Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Series Worthy of Note

I can’t let this October go by without a post on the 2011 World Series. There have been about 36 Game Sevens played in major league baseball history. 20 of those have been during my lifetime though I have only watched a dozen or so of them. The first I recall was the final game of the 1968 World Series which I remember watching on a black and white TV. I have seen many Series and 2011 was an entertaining one.

Stories involving "Game Seven of the World Series" are the mountaintop of imaginary baseball moments. I’m a kid playing with a stick and my dog, bare feet in the cool evening grass, and it is Game Seven. I’m up to bat with the game on the line. Or I am the pitcher, seeking the final out in a close Game Seven. Here comes my fastball. That kind of stuff. That’s what makes a “real” Game Seven special. It puts you in a position to be playing for everything.

In truth the
2011 Game Seven was an almost inevitable let-down. It had a lot of drama in the early innings but it soon became apparent that “Texas ain’t got no pitching left. They are all worn out,” as I kept telling my wife and daughter over and over to their utter irritation before CJ Wilson hit a batter in the bottom of the fifth and allowed the second unearned run of the inning to score. You just knew the night belonged to the Cardinals.

Not so in the previous game.
Game Six is hard to top, by almost any standard. In my experience, it rivals the outstanding Game Six of the 1975 World Series. For my money, Game Six of the 1991 World Series also deserves comparison. Certainly, plenty of writers compare the David Freese home run to Kirby Puckett's against Atlanta in that Series. Some say this year's version is the greatest Game Six of all time. A bit of an overstatement due to proximity of events in Time and the fact that most baseball fans prefer offensive-style games with lots of run-scoring. I'm more of a pitching and defense type fan.

Nevertheless, it is certainly one of the best games of all time. Texas was on the verge of winning the World Championship…twice…and the Cardinals came through with a two-out, two-strike triple in the bottom of the 9th inning by David Freese that drove in two runs to knot the game 7-7. Then Lance Berkman came through with a two-out, two-strike single in the bottom of the 10th inning to tie the game again at 9-9.

Earlier in the game the Cardinal infield turned a rare 5-6-4 double-play on a bunt attempt. I enjoy watching a well-played defensive game and saw several great defensive plays made by both teams throughout the series. But, five errors were made in Game Six and many other “should have been made” plays were botched.
Nelson Cruz did not play that Freese triple very well. Some better outfielder might have caught that ball and then the Texas Rangers are world champs.

I briefly mentioned Game Two a couple of posts back. It did not have the electrifying effect of Game Six but it was still a very tense and well-played game. It was probably the best played game overall of the Series. Game One was also highly competitive with great starting pitching by Chris Carpenter and Wilson and fine plays throughout the game.

Game Three was the most lop-sided but, in retrospect, that might be where the Cardinals won the series. Their pounding of the ball helped wear down the Texas bullpen which ultimately ran out of gas before the Cardinals bullpen did. But then in Game Four and Game Five the Texas Ranger line-up of hitters looked impossible to solve. So solid, so relentless with its offensive potential. Tony LaRussa, baseball's third all-time winningest manager, got things fouled up with his bullpen in Game Five. It was beginning to look like the Cardinals could not manage these Texas hitters. Heading back up to St. Louis for the final game(s) I thought there was no way the Cardinals could win Game Six.

But, they did, much to the delight of my wife and daughter and me. We all watched the celebration following the Freese two-strike home run to send us to Game Seven with broad smiles and laughter. I knew that Chris Carpenter suddenly tilted matters in favor of the Cardinals. Carpenter was the best pitcher in baseball by late-September. He pitched a complete game against Houston to put the Cardinals in the LDS to start with. Then, throwing another complete game, he out dueled Roy Halladay 1-0 in Philadelphia to put the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Carpenter had a great postseason. It just goes to show you how important having the best starting pitcher in baseball (not overall, just the best at when it really counts) is in the final seven-game Championship series of season. They started him three times against the Rangers. He got two wins and a no decision in starting Game Five. He was not overpowering by any means in starting Game Seven on short rest. But, he was effective by showing his experience in the early innings before the Texas pitchers fell apart. Texas scored two runs off Carpenter in the first inning. They threatened again in the next couple of innings before their pitchers completely lost it. At one point the game was very close.

Carpenter held Texas at just two runs when things could have easily gotten out of hand. As the Cardinals began to pull away, being pushed along as well by poor Texas pitching, the Texas batters became
more desperate and their efforts ended in frustration. They had been within one strike of winning the World Series twice the night before and they let the game be tied both times instead. The baseball gods are not forgiving to those that have victory in their grasp and let it fall away.

Strangely, the player that made the biggest impression on me was the Texas Rangers' second-baseman Ian Kinsler. Kinsler is my kind of player. Good defense at 2B, lots of speed, smart, great effort, makes contact, has some power to the gaps, and - most of all - because of the way he wears his pants. He wears them with the elastic ends tucked up around his knees and the trousers then "draped" back down to hang there. It is unusual and old-fashioned compared with the way most players wear their trousers these days. It is also exactly the way I wore my pants during many seasons of intramural and corporate-league softball. I really like this scrappy kid.

Kinsler shows more socks than most players these days. I like that. These other guys seem to prefer tucking their trousers under the back of their cleats.

This makes the 11th time the Cardinals have won the World Series. That is tops in the National League. The DamnYankees are tops overall with 27 championships.
Only the Cardinals and Yankees are in double-digits in terms of number of World Series wins. The Braves have only three in their long franchise history dating back to their first one as the Boston Braves in the 1914 World Series. So, congrats to the Cards for leading the National League in the most important category of all.

Late note: Tony LaRussa announced his retirement from baseball on Monday following this post. He has enjoyed a brilliant career with over 2700 wins. His last few victories were probably the sweetest.

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