Monday, September 29, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (2001)

November 4, 2001
New York Yankees vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
Bank One Ballpark, Arizona 

Having won four of the previous five World Series, the Yankees appeared to be virtually unbeatable. It was the hey-day of the so-called "Core Four" with homegrown stars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera still very much in their prime. Rounding out an impressive pitching rotation, ageless flame-thrower Roger Clemens posted 20 victories against only 3 losses while ultra-reliable right-hander Mike Mussina gathered 17 wins of his own.

The Diamondbacks had no shortage of reliable arms with strikeout kings Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson forming the most potent one-two punch in the majors. The Arizona offense was driven by outfielders Reggie Sanders and Luis Gonzalez, who combined for 90 homers during the regular season. An All-Star and Silver Slugger Award recipient, Gonzalez was enjoying the most productive campaign of his career with 57 home runs and 142 RBIs. Prior to 1998, he had never hit more than 15 long balls in a season. After 2001, he would never reach the 30-homer threshold again.

The Yankees' pennant run had been staged in the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks while the wreckage of the Twin Towers still smoldered and rescue workers combed Ground Zero for remains of the deceased. Yankee players had repeatedly reached out to members of the community in their time of need, offering encouragement and support. In addition to being New York's team, the Bombers had become America's team. 

After clinching the first pennant in franchise history with a 5-game victory over the Braves, the Diamondbacks rolled over the Yankees by a combined score of 13-1 in Games 1 and 2. Schilling held the Yankees to just 3 hits in the opener and Johnson duplicated the feat in the second contest, adding 11 strikeouts to his lofty career totals.

The Yankees looked more like themselves in the next several meetings, staging dramatic come-from-behind victories in Games 4 and 5. In the fourth contest, Tino Martinez tied the score in the bottom of the ninth with an epic 2-run homer. Derek Jeter earned the nickname "Mr. November" with a walk-off shot in the tenth. It was third baseman Scott Brosius's turn to play the hero in Game 5, knotting the score in the bottom of the ninth with a 2-run blast off of Korean bullpen sensation Byung-Hyun Kim. For Kim, it was the second day in a row he had blown a lead. The Yankees won in the twelfth on a clutch single by second baseman Alfonso Soriano.

Trailing 3-games-to-2, the Diamondbacks sent a clear message that they were not finished yet, victimizing four different New York hurlers for a total of 22 hits in a 15-2 blowout. With Curt Schilling slated to start Game 7, the Yankees appeared to be at a distinct disadvantage for the first time all year. Schilling had stymied the Bombers in his two previous starts, allowing just 2 runs while striking out 17. Before a capacity crowd at Bank One Ballpark, he turned in yet another brilliant performance.

Roger Clemens gave the Yankees six and a third strong innings, allowing just 1 run on 7 hits. The Diamondbacks broke through in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI double by journeyman Danny Bautista. Schilling retired 16 straight Yankee batters before surrendering the tying run in the seventh. A leadoff homer by Alfonso Soriano and a 1-out single by David Justice in the eighth chased Schilling from the game. He finished the Series with a 1.69 ERA and 26 strikeouts--numbers good enough to capture co-MVP honors (which he shared with Randy Johnson).

Prior to the '01 World Series, Mariano Rivera had given up just 6 earned runs in more than 70 innings of postseason work. A 2-1 Yankee lead in the ninth seemed relatively secure to nearly everyone watching. Veteran Mark Grace led off with a single. David Dellucci was installed as a pinch-runner. Catcher Damian Miller followed with a bunt that Rivera inexplicably threw into center field. The odds of this happening were slim as Rivera would be charged with just 6 errors in more than 1,100 appearances during his regular season career. As Dellucci slid into second, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner encountered a TV crew setting up for the trophy presentation in New York's clubhouse. "Get out of here!" He bellowed, chasing them into the hall. "You're jinxing me!"

The game unraveled quickly for the Yankees after that. Jay Bell bunted and Rivera threw accurately to Scott Brosius at third to erase the lead runner. Brosius could have fired across the diamond to nail Bell at first fairly easily, but for unknown reasons, he held onto the ball. The next batter, Tony Womack, laced a 2-2 pitch into the right field gap for a double. The game was now tied. Rivera--perhaps a bit unnerved--hit Craig Counsel, who was batting just .083 in the Series to that point. The bases were now loaded with one out and Arizona's most productive hitter coming to the plate. In two previous at-bats against Rivera, Gonzalez had struck out and produced a weak grounder. He choked up on the bat just hoping to put the ball in play as the Yankee infield moved in. With an 0-1 count, Gonzalez swung at a nasty cutter that was in on his hands. The bat broke on contact and the ball fluttered to the edge of the infield, where it dropped for a hit. Had the Yankee infield been playing at normal depth, it almost certainly would have been caught. The Series was over. America's team had lost.

Standing calmly in front of his locker after the game, Rivera answered a barrage of questions. "I made the pitches I wanted to make and they hit them," he said. "That's baseball. I did everything I wanted to do. They beat me. They can say that they beat me."     



Monday, September 22, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1991)

October 27, 1991
Minnesota Twins vs. Atlanta Braves
Metrodome, Minnesota 

The '91 World Series was selected by ESPN as the greatest ever. A total of 69 innings were played, setting a record for the longest 7-game Series in history. Five of those games were decided by a single run as the home team prevailed in each contest. With a Game 5 loss at Atlanta, the Twins (formerly playing as the Senators) set an all time record for futility. It was the club's fourteenth consecutive defeat on the road--the longest streak of any major league franchise.

In addition to one of the greatest Game 7 pitching duels in history, the Series became known for a handful of odd occurrences. As the Twins continued their winning ways at home, the fan noise in the Metrodome soared to unprecedented levels. At several points, the decibel level was equivalent to a jet taking off at close range. Numerous fans reported headaches and temporary hearing loss. Controversy surfaced in the third inning of Game 2 when Ron Gant got hung up between first and second after lining a 2-out single. He became entangled with Kent Hrbek, who appeared to literally pick Gant up and pull him off first base while applying the tag. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out and the play killed a Braves rally. Hrbek became a villain in Atlanta, receiving a death threat and getting booed loudly by fans. In Game 3, Minnesota's Tom Kelly faced the ultimate manager's nightmare when a series of substitutions and slick double-switches left him without any available players on his bench or in his bullpen. He was down to his last pitcher in the twelfth when Atlanta broke through with the winning run.

The Twins appeared to have momentum on their side after Kirby Puckett's eleventh inning homer gave them a 4-3 victory in Game 6. Puckett won the game almost single-handedly for Minnesota, driving in 3 runs and scoring twice. He also made a spectacular catch in center field. "It's so draining, these one-run ballgames," he said after the game. "I think I'll be sick all winter."

The seventh contest featured a rematch between Game 4 starters Jack Morris and John Smoltz. The two squared off for seven-plus scoreless innings. Smoltz was pulled in the bottom of the eighth with one out and runners on the corners. Reliever Mike Stanton was ordered to walk Puckett to load the bases. He then disposed of the slumping Kent Hrbek, who lined into an inning-ending double play. In the bottom of the ninth, Stanton pulled a muscle in his back while fielding a bunt and was replaced by Alejandro Pena. Pena worked a scoreless ninth though he would eventually be charged with a loss.

In the tenth inning, Twins starter Jack Morris refused to come out of the game. He retired the side in order, finishing his night with 126 pitches. In the bottom of the inning, left fielder Dan Gladden led off with a bloop single and moved to second when the ball took a weird hop. He was sacrificed to third by Chuck Knoblauch. Puckett was intentionally walked along with Hrbek, who was hitting just .115 in the Series. Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox was hoping for a force play at the plate. Summoned to pinch-hit, Minnesota's back-up catcher Gene Larkin (nursing a knee injury) had his moment in the sun, sending Pena's first pitch over a drawn-in outfield for a Series-clinching base hit.

Morris's 7-hit shutout earned him World Series MVP honors. It was the first time a pitcher had worked 10 innings since Tom Seaver did it in Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. "This is something you dream about," Morris told the press. "I remember as a kid I used to throw Wiffle balls to my brother in the backyard. He used to be Mickey Mantle. I pretended I was Bob Gibson."  

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Emerging 2014 National League Playoff Picture

Finally, the Nationals are sitting where everyone thought they would be over the past few seasons--in first place with a large lead over the Braves. As usual, they are doing it without major contributions from former Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper, who (largely due to injuries) has not blossomed into the natural hitter he was said to be. Instead, the Nats are relying on first baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Anthony Rendon to supply most of the offensive punch. The pitching has been dependable as well with Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister all sporting ERAs below the 3.00 mark. The Braves have gotten a lot of mileage out of first baseman Freddie Freeman and left fielder Justin Upton. The two had combined for 45 homers and 169 RBIs through Sept. 13. Craig Kimbrel is a reliable closer and Julio Tehran, a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2013, is having a wonderful follow-up season. The Nationals will take the division anyway unless something disastrous takes place in Washington.

The Cardinals are shooting for their fourth consecutive playoff appearance and owe most of their success to pitching. Adam Wainwright is on target to win 20 games for the first time since 2010 and right-hander Lance Lynn has held opponents to a .238 batting average so far this year. The NL Central is still up for grabs with the Pirates running a close second. Andrew McCutchen is having another stellar season and catcher Russell Martin has finally found his swing after three straight mediocre years at the plate. He's hitting in the .290s with an OBP above the .400 mark. The big question in the Central is What Happened to the Brewers? After a 20-7 start, they have played below .500. Center fielder Carlos Gomez and right fielder Ryan Braun are dealing with injuries and the pitching staff is a mess. They'll be lucky if they escape with a wild card berth.

The NL West has become a two-team shootout between the Dodgers and Giants (a familiar historical scenario). It may be a matter of who gets hot at the right time. Through September 13, the Dodgers had won 7 of their last 10. Clayton Kershaw is having another Cy Young season (18-3/ 1.67 ERA) and the rest of the staff has stepped up as well. Zack Grienke, Dan Haren and Hyn-jin Ryu have added more than 40 wins between them so far. Jake Peavy has been hot for the Giants, sporting a 5-1 record and 1.12 ERA in his last six starts. The two teams just finished up a three-game set. After losing the opener 9-0, the Dodgers returned the favor with a 17-0 thrashing in the second meeting. Last night, LA took a three-game lead in the West with a 4-2 win. Three games remain between the two clubs.

Wild Card
The East appears to be wrapped up, but the other two divisions are decidedly unsettled. The Cardinals could certainly claim a wild card spot if they falter down the stretch. Same goes for the Dodgers. I hate to write them off so early, but the Brewers are sputtering. Only two other NL clubs have a lower walk ratio. The Giants and Pirates are top contenders right now. Atlanta is a longshot.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Emerging 2014 American League Playoff Picture

We're heading into the final stretch! It's been an exciting year for baseball with several playoff spots still up in the air. The next two weeks should be quite interesting.

The Orioles have emerged as the dominant force in their division and should win the East over Toronto unless something shocking happens. The Blue Jays have been hot lately thanks to a late power surge by Jose Bautista, but a recent injury to Melky Cabrera will almost certainly hurt the club. The Yankees, who have been on the cusp all year, don't have the guns to make it to the postseason. Only two of their regular players are hitting above .270. Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner are hurt (though Gardner is day-to-day). Rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka is still out of action as well.

The Royals and Tigers are currently in a dogfight for the Central lead. Kansas City has been losing steam lately, dropping 4 of 6 games from Sept. 6-Sept. 11. Among the Royals most reliable hitters, Alex Gordon is in a September funk. In the previously mentioned span, he struck out 13 times and hit below the .100-mark. The Detroit offense is driven by sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who are both having excellent seasons. Max Scherzer is a dependable starter with a 16-5 record, but Justin Verlander is sporting a 4.82 ERA (what's up with that?) and Rick Porcello is in a downward spiral, losing 6 of 8 decisions between Aug. 7 and Sept. 10. Good news for fans in Detroit: The Tigers have compiled an 11-5 record against Kansas City so far this year with three games still left to play against them. The Indians are within striking distance of the Central lead, but need to push harder. Left fielder Michael Brantley and first baseman Carlos Santana have propelled the offense and right-hander Corey Kluber is a Cy Young candidate (15-9/ 2.45 ERA through Sept. 11). But games against the division leaders are few at this point and the Indians have been mediocre so far in September. They're 5-5 in their last ten games.

The Angels are currently in the midst of a 10-game winning streak and should take the West easily over the slumping A's. After trading outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox on July 31, Oakland went into a tailspin. They have won just 3 of their last 10 and have been unable to generate consistent offense. Meanwhile, the Angels have enjoyed major offensive contributions from superstars Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Things looked bleak when pitcher Garrett Richards (13-4/ 2.61 ERA) was shelved with an injury in early September, but the rest of the staff has stepped up.  Right now, the West seems like a foregone conclusion.

Wild Card Picture
 The Mariners have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs via a Wild Card berth. Robinson Cano is having another fine offensive season in Seattle while third baseman Kyle Seager has supplied plenty of punch as well. "King Felix" Hernandez continues to be a dominant presence on the mound with a miniscule 2.12 ERA through Sept. 11. The Mariners have seven games left against the surging Angels and this could be a good or a bad thing. The Blue Jays, Indians and Yankees are all in the hunt, but all three seem like a long shot to me at this point. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1975)

October 22, 1975
Boston Red Sox vs. Cincinnati Reds
Fenway Park, Boston

The Red Sox returned to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. The big story in Boston was the emergence of rookies Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. Lynn's remarkable glove work in center field drew comparisons to the all time greats. He hit .331 and led the league with 47 doubles, becoming the first man to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. Rice put up similar offensive numbers despite suffering a broken wrist in September that kept him out of the postseason. On the mound, the Sox had five players with double digit win totals. Rick Wise led the staff with 19 victories while swingman Roger Moret paced the league with an .824 winning percentage.

After coasting to a Western Division title, Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" dismantled the Pirates in the NLCS by a combined score of 19-7. Among the greatest ballclubs in history, the Reds were looking to atone for World Series losses in 1970 and 1972. Baseball's all time hits leader, Pete Rose, spent most of the season stationed at third base alongside Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. The Cincinnati lineup was strengthened considerably by blossoming stars George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr.. Reds hurlers combined for a modest total of 22 complete games (the lowest number in the majors). This was due in part to manager Sparky Anderson's impatience with hurlers--a trait that earned him the nickname "Captain Hook."

The Series is perhaps best remembered for Carlton Fisk's dramatic twelfth inning homer in Game 6, an event that took place more than four hours after the opening pitch. Fisk drove Pat Darcy's second offering--a sinker--toward the left field foul pole then danced up the first base line, waving his arms and coaxing the ball to stay fair. TV cameraman Lou Gerard kept his camera focused on the actions of Fisk rather than the flight of the ball after spotting a large rat heading toward him. Not wishing to draw the rodent's attention, he kept the camera pointed in Fisk's direction, inadvertently altering the style of television sports coverage. John Filippelli, assistant broadcast director, commented later: "No one had ever thought of isolating on an individual." Fisk's memorable walk-off homer forced a Game 7 that has been largely forgotten.

Reds ace Don Gullett ran into control problems in the third inning. After an RBI single by Carl Yastrzemski, Gullett walked Carlton Fisk to load the bases. Having used eight pitchers the night before, Sparky Anderson stood idly by as Gullett walked Rico Petricelli and Dwight Evans to give the Sox a 3-0 lead. The score remained that way until the top of the sixth, when Tony Perez lifted a Bill Lee blooper pitch over the Green Monster in left field for a 2-run homer. Thanks to the hustle of Ken Griffey, the Reds tied the game in the seventh. Griffey worked a walk, stole second then scored on a 2-out single by Pete Rose.

In the ninth, Griffey got things started again for the Reds with a leadoff walk. A sacrifice by Cesar Geronimo sent him to second and a groundout by Dan Driessen moved him to third. Reliever Jim Burton walked the dangerous Pete Rose, but NL MVP Joe Morgan followed with a bloop single that scored the deciding run. Cincy's closer Will McEnaney retired the side in order in the ninth. Fan favorite Carl Yasterzemski--a triple crown winner in '67--ended another year of futility for the Red Sox with a routine fly to center field. Boston would not return to the World Series for another decade.

Talking about his Series-clinching hit, Joe Morgan told reporters: "I was hoping they would walk Pete. He's had so many hits in the Series, I figured maybe he had run out of them. I wanted my chance." With 10 hits and a .370 average, Rose received Series MVP honors. The drama had taken its toll on him by the end of Game 7. He told the press jokingly that he was worried he might have a heart attack.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Game 7: Exciting World Series Finales (1971)

October 17, 1971
Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles
Memorial Stadium, Baltimore

After winning the NL East over the Cardinals by seven games, the Pirates defeated the Giants in the NLCS by a 3-games-to-1 margin. In 1970, they had come up short in the playoffs against the Reds. Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente were the core of the Pittsburgh offense. Clemente hit .341 and Stargell led the NL with 48 homers. Manny Sanguillen enjoyed one of his finest offensive seasons, leading major league catchers with a .319 batting average.  Flamboyant right-hander Dock Ellis was the ace of the pitching staff, posting a 19-9 record.

The defending world champion Orioles relied heavily on pitching, carrying four twenty-game winners on their staff.  This was a rare accomplishment in the modern era. Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer made life easy for manager Earl Weaver, gathering 81 victories between them. The Oriole offense was propelled by sluggers Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. Brooks Robinson added 91 RBIs and won his twelfth consecutive Gold Glove Award at third base as the Orioles coasted to the pennant then swept the A's in the playoffs.

Entering the Series as underdogs, the Pirates dropped the first two games at Baltimore and appeared to be on the ropes after an 11-3 Oriole blowout in Game 2. Back at Three Rivers Stadium, the Bucs put the O's on the brink of elimination with three straight victories. Game 6 was a classic that lasted for 10 innings. The Pirates loaded the bases in the top of the tenth, but came up empty. In the bottom of the frame, the Orioles scored the deciding run on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Robinson. The ball was hit to shallow center field and Frank Robinson narrowly beat Vic Davalillo's strong throw to the plate.

Game 7 featured the second showdown between Mike Cuellar and Steve Blass. Cuellar had faltered in the O's Game 3 loss while Blass had pitched a 3-hit gem. In the encore match-up, Cuellar was in peak form. Through seven frames, the Bucs managed just one run on a solo homer by Clemente. In the top of the eighth, Cuellar gave up a leadoff single to Stargell and an RBI double to third baseman Jose Pagan before retiring the next three batters in order. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the eighth, the O's finally broke through as Ellie Hendricks and Mark Belanger strung together a pair of singles. Hendricks later scored on a grounder by Don Buford to cut the Pirate lead in half. In the ninth, the Orioles sent their most powerful hitters to the plate. The ball never left the infield as Blass worked a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Pirates their first world championship in over a decade. Having hit safely in all seven games, Clemente was named MVP. The decision prompted the following comment from Orioles skipper Earl Weaver: "Clemente was great all right, but if it hadn't been for Mr. Blass, we might be popping corks right now."

After his brilliant Series performance in '71, Blass came back strong with a 19-8 record and 2.49 ERA the following year. He finished second behind Steve Carlton in Cy Young voting. After that, he suffered one of the most puzzling downfalls in baseball history. In 1973, Blass inexplicably lost his ability to throw strikes, walking 84 batters in 89 innings. Demoted to the minors in '74, he never appeared in another major league game. There was no satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon as Blass had not suffered an injury and there was no precipitating event. His condition became unofficially labeled "Steve Blass Disease"--an affliction that appears to be caused by over-thinking the act of throwing. Several other players have suffered the same plight, most notably Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who was moved to the outfield after becoming increasingly unable to make the toss to first base. Commenting on his rapid career decline, Blass remarked: "It was the worst experience of my baseball life...I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can't imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you're doing out there, performing that way as a major league pitcher."