Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Arizona Diamondbacks

You may have noticed that I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded in my introductions to some of these games. In this case, I don't feel the need to act as though an extended prologue is necessary.

2001 World Series Game 7: Diamondbacks 3, Yankees 2. The pitching matchup was about all you could hope for, and may well be the best ever in a seventh game: Roger Clemens for the Yanks, Curt Schilling for the Snakes.
Arizona mounted at least mild threats in the early going. Craig Counsell reached on an error and moved to second on a groundout in the first. In the second, Danny Bautista walked and Mark Grace singled him to second. And the third inning brought singles from Counsell and Matt Williams. But each time, they left the lead runner on second to end the threat. Clemens settled down from there, allowing a single to Grace in the fourth and seeing Luis Gonzalez reach on an error in the fifth, but keeping them both from advancing past first base.

Meanwhile, in the tops of the innings, the Yankees were... doing nothing. Nothing at all. Schilling did not allow a baserunner through six innings (which is not something I had remembered about this game). (EDIT: A reader points out that Paul O'Neill doubled in the first inning and was thrown out trying to make it into a triple, so this is not quite true. But they didn't have any baserunners who successfully remained on base when the next batter came to the plate.) So when Steve Finley led off the bottom of the sixth with a single and Bautista doubled him home to open the scoring, things were looking pretty rosy in the desert, even if Bautista did get thrown out trying for third while driving in the game's first run.

But as everyone should have expected, the turn-of-the-century Yankees did not go quietly. Derek Jeter led off the seventh with a single, giving the team their first lasting semblance of a rally. Paul O'Neill singled Jeter to second, and Bernie Williams's forceout moved the lead runner to third. Tino Martinez followed with a single of his own, bringing the Captain home and tying the score. Schilling recovered to retire the next two hitters, but the damage was done.

Tony Womack singled with one out in the seventh, chasing Clemens from the mound. Mike Stanton relieved, saw Womack get caught stealing immediately, and coaxed a foulout from Counsell. And leading off the top of the eighth, Alfonso Soriano promptly homered to put the Yankees in front 2-1. Schilling was pulled after allowing a one-out single; Miguel Batista relieved for one out, and Randy Johnson, having thrown seven solid innings the day before, was called in for the last out of the eighth. (It was the second-most dramatic relief summons ever issued to an ace pitcher named Johnson in the late innings of a closely-fought seventh game of a World Series.)

Sadly for Arizona, the Yankees had their own magic bullet waiting in the bullpen, and Mariano Rivera took the mound for a two-inning save attempt. He worked around a two-out Finley single to manage a scoreless eighth, at which point sixteen-year-old me, not wanting to watch the Yankees celebrate yet another title, gave up on the game and went to bed.

(Yeah, I know.)

The Big Unit was perfect in the top of the ninth, and Grace led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Damian Miller bunted, and Rivera committed a rather startling throwing error, allowing the runners to safely reach first and second. Jay Bell then bunted into a force at third.

Up next was Womack, who had not acquitted himself with particular distinction in either the game to this point (one hit, immediately caught stealing) or the series so far (6 for 27 before the game started). But on a 2-2 pitch from the greatest closer in baseball history (and the greatest postseason pitcher, closer or otherwise), Womack doubled to right, bringing the tying run around. Counsell was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and Gonzalez then flared a single to center over a drawn-in infield, scoring Bell with the Yankee-beating, Series-winning run.

(My dad, who doesn't even follow baseball, woke me up to tell me what had happened. I didn't fully believe him until it was in the paper the next morning. Such was the power that Mariano Rivera held in my mind.)

On one side, this game was arguably the end of a dynasty; the Yankees remained excellent for the rest of the decade (and haven't been too bad in this one, either), but their cast of characters underwent some significant shifts and they didn't get as reliably deep into the playoffs (only one pennant and no titles from 2002-08 despite reaching October nearly every year).

On the other side, the Diamondbacks became the quickest-ever expansion team to win a title, taking the Series in only their fourth season. This was particularly nice for them because they'd assembled a conglomeration of players with uniquely tortured histories. If you combine the starting lineup for this game, the starting lineup listed for the team on Baseball-Reference, and the list of all the pitchers who started at least 10 games for the team (that's 10 position players and 6 pitchers total), they had played October baseball in 20 different team-seasons before 2001, and exactly one of those seasons (the 1997 Marlins, featuring Craig Counsell) resulted in a title. Outside of that, you have a noteworthy selection of underachievers, including: the Cubs (Mark Grace), the early '90s Pirates (Jay Bell), the mid '90s Mariners (Randy Johnson), the late '90s Astros (Johnson again and Luis Gonzalez), the '93 Phillies (Curt Schilling),  the '89 Giants (Matt Williams - also on the '93 team that won 103 games and missed the playoffs), the '97 Indians (Williams again and Brian Anderson), and the late '90s Braves (Danny Bautista and Reggie Sanders).

Given that litany of prior disappointment and the dramatic nature of the clinching game, it's probably a safe guess that the '01 Diamondbacks had one of the more vigorous title celebrations in recent history.

And I slept through it. Live and learn.

I won't pretend any other games were given serious consideration for this selection, but Arizona did have a few other noteworthy victories on the way here. In particular, Game 3 of the NLDS saw them rally with four runs in the seventh to take the lead, and the Cardinals would load the bases in the eighth and put two runners on with nobody out in the ninth, but fail to pull any closer than 5-3. (That, despite a Mark McGwire pinch hitting appearance in the ninth; he hit into a game-ending double play.) Game 5 was also excellent; Schilling dueled with Matt Morris for almost the whole game, with an early Sanders homer looking decisive for a while. JD Drew went deep to tie it in the eighth, but the Diamondbacks put runners on the corners with one out in the ninth - and then tried a double steal, with the lead runner getting thrown out at home. Fortunately, it was Tony Womack at the plate, and he came through with a walkoff single to seal the series.

Our next entry will keep us in both the NL West and the realm of expansion teams, as we take a look at the best October victory of the San Diego Padres.

No comments:

Post a Comment