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October 28, 2011

World Series Prospectus

Game Six: The Crazy Train Keeps Rolling

by Jay Jaffe

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It was the best worst World Series game—or perhaps the worst best World Series game—I've ever seen. Four and a half hours, 11 innings, 42 players, 19 runs, 23 men left on base, six home runs, five errors, two final-strike comebacks, a handful of bad relief performances, some managerial howlers including a cardinal (not Cardinal) sin… and it all ended with the much-maligned Joe Buck giving a fitting nod to history by emulating one of his father's most famous calls. As David Freese's game-winning blast landed in the grass beyond the center field wall of Busch Stadium, Buck exclaimed, "We'll see you tomorrow night!" Game Six of the 2011 World Series will be remembered as a classic—a Game Six that can sit alongside those of 1975, 1986, and 1991, among maybe a couple others—as the Cardinals staved off elimination to beat the Rangers 10-9, forcing a Game Seven.

After an ominous weather forecast forced the postponement of Game Six for 24 hours, we ended up with so much baseball—good, bad, and ugly—that it will take days to digest. The Cardinals overcame leads of 1-0, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4, and 9-7, and held the lead for just one half inning all night prior to Freese’s drive. The two teams produced tie scores of 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 7-7, and 9-9. It was a mess, a gloriously sloppy bacon double cheeseburger of a mess that remained true to the chaotic excitement of the past 31 days. Team Entropy rides again.

Even with the rainout providing an extra day of rest for the pairing that had given us the best-pitched contest of the series in Game Two, neither starting pitcher was sharp. Jaime Garcia, who had twirled seven shutout innings in that one, lasted just three here, fittingly beginning the game by issuing a five-pitch walk to Ian Kinsler. Singles to Elvis Andrus and Josh Hamilton plated a run before he had even retired a hitter. Garcia recovered to strike out both Michael Young (three pitches, the last a high, 87-mph fastball) and Adrian Beltre (eight pitches, the last an 84-mph changeup), then got Nelson Cruz to ground into a fielder's choice on his 23rd pitch of the inning. Colby Lewis, who had thrown 6.2 innings of one-run ball in Game Two, quickly surrendered the lead, giving up a one-out single to Skip Schumaker, then a two-out, two-run homer to center field by Lance Berkman—his first since the Division Series opener on October 1. The rollercoaster ride was just beginning.

Garcia began the second as he had the first, walking Mike Napoli and then allowing a single to Craig Gentry, who had drawn the start in center field against the lefty. Lewis, looking like man who had never been asked to bunt before in his life—he had one sacrifice in 19 major league plate appearances including the postseason—bunted into a double play that the Cardinals made look routine; David Freese fielded the ball, threw to Rafael Furcal covering third base to force Napoli, and Furcal—whose cannon arm survives despite his myriad of injuries—firing to first base in time to get Lewis. Kinsler salvaged the inning by golfing a ground rule double to deep left center field, but by the time Garcia got out of the inning, he was up to 49 pitches.

With his starter shaky in an elimination game—and with both a fully rested Edwin Jackson and Jake Westbrook in reserve—Tony La Russa could have pulled Garcia for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the second, but Lewis glided through the inning with comparative ease, retiring Yadier Molina on a grounder and striking out Nick Punto, who continued his ongoing bat follies by letting the lumber fly out of his hands and nearly into the Cardinals dugout during one futile hack. With two outs and nobody on, La Russa wisely decided it wasn't worth burning a pinch-hitter, and was rewarded for that decision when Garcia worked a 10-pitch third. Lewis continued his groove as well, setting down the Cardinals on just 13 pitches, the last a fly out by Albert Pujols—hitless since Game Three—that appeared destined for the great beyond but died at the warning track.

As in seven out of 16 previous games this postseason, La Russa decided he was better off digging into his bullpen before the fifth inning than he was staying with his starter, who had allowed seven of the 14 hitters he faced to reach base. For the seventh time, righty Fernando Salas was the first clown out of the car, fitting as the game suddenly turned into a blooper reel. The first batter he faced, Cruz, popped a shallow fly to left field; Furcal and Matt Holliday played a game of "No, I Insist You Take This, Good Sir" until the ball clanked off the left fielder's glove for a two-base error. Napoli followed by scalding a ball down the left field line for his 10th RBI of the series and a 3-2 lead. Gentry struck out on a changeup, and then Lewis came up to bunt again. This time, he bunted straight back to the pitcher, who sailed the ball into center field in a desperate attempt to start a double play. Napoli couldn't advance beyond second, however, having jammed his left ankle sliding into the base. Despite writhing in pain for a couple of minutes and being examined by Ron Washington and the team trainer for several more, he remained in the game, but he advanced no further (postgame x-rays were negative).

The Rangers took their turn with the fielding follies in the bottom of the fourth inning. Berkman hit a grounder to the left side that Michael Young knocked down while moving to his right. He bobbled it, and after rushing his throw, Lewis missed first base entirely with his foot. That may have cost the pitcher focus, as he walked Holliday on four pitches and threw first-pitch balls to each of the next three hitters he faced. Freese hit a potential double play grounder to Kinsler, but Holliday executed a Hal McRae-style takeout slide that upended Andrus, causing his throw to sail over Young's head. That sent Berkman to third; he scored when Molina grounded to Beltre, tying the game at 3-3. The slopfest of an inning ended with high comedy as Lewis struck out Punto, who raised the bat above his head, samurai style, before thinking better of another unsuccessful show of emotion. Little Nicky Punto, will you never win?

With Salas still pitching, the follies continued as Freese dropped a sky-high Hamilton popup to start the fifth, the ball bouncing off his head and rolling down his back for the Cardinals' third error; this was anything but championship-caliber play. The Rangers capitalized with Young's double to left center, retaking the lead at 4-3, but they probably should have gotten more. With Young on third base two outs later, La Russa ordered Napoli intentionally walked. Washington went to his bench for lefty David Murphy, and with Arthur Rhodes nowhere in sight, the Rangers had the platoon advantage. With Game Four starter Derek Holland warming up in the bullpen and Yorvit Torrealba in the on-deck circle to suggest that he would pinch-hit for Lewis, Salas pitched around Murphy, walking him to load the bases. Instead of pulling the trigger, Washington revealed that it had all been an elaborate decoy, sending Lewis up to hit for himself; predictably, he struck out. Judging by Colin Wyers' math, this was a glaring mistake on the Texas manager's part. With the bunt taken away, the run expectancy margin between having a pinch-hitter bat (0.79 runs) instead of the pitcher (0.42 runs) was almost as high as it ever gets.

Lewis at least came back with a nine-pitch 1-2-3 inning, but thanks to more defensive mishaps, he faltered in the sixth. After striking out Pujols looking on a low fastball on the inside corner—PITCHf/x showed that the pitch just before it, called a ball, had been slightly higher, emblematic of Gary Cedarstrom's inconsistent strike zone, particularly at the lower edge—Berkman beat out a slow roller to third base, just the third hit of the night for the Cardinals. Holliday followed by chopping a ball to Young, who bobbled the ball as he looked to second for a potential double play then lost a footrace to first base for his second error of the game. After walking Freese to load the bases and push his pitch count to 95, Lewis’s night was done.

On came Alexi Ogando, who had been tattooed for seven hits, five walks, and four runs in two innings of work in four previous appearances this series. Again, he was a mess, going to 3-0 against Molina; after getting the gimme’ strike, he threw up and in for ball four, forcing in the tying run. The Rangers caught a break when Napoli picked Holliday off third base with a throw from his knees; on the slide back, Holliday's troublesome right hand jammed into Beltre's foot as he blocked the base. After a wild pitch in the dirt advanced the runners, Ogando walked Punto and departed, having thrown just four strikes among his 12 pitches. Holland, working on three days' rest after his dazzling 8.1 shutout innings, came on to face Jon Jay, who had pinch-hit for Schumaker and then remained in the game via a double switch; on his second pitch, he drew an easy comebacker. At the end of the inning, Allen Craig took over for Holliday in left field—a move that would loom large, as it cost La Russa a key bench piece.

The Rangers appeared to deliver the coup de grâce in the seventh as Lance Lynn started his second inning of work by surrendering back-to-back homers to Beltre and Cruz. The latter, a third-deck shot down the left field line, gave the Texas right fielder a share of the record book with his eighth homer of this postseason, tying Barry Bonds (2002) and Carlos Beltran (2004). The Rangers weren't done, either. After Napoli struck out, Murphy singled up the middle but was erased on a forceout via Holland's lousy bunt back to Lynn. Octavio Dotel arrived via a double switch, with Ryan Theriot subbing in for Punto; his wild pitch sent Holland to second base, and he scored when Kinsler singled up the middle to run the lead to 7-4. After Andrus struck out to end the threat, the Rangers stood nine outs from their first world championship in franchise history, enjoying a three-run cushion to boot, but the light at the end of this tunnel turned out to be an oncoming crazy train.

Holland mowed down the side in order in the seventh, retiring Pujols on a weak grounder to end the inning and getting Berkman to fly out to start the eighth. The Camaro-mustached southpaw had held the platoon advantage against the grizzled switch-hitter; Berkman batted just .242/.333/.411 against lefties this year, compared to .316/.430/.580 against righties. Even with Mike Adams at the ready, Washington chose to push his luck by leaving Holland in to face Craig, a righty who crushed lefties (.313/.343/.657) at a more extreme clip than righties (.316/.372/.504). On the second pitch of the at-bat, Holland hung a curveball, and Craig crushed it for a solo homer to left field, cutting the lead to 7-5.

Still Washington pushed his luck against the righties; Holland retired Freese but gave up a single to Molina. Finally Adams came on, but things didn't go his way; he surrendered an infield single to pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso—the pitching change forced La Russa to burn pinch-hitter Gerald Laird, which didn't seem like much at the time but would again loom large—then gave up a single to Jay that loaded the bases. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux came to the mound to give Adams a pep talk, and one pitch later, Adams drew a comebacker from Furcal to escape the jam. The Rangers were three outs away from champagne.

One half-inning later, closer Neftali Feliz was on, and the plastic wrap was surely up in the visitors' locker room, the bubbly on ice. Feliz struck Theriot out on a pitch practically over his head, but facing Pujols, who was 0-for-10 since Game Three, he gave up a first-pitch double to the left center field wall to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Berkman. Feliz temporarily lost the strike zone, walking him on four pitches and going 2-0 to Craig; he recovered to strike him out looking at an 84-mph cutter right in the center of the zone—a pitch that may as well have had a "CRUSH ME" sign taped to it.

The Cardinals were down to their final out. Up came Freese, who had been a quiet 5-for-19 in this series after winning MVP honors for his red-hot NLCS. He took a cutter low and away for ball one, looked at an inside cutter for strike one, and couldn't catch up to a 98-mph fastball. The Cardinals were down to their final strike, the Rangers poised to dogpile. Feliz threw a carbon copy of the previous pitch, a 98-mph heater in the same spot, and Freese didn't miss it. He sent a drive sailing to right field, where Cruz misplayed the ball; it went over his head and off the right field wall for a game-tying triple. Team Entropy simply wasn't going to let this season end. The Cardinals had a chance to win the game right there, but Molina hit a more playable drive to right that Cruz caught, bringing about the first extra inning World Series game since 2005.

It looked as though their stay of execution would be short-lived. On for his second inning of work, Jason Motte gave up a one-out single to Andrus, then served up a two-run homer to Hamilton, the ailing slugger's first since September 23—a span of 90 plate appearances—and his third hit of the night, equaling his total for the rest of the Series.

Again the Rangers were three outs away from a championship, again with a two-run cushion, and again they failed, this time in even more humiliating fashion, as La Russa had run out of position players with the pitcher's spot due up third. With lefties Descalso and Jay ahead of that spot, Washington called upon Darren Oliver, who gave up singles to both, the latter a bloop into no-man's land in left field. Jackson, the best hitter among the Cardinals' remaining pitchers (8-for-30 this year but just .184/.229/.214 lifetime) was on deck prior to the latter, but La Russa called him back in favor of Kyle Lohse on the grounds that the latter was the better bunter; even at this juncture, La Genius was wasting fingers like he had them to spare. Lohse's bunt was a bad one, in the air over the head of Beltre, but it required Andrus to make an outstanding pick, stopping in his tracks as he was headed to cover third on the wheel play and then throwing to first.

Oliver departed in favor of Scott Feldman, who got Theriot to ground to third base, scoring Descalso (Jay held at second) and cutting the lead to 9-8. That brought up Pujols. Predictably, Washington ordered the intentional walk, not only surrendering the platoon advantage to Berkman but putting the winning run on base—a behavior considered taboo in every state except Mississippi, where though technically legal, it ranks just below marrying your sister in terms of social acceptability. Just as predictably, Washington's luck at handing out free passes to the slugger like they were Halloween candy finally ran out.

Feldman worked inside to Berkman, getting ahead of him via foul balls on two of the first three pitches—again, the Rangers were one pitch away from a championship—but the slugger took an inside fastball to even the count and then smacked the one pitch of the at-bat that was in the strike zone for a single up the middle, tying the game and sending Pujols to third base. Craig grounded out, but again the Cardinals had staved off the end.

Westbrook came on for the 11th, and despite falling behind all four hitters he faced, yielded only a single to Napoli and needed just 10 pitches to get through the inning. Washington had to pinch-hit for Feldman with Esteban German, which left Mark Lowe as his only remaining righty, with lefties Mike Gonzalez and C.J. Wilson his other alternatives—neither particularly appealing, but at least they had thrown more than the one inning Lowe had thrown in the past five weeks.

Predictably rusty, Lowe fell behind Freese 3-0 with a fastball and two sliders, but he battled back to a full count. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Freese connected, drilling the ball to deep center field… a no-doubt homer. Buck, echoing the call his father made on Kirby Puckett's walkoff shot in Game Six of the 1991 World Series—a shot which set up Jack Morris's gem—called out, "We'll see you tomorrow night!" as the ball landed and the Cardinals celebrated. Had he summoned another one of his father's famous calls—"Go crazy, folks!" from Ozzie Smith's 1985 NLCS homer (it pains me to type that one) or "I don't believe what I just saw!" from Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series homer (aaaaah, that's the stuff)—it might have felt forced, particularly from the oft-wooden younger Buck. This call, however, felt perfect in its minimalistic sentiment: we get one more night of baseball after this incredible, improbable game at the tail end of this exhilarating postseason—the first Game Seven since 2002.

It's 6 AM as I type this, and I'm in no condition to crunch more numbers or provide much more context, except to say that Washington’s mistakes in this one can stand next to La Russa’s inexplicable gaffes in Game Five both in terms of their number and their severity, and that this time around, La Russa did a far better job at staying out of his own way.

As to Game Seven, both teams are banged up. Napoli’s ankle isn’t the Rangers’ only concern; Cruz left the game in the 11th with a groin strain. Holliday’s status has to be considered questionable as well (though both hitters are expecting to play). Lohse would be on turn, but the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter ready to start Game Seven on three days’ rest, though the last time he did that, in the Division Series, he lasted just three innings while giving up four runs. The less heralded Matt Harrison will start for the Rangers, as Washington initially planned; with Holland having thrown 23 pitches tonight, their best alternative out of the bullpen may be spent; instead, it’s Wilson, who’s been cuffed around a bit but who could be needed to provide length in case the starter falters.

In a series that’s been this crazy so far, who knows what we’re going to get? I sure as hell don’t, but I can’t wait to find out. I can only hope that Team Entropy—our collective suspension of the need to root for a specific team with an interest towards the greater good of maximizing end-of-season chaos—can come through in the clutch one more time.

****

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Justine D. Price, a former colleague of mine from my design shop days who passed away suddenly, shockingly, at the age of 42 earlier this week. While we hadn't worked together in more than 10 years and hadn't seen each other in two or three, it was always a gas to catch up with her, and even the briefest note from her on Facebook—usually a link to the kind of quirky baseball articles an art history professor comes across in out-of-the-way places—brightened my day. Her sunny presence, incredible talents, dry wit, and generosity of spirit will be missed by all who knew her.

I spent early Thursday evening attending a gathering in her memory, sharing my grief and reconnecting with so many others I hadn't seen in all too long, then coming home to catch up with the baseball game via the magic of Tivo. In light of my somber mood, I am particularly grateful that baseball gave me—gave all of us—a game so weird and wonderful to share.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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