Trading Bases on Twitter (MagicRatSF)


Add to Google


Dead Men Walking

In October of 1986 I was a 21 year-old bartender at the Holiday Inn Bethesda, working the hotel bar on the Saturday night of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  For the game, we split the bar between Red Sox and Mets fans and promised free champagne for fans of the winning team.  Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth with no runners on base, the Mets had Gary Carter at the plate.  Carter hit a foul ball which to television viewers, appeared to go straight up in the air.  A fervent Mets’ hater at the time, I was so anxious to celebrate the death of the 1986 team that as soon as the ball left Carter’s bat, I popped the champagne for the Red Sox fans thinking the game was over.  However, the ball drifted just behind the home plate screen.  While that single pitch is recalled by few -- even Red Sox fans I've told this story to don't recall how close they were to winning the 1986 Series even before any subsequent Mets' batter had two strikes on him --  what happen next has been talked about for twenty-five years.  Twenty minutes after prematurely popping the cork, with Mets fans going crazy all throughout the bar, I thought I’d seen the most incredible ending to a World Series game ever.  After last night, I don’t think that anymore.
What a game.
There were 22 team at-bats in the 11-inning instant classic that was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series; Texas and St. Louis combined to score in 13 of those half innings.  Two different times Texas was one strike away from the organization’s first World Championship, once with a 2-run lead and once with a 1-run lead, and both times they blew the lead.  If you’re simply a fan of the sport, it ended the best way possible – in a manner only baseball can provide – a walk-off “see you tomorrow” home run.
What a team.
The Cardinals were 10 ½ games back in the Wild Card chase, behind not only Atlanta but San Francisco as well with 30 games left in the season. calculates that the Cardinals had a 1.5% chance of making the playoffs when play ended on August 25.  Down one game to none and 4-0 after three innings against Cliff Lee and the Phillies in Game 2 of the NLDS, the Cardinals had less than a 10% chance of getting to the second round of the playoffs.  Down one game to none vs. the favored Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS, you could have gotten 2-1 odds on St. Louis getting to the World Series.  Finally, home teams down 2 runs, facing their last at-bat come back to win once every seven times, and the Cardinals did it twice, in back-to-back innings last night.  The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are truly a never-say-die team.
While the game was tremendously entertaining, the fielding was horrendous – which was surprising – and there were questionable strategic decisions – which wasn’t.  This entire post-season Texas has looked bad in the field to me.  To be honest, I may have followed the baseball season very closely this year, but I didn’t see Texas play much at all.  What I noticed in the data was that they converted batted balls into outs at a rate better than any other team in baseball except the Tampa Bay Rays, a team known league-wide as the best fielding team in baseball.  However, except for the sublime fielding of Adrian Beltre at third base, I haven’t been impressed at all with the Rangers’ defense in the play-offs.  That weakness came back to haunt Texas last night with two errors and a couple of other poor defensive plays including the horrendous effort by Nelson Cruz in the bottom of the 9th on David Freese’s 2-RBI, game-tying triple.
As far as the strategic decisions, the game was so entertaining, so emotionally draining for the fans of both teams, it seems pointless to attempt to take an emotionless look at the strategic battle Washington and LaRussa engaged in, so I’m just going to throw out some data applicable to the two half-innings the Cardinals came back from two runs down to tie the game.  I was on record that Neftali Feliz would blow a save in this World Series and, sadly or joyously depending on your rooting interests, he didn’t let me down.  I can’t pin the blame on the decision to use Feliz in the bottom of the 9th on Ron Washington however.  This is an organizational decision that was made when the season began, exemplified by mid-season acquisition of Mike Adams, solely for the purpose of working the 8th inning. 
That’s what happened last night when Adams came in, threw 3 pitches, and worked out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom of the 8th inning.  Even though there was no doubt Feliz was going to come in to pitch the 9th, here’s a comparison of the two pitchers’ skill sets:
                        Strikeout Rate             Walk Rate                   Ground Ball Rate
Adams                    26.7%                         5.1%                                  45.4%
Feliz                       21.4%                        11.9%                                 37.2%
On the baseball team I run in my mind, there is no doubt I want Adams as my closer.  By pulling Adams after he threw just three pitches, -- in the most important game in the organization's history -- Washington announced Feliz was still his guy, as has been the case all year, talent and even the eye-test be damned.  So why then did 41-year old Darren Oliver become his guy in the bottom of the tenth with an identical 2-run lead?  That is a decision I absolutely hate and do not understand.  A very weak part of the Cardinal order was coming up.  Why pull Feliz if he’s the guy you want protecting leads?  You spent your whole season setting up Feliz to be the guy 24 other teammates dog pile on an October evening and then POOF, like David Copperfield you made him vanish.
Finally, I did not like, not one bit, the decision to walk Albert Pujols in the bottom of the tenth, putting the winning run on base, to pitch to Lance Berkman.  The key to the decision is that Texas had a right handed pitcher, Scott Feldman in the game.  You may remember way back at the beginning of the play-offs I presented an illustration of the two different Ryan Howard’s that existed depending on the dominant hand of the pitcher on the mound.
Well sometimes the extreme splits apply to switch-hitters as well.  Here are the two Lance Berkman’s and well as the stats for a yet to be identified player:
                                       Lance Berkman #1      Lance Berkman #2            Player X
Batting Avg:                               .307                         .261                             .300
On-base %:                               .423                         .363                             .372
Slugging %:                                .586                         .415                             .525
A six-time All-Star and four-time Top 5 MVP finisher, Lance Berkman has accrued those accolades largely due to his work from the left side of the plate.  That’s Lance Berkman #1 with a career OPS (On base % Plus Slugging %) above 1 (1.09 precisely) a threshold that nearly always gets you Hall of Fame consideration.  From the right side of the plate, Lance Berkman #2 is essentially the 2011 version of Johnny Damon (.261/.326/.418) or stated another, rather stark way, the average MLB center fielder (.261/.326/.410).  My point is, if you’re going to make the decision to willingly face Lance Berkman with the tying and winnings runs on base, you must have a left handed reliever ready to bring in.  If not, you’re facing a Hall of Fame caliber hitter.  So where was Ron Washington's left-handed reliever?  He'd just taken him out of the game two batters before, one of which was intentionally walked!  (Want to know what it's like watching a Ron Washington-managed game with me?  Picture me at this point sprawled out on my couch looking like the subject in Edvin Munch's painting, The Scream.)
So who’s Player X?  That’s the 2011 version of Albert Pujols vs. right handed pitchers.  That’s right, for both 2011 and his career (the numbers are virtually identical) Lance Berkman is a better hitter vs. right handed pitchers than the 2011 version of Albert Pujols.  There are no sample size issues here.  Stunning isn’t it?  Now that you know that, what do you think of Ron Washington’s decision to put the winning run on base to pitch to Lance Berkman instead of Albert Pujols with just the tying run on base?
Honestly, between the two decisions above and his decision to let Colby Lewis bat with the bases loaded and two outs, while up one run in the top of the 5th inning (not shown), Ron Washington should be sued for malpractice.
World Series, Game 7 – Texas at St. Louis
In creating his brilliant Levels of Losing categories,’s Bill Simmons defined the Dead Man Walking label as applying “to any playoff series in which your team remains "alive," but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there's no possible way they can bounce back.”   This morning, I think we'd all agree, that perfectly applies to the Texas Rangers.  In my lifetime I can think of five other Dead Man Walking situations, all but one from the early/mid ‘80s.
1) Sixers/Celtics, 1981 Eastern Conference Finals.  The Sixers led three games to one, and late in Game 5 at the Boston Garden had the lead and the ball.  The Celtics, and I’m sure this shocks no one, had a series of questionable calls go their way and won the game.  The Garden crowd then unleashed one of the most clever chants of all time.  This was a Wednesday night game, with Game 6 moving to the Philadelphia Spectrum on Friday, meaning the teams would come back to the Garden on Sunday for Game 7, if necessary.  With the players leaving the court after Boston’s improbable comeback the fans started chanting to the Sixers “See you Sunday! See you Sunday!”  Needless to say, when the Sixers blew yet another late lead in Game 6, the “See you Sunday” chants were ringing in my ears.  Every Sixer fan knew they had no chance in Game 7.
2) Royals/Cardinals, 1985 World Series.  In what will forever be known as the Don Denkinger game, the Cardinals were three outs from a World Series title when Denkinger blew a call at first base, allowing Kansas City to start the winning rally in Game 6.  Every replay showed that there should have been one out and nobody on base, but the call stood and the Royals rallied to tie and win the game that inning.  So sure they’d been robbed of their rightful title, the Cardinals slept walked through Game 7, losing 11-0.
3) Red Sox/Angels, 1986.  The Angels collapse in Game 5, which featured a two-strike, two-out, two run home run by Boston’s Dave Henderson in the top of the 9th inning, was so devastating the losing pitcher, Donnie Moore, took his own life less than three years later.  After losing the chance to clinch what at the time would have been the franchise’s first World Series berth, the Angels went to Boston and promptly lost 10-4 and 8-1 in two non-competitive games. 
4) Red Sox/Mets, 1986.  Unfortunately for Texas fans, this is probably the best parallel in sports history for what the Rangers are going through.  I doubt there was a fan, impartial or otherwise, who thought the Red Sox had a chance of winning Game 7 of the 1986 World Series in Shea Stadium after their devastating loss in Game 6.  (For the record, in what can only be classified as a “gutty” performance, I made it back behind the bar for Game 7.)  As we all know, there was no redemption for Boston that night and they’d have to wait 18 more years to win the World Series.
5) Giants/Angels, 2002.  While there wasn't a "one-out-away-from-winning-it-all" moment in this Series the Giants did blow a five run lead with just eight outs to go as the Angels went on to score three runs in the bottom of both the 7th and 8th innings to stun the Giants and force a Game 7.  When the Angel fans, whipped into a frenzy all series by their ubiquitous rally monkey, filled the stadium the next night, they came expecting a coronation and they weren't disappointed as the Giants meekly rolled over in Game 7.
Those are the five Dead Man Walking playoff teams I can think of from my lifetime.  It’s impossible not to think they’ll be welcoming a sixth member by the end of tonight.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>
« Final Cuts | Main | Tony, Tony, Tony . . . . Has Done it Again »