Friday, January 22, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Chicago Cubs

At the end of the 1944 season, the Cubs were having a rough stretch. Which, at the time, was actually unusual. (Yes, really.)

After a highly competitive decade in the '30s (winning records every year and three pennants), the early '40s brought a string of five consecutive sub-.500 efforts, the longest such streak in franchise history to date. (Yes, really.)

But 1945, the most extreme of the wartime seasons, finally allowed the Cardinal monopoly on the NL pennant to be broken (barely - they still won 95 games). Led by a league-best pitching staff and a lineup bolstered by excellent years from Andy Pafko, Stan Hack, and batting champ Phil Cavarretta, Chicago took 98 games and their first flag in seven years. It was their third-longest gap between pennants to this point in the 20th century. (Yes, really.)

Their World Series opponent would be the Tigers, who even with ace Hal Newhouser's 25-9, 1.81 season could only manage 88 wins - a very low total for a pennant winner in the pre-divisional era. But the end of the war brought many of baseball's stars home, and one of the first to return was Detroit's Hank Greenberg, who spent half a season reminding American League baseballs of the punishment from which they'd been exempted during his lengthy military service.

With their best hitter back in action, the Tigers were primed and ready for the World Series - but the Cubs took two of the first three games in Detroit, and the series shifted to Wrigley for the remaining contests (travel was limited due to wartime restrictions). However, the road team continued to have the advantage after the change in venue, as the Tigers took Games 4 and 5, putting them on the brink of the title and leaving Chicago with a must-win...

1945 World Series Game 6: Cubs 8, Tigers 7 (12). The two starting pitchers were both of the sides of wartime baseball - Chicago's Claude Passeau was a capable-but-aging hurler whose career was extended by the weakened wartime competition, while Detroit's Virgil Trucks had made a very strong start to his career in '42 and '43, then missed almost two full seasons, coming back in time to make only one regular season start before the World Series.

Passeau was perfect in the top of the first, while Trucks walked Stan Hack to open the bottom of the inning, then retired the next three hitters. Roy Cullenbine drew a one-out walk in the second, and Rudy York doubled him to third; Passeau intentionally walked Jimmy Outlaw, then unintentionally walked Paul Richards to force in the game's first run. Trucks popped up and Skeeter Webb grounded into a force to end the inning with only one run in.

Andy Pafko led off the bottom of the second with a single, but Trucks ended the inning facing only two more hitters. (It's not entirely clear where the double play came from - Mickey Livingston is scored as having hit into a 4-6 force, then getting thrown out at second 2-6. So maybe they went for the double play, overthrew first base, and the catcher backed up the play and threw Livingston out trying for second?) The third inning went much like the first, as the only runner on either team to reach was Hack, this time on a two-out single.

Passeau got into trouble again in the fourth, as Cullenbine reached on an error and took second on a groundout. Richards was intentionally walked with two outs, and Trucks walked as well to load the bases before Webb flied out to strand all three runners. Trucks worked around a Cavarretta single in the home fourth, and Passeau set the Tigers down in order in the fifth.

Livingston led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, and Roy Hughes reached on a bunt hit. Passeau then bunted, and the Tigers tried and failed to force one of the lead runners, allowing the Cubs to load the bases with nobody out. Hack followed with a single that scored two runs, putting Chicago in front; an error on the play allowed Passeau and Hack to take third and second, respectively, and an out and a walk later, Cavarretta singled to bring in two more. Trucks was relieved by George Caster, who retired the next two hitters, but the damage was long done.

Passeau allowed singles to Cullenbine and pinch hitter Bob Maier in the sixth, but then struck out pinch hitter John McHale to leave them on the corners. Tommy Bridges relieved and served up consecutive doubles to Livingston and Hughes, pushing the Cub lead to 5-1.

Chuck Hostetler reached on a Hack error to open the seventh, and moved to second on a groundout. Doc Cramer followed with a single; Hostetler was thrown out trying to score, but Cramer took second on the throw. Greenberg walked, and Cullenbine singled up the middle to score Cramer.

Cullenbine's single changed the game in more ways than just scoring a run, however. On its way into center field, the ball encountered Passeau's pitching hand; if memory serves, it tore off one of his fingernails. Whatever the exact nature of the injury, it rendered him unable to continue in the game. Hank Wyse was called on and allowed an RBI single to York before ending the inning.

The Cubs got both runs back in the bottom of the inning. Peanuts Lowrey started the rally with a one-out single, and Cavarretta walked. Pafko flied out, but Bill Nicholson's walk loaded the bases, and Livingston drew a base on balls as well to force in a run. Al Benton replaced Bridges and gave up a single to Hughes, pushing the lead to 7-3 before Wyse struck out to end the inning.

Then came the top of the eighth. Bob Swift led off with a single, and pinch hitter Hub Walker doubled him to third. Joe Hoover reached on a Hack error, scoring Swift, and Eddie Mayo followed with an RBI single, though he was thrown out trying for second on the play. Ray Prim relieved and allowed a sac fly to Cramer, pulling the Tigers to within a run but also clearing the bases with two outs.

Naturally, Greenberg promptly homered to tie the game.

With winning the Series in this game once again a viable option, Detroit turned to Dizzy Trout in relief, and he worked around a Hack walk in the bottom of the eighth. Similarly, the Cubs were forced to use Hank Borowy, their ace acquired at the trade deadline; he allowed one-out singles to Outlaw and Swift, but Trout's grounder got Outlaw cut down at home, and the tie was preserved from there. Pafko led off the bottom of the inning with a double, but the team failed to move him past second, and the game progressed to extras.

Cramer and Hack both singled in the tenth, and both were erased on double plays. Neither team put a runner on in the eleventh; Hoover singled with two outs in the twelfth, but was promptly caught stealing. In the bottom of the twelfth, Frank Secory hit a pinch single with one out; Borowy struck out, but Hack then doubled to bring home the winning run.

Great news, right? The Cubs staved off elimination, and now they had a chance at at decisive seventh game!

Well, kind of. Passeau's injury (sustained when he was holding a solid lead and pitching well) forced the team to empty its bullpen, which was compounded by the game going into extras. In particular, Borowy had been slated for the start in Game 7. With Borowy having thrown four innings the day before, Chicago manager Charlie Grimm decided to start... Borowy. It did not go well; the Tigers chased him after three batters and scored five runs in the first, never looking back as their own well-rested ace cruised through a complete game victory.

The lesson, of course: Even when the Cubs win, they lose.

Aside from Passeau's injury and the resultant bittersweet nature of the victory, the most interesting thing about this game is Stan Hack. At first glance, he looks like the hero - he reached base six times, had a single that brought in the Cubs' first runs and gave them their initial lead, and then ended the game with a walkoff double. His WPA of +.806 is one of the highest single-game figures in postseason history.

On the other hand, Hack also committed two errors. The first one started the rally that cost the Cubs their starter, and the second contributed to the inning that cost them their lead. Hack wasn't singlehandedly or even predominantly responsible for either disaster, of course, but neither did he help.

Which might actually make him the perfect Cub.

The Cubs' honorable mention outings are cut from the same cloth as their selected game. 2003 NLCS Game 3 was a riveting, back-and-forth battle in the late innings, as the teams combined to blow leads in three consecutive half-innings; the Marlins then left the bases loaded in the ninth before the Cubs won in 11. And if the Cubs had also taken the equally thrilling Game 1 (and if the other results had held up), they would have swept the series, instead of going up 3-1 and then blowing the lead. 1910 World Series Game 4 is somewhat less painful, though that may be because it came only two years after the team's last title. The Cubs were also behind 3-0 in the series at the time, so when they rallied to tie in the ninth and win in the tenth, it was more a matter of salvaging a bit of pride than actually giving the team hope of a championship. The team's best outing from an actual title year was 1908 World Series Game 1, in which the Tigers came from 5-1 behind to take a 6-5 lead into the ninth, only to see the Cubs respond with five runs of their own and seal a 10-6 victory.

There's only one team left to cover in this series, and if you don't know who it is, I'm honestly a bit disappointed in you. We'll be moving from baseball's most famous losers to its most famous winners.

1 comment:

  1. "It's not entirely clear where the double play came from - Mickey Livingston is scored as having hit into a 4-6 force, then getting thrown out at second 2-6. So maybe they went for the double play, overthrew first base, and the catcher backed up the play and threw Livingston out trying for second?"

    That's exactly what happened. From Cohen and Neft's "The World Series": "Livingston forced Pafko at second, Mayo to Webb. Webb's throw to first was wild and past first, Richards picking it up and throwing to second to get Livingston."