World Series Game Six: The Best Worst Game Ever

The Cardinals win on an extra-innings walk-off home run by a St. Louis native, capping a game that will go down in World Series history as one of the best… and one of the worst.

Ozzie Smith figurine
My desk.

 

Last night’s World Series game will go down as one of best ever played: the Cardinals came back from two runs down, twice, and from the last strike of the season in consecutive innings. If the Cardinals lose tonight, it will be merely great; if they win, it will be legendary.

What may be forgotten over the years, though, is how atrocious the game was until the ninth inning. We’ll tell our children about their desperate, heroic rallies, emphasizing why grownup fans turn their hats inside out and its critical importance in late-inning situations, but the game’s miraculous conclusion was all the more cathartic for its vaudevillian slapstick up to that point. If all great games follow a dramatic form, this was a comedy: “some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster.”

Specifically, a host of blunders. The Cardinals committed three errors over the fourth and fifth innings, leading to two unearned runs and their first comebacks of the night. Extraordinary comebacks, no less so than the historic ones that ended the game, but comedic—a lower dramatic form, but no less important.

The first ugliness occurred when left fielder Matt Holliday didn’t call off shortstop Rafael Furcal on a high pop fly in short left; what anyone who played Little League recognized as Holliday’s ball dropped between the two confused players as Holliday yelled for Furcal to make a difficult catch, leading to an unearned run.

The Cardinals immediately committed another error, but escaped further damage. In the bottom of the inning, the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman reached on a Rangers error, and scored an unearned run to tie the game. Berkman managed to come around despite the Cardinals being unable to get the ball out of the infield: Holliday, a gifted, consistent hitter whose hand injury limited him to a .167 average with no RBIs coming into the game, drew a walk, about the only thing he’s been able to do during the World Series. He redeemed his error with a dangerous, arguably illegal takeout slide, preventing a double play and allowing Berkman to score on a groundout.

In the top of the fifth, Rangers star Josh Hamilton, a truly great hitter playing at 50 percent with a groin injury, reached on the Cardinals’ third error and scored another unearned run.

The Cardinals went into the bottom of the sixth miraculously down by only one run, despite playing the worst game I’d seen all season. And it somehow got worse. Lance Berkman, no speedster, reached base on an infield hit. The punchless Holliday reached on yet another error. David Freese reached on a walk, loading the bases and leading to a pitching change. Alexi Ogando, one of the better pitchers in the best middle relief corps in baseball… walked in a run, tying the game. It was the second straight inning the Cardinals scored without hitting the ball out of the infield.

With the bases loaded and one out, the Cardinals could have easily broken the game open. Then Holliday, in the midst of a horrific game and World Series, got picked off third base by the catcher. In the process he further injured his hand and had to be pulled from the game. After Holliday got nicked, I told a friend that they should pull Holliday for Allen Craig, who’d hit two pinch-hit home runs in the World Series; Holliday’s injury forced Craig into the lineup.

Then Ogando threw a wild pitch and another walk, and was pulled for the Rangers’ Game Four starter, who got his team out of the second bases-loaded situation of the inning.

I’m ashamed to say I went to bed during the next inning. The Rangers began the seventh with consecutive home runs, the second a soul-crushing moon shot into the third deck. The Cardinals had the stench of death about them, and I was exhausted from a party, an 8 A.M. dentist’s appointment, and three innings of awful baseball. I figured I’d read and let the game peter out on KMOX. By the time I got to bed, the Cardinals had pulled a double-switch (which would become critical later in the game) and the Rangers had scored again, this time after a wild pitch put the pitcher on second, allowing him to score on a single.

In my defense, I’m reading a compelling book: A Well-Paid Slave, on Curt Flood’s legal challenge to baseball’s reserve clause. It may seem odd to commemorate my favorite team’s trip to the World Series by reading a tragedy about antitrust law—after taking major-league baseball to the Supreme Court, Flood became a destitute alcoholic exiled to Majorca—but a great deal of it is about how baseball reduces grown men to children. The majority opinion in Flood was written by Harry Blackmun, a Harvard grad in math and resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic. His opinion is somewhat notorious in Supreme Court history for beginning with a florid tribute to the game, purple and overwritten like a Ken Burns narration:

Then there are the many names, celebrated for one reason or another, that have sparked the diamond and its environs and that have provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season….

Blackmun then launches into a random list of players—just their names. The footnotes include a Grantland Rice poem and “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” Chief Justice Warren Burger, after politely asking Blackmun to cut back on his pointless history of the game, signed on to all of Blackmun’s opinion except the first part.

In another scene, Snyder describes a scene in which Arthur Goldberg, Flood’s lead counsel, was in a limo with Flood and journalist Jimmy Breslin. Goldberg was one of the century’s great legal minds: he finished with the highest GPA in the history of Northwestern Law School but was only able to practice after suing the Illinois Bar Association over its age limit, which was 21. He became a labor lawyer, serving as the chief legal adviser in the AFL-CIO merger, was tapped by JFK to run the Department of Labor, and joined the Supreme Court at the age of 54. After leaving the court to serve as United Nations ambassador, Goldberg later ran for governor of New York, when he found himself in the limo with Breslin, one of the city’s most famous journalists.

But Goldberg ignored Breslin. The former Wrigley Field coffee vendor was on his way to a Mets-Cubs game, and as Snyder writes, “all Goldberg wanted was to get his picture taken with Cubs legend Ernie Banks.”

When Goldberg brought Flood’s case to district court, both sides were brought into chambers by the judge, Irving Ben Cooper, along with one of the witnesses, Jackie Robinson. Snyder describes the scene: “The defense thought that Cooper had a problem with Robinson’s testimony. Instead, Cooper requested both sides’ permission to ask Robinson for an autograph for his grandson. No one objected, and the starstruck Cooper received Robinson’s signature.”

(The book also reminded me of the good baseball can do in men. World Series announcer Tim McCarver makes an appearance as a young, arrogant catcher on Flood’s team, casually racist in the manner of so many Southern men. Flood and Bob Gibson recognized McCarver’s racism as cultural and habitual, and slowly broke through his arrogance and broke down his racism. McCarver went on to join Flood and Gibson as team leaders, retiring to a long career as an announcer.)

Baseball makes grownups do strange things, which is why I was in bed, heartsick, at 9:30.

I should have known. I should have known because I went to bed during Game 4 of the ALDS, when the Red Sox seemed headed for a four-game sweep by the Yankees. When I woke up, they’d won, and went on to complete the first 3-0 comeback in postseason history. And I should have known when the brought-to-you-by-someone trivia question of the night was “How many times has Game Six of the World Series ended with a home run?” The answer is three. One of the games ended with Kirby Puckett’s home run off the Braves’ Charlie Liebrandt, in the greatest World Series of my lifetime. The announcers were McCarver and Jack Buck, the legendary father of McCartner’s current partner, Joe Buck. It ended with Buck’s famous coda: “And we will see you… tomorrow night!”

I stayed in bed until the eighth, when Allen Craig, whom I’d hoped would replace the crippled Holliday, homered. Then things got subtly crazy.

La Russa, who is either a tactical genius or a meddling fool depending on who you ask, brought in former Rangers catcher Gerald Laird to pinch hit against lefty Derek Holland. The Rangers’ Ron Washington brought in righty Mike Adams, and La Russa pinch hit again, bringing left-handed hitter Daniel Descalso to play the splits. This burned another bench player, after removing his second baseman on the double switch and losing Holliday to injury. The Rangers got out of the inning, and La Russa pulled a second double switch, using his last bench player.

If the Cardinals managed to tie the game in the ninth and make it through to the tenth inning, that meant the pitcher would bat with no pinch hitter to replace him, save for another pitcher. The odds of this, as you can see from the Win Probability Chart, were virtually nil.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened: David Freese tripled to score Albert Pujols… on what should have been the sixth error of the game. Freese just missed an opposite-field home run by a few feet; Nelson Cruz, playing in deep, deep right in a “no doubles” alignment, misplayed Freese’s drive after slowing down before the warning track. As was pointed out on ESPN’s postgame show, “that’s the book on him. He doesn’t like to run into walls.”

The Rangers rallied again. Jason Motte threw a fastball in the only place the crippled Josh Hamilton could hit a home run, his first in 82 at bats. Now the Cardinals were down two runs, and the third batter in the bottom of the tenth, possibly the last of the season, would be the pitcher. After an entire postseason of La Russa’s sometimes inexplicable chess, I told a friend that ending the season with the pitcher hitting would be a fitting epitaph, the micromanager managing himself into a corner.

Then, after four hours of tense, sloppy, inexplicable baseball, everything suddenly went the way fate intended. Two singles leading off the tenth allowed the pitcher to bunt, getting La Russa off the hook. Lance Berkman, the Cardinals’ only reliable hitter during the World Series—subtract Pujols’s five-for-six performance in Game Three and he’s 1-17—tied the game. Jake Westbrook, the Cardinals’ break-glass-in-case-of-emergency pitcher and the fourteenth the night between the two teams, pitched a scoreless inning.

Finally, St. Louis native David Freese, who’d missed a walk-off foretold in the ninth, ended Game Six with a blast to center, adding a fourth answer to the night’s trivia question. Joe Buck, whose father’s visage looks down on the field from the outfield wall, ended the game with Jack Buck’s line: “We’ll see you… tomorrow night!”


Update: The most interesting recap of the game I’ve read comes from Fangraphs, in part because it expresses an inexpressable game in the language of sabermetrics:

There were 108 plays in last night’s game – 46 of those occurred when the leverage index was at least 1.50. Perhaps more staggeringly, there were 18 plays where the LI was above 3.00 and 11 of those came with an LI of 4.00 or higher. When you think about some of the great World Series games of all time, we think of specific moments – Kirk Gibson‘s home run in 1988, Joe Carter‘s in 1993, Luis Gonzalez‘s bloop single in 2001 – but most of those were isolated instances within that game. Those games offered one great, unbelievable moment – last night offered us about a dozen of them.

Don’t worry; years from now, this will seem like poetry. I don’t believe it… Bobby Thompson… with the Leverage Index above 3.00… hit a line drive… with a WPA of +.422… into the lower deck… of the left-field stands… and this blame place is going crazy!

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