Christmas.

But once Best Postseason Win resumes, it will do so with the team that once cohabited with the Cardinals, and has a diametrically opposite postseason history. Which makes the selection of their best October win literally as easy as flipping a coin.

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