In the same way the sight of “10.27” made me smile yesterday, the thought of “Game Seven” has got me grinning today. Yet this has nothing to do with 1986. This is all about 2011 and the World Series that is doing us the courtesy of sticking around one more night.
Which still might not be enough. They used to decide the World Series in a best-of-nine format. Surely the Cardinals and Rangers can be persuaded to hang in there until November and go a little further in their autumnal exploits. And if they continue to absorb us into their activities the way they did Thursday night, would best-of-fifteen be too much to ask for? Best-of-23, maybe? ’Cause you know if Bud Selig could ram through such a format change on the fly, we’d be here in a couple of weeks looking at St. Louis and Texas, tied at eleven games apiece.
And it still wouldn’t be enough.
Whatever happens tonight, whether I outwardly exult with the Rangers or not so grudgingly tip my cap toward the Cardinals, I got what I wanted out of all this. I got Game Seven. It’s like I was sitting in a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial, the bartender heard me thinking about how I didn’t want to leave the World Series so soon and somebody pressed a button to make it rain eighth-, ninth-, tenth- and eleventh-inning runs over Busch Stadium.
“Game Seven of the World Series” would be a cliché, except it hasn’t existed for nearly a decade. The last time we saw one, I was elated because I was fully on board the Rally Monkey train, pulling hard for my temporarily adopted Angels to top the Giants. That was 2002. The year before, I was at least as thrilled to watch the Diamondbacks put the “die” in dynasty in a Game Seven for the ages. Those were genuine if temporary rooting interests rewarded with personally satisfying outcomes.
This time around, I hold no strong bias in favor of or against either participant. Yeah, I carry an oft-referenced deep legacy dislike of the Cardinals, but to root against them because they’re the Cardinals at this moment would feel small. I found myself rooting for them on and off in Game Six because without them succeeding we couldn’t have a Game Seven, and I really wanted a Game Seven.
Then again, I wasn’t rooting against the Rangers, and certainly at the fleeting instnant when it appeared they were on the verge of capturing their first world championship in their forty seasons (tacking on their Senators tenure seems superfluous), I was feeling warm and fuzzy for our expansion brethren. I love a first title, whether it’s the first in a city, as it was for the Giants last year; or whether it’s the first in an eternity, as it was for the White Sox in 2005; or whether it’s the first, period, à la the Angels of ’02. The Ranger faithful put in their time, tasted their disappointment, turned out voluminously and turned up the volume in support of their likable beloveds. They deserved to get what seemed to be coming to them in the best sense of the phrase.
But then something else came at them altogether and everybody from Nolan Ryan on down was left to ponder, if not in Game Six, then when? If we’re up 7-4 in the middle of the seventh…and 7-5 going to the bottom of the ninth…and two runs ahead with two outs and two strikes, just one pitch away…
And even when that evaporated, after David Freese tripled in the tying runs (who triples in tying runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to stave off World Series elimination?), there was Josh Hamilton getting it all back on one swing in the top of the tenth, and there were the Rangers again on the precipice of what had eluded them since 1972, what had never seriously been on their radar until 2010. They were up 9-7, and all they had to do was get a fresh set of three outs.
Honest to god, though, as soon as I saw Darren Oliver was the pitcher tasked with getting them, I kind of knew the Rangers were screwed. No disrespect to our former lefty long man, but once the graphic flashed that a man with eighteen seasons of big league experience had picked up exactly six saves in his career, the sense of Texas-size doom set in. Mind you “kind of knew” and “sense of doom” indicate a lack of certainty on my part. Sometimes you just get a feeling about these things, but in Game Six of the 2011 World Series, I got about a thousand feelings, and probably 990 proved misguided. For example, at some point I decided there couldn’t be a Game Seven because how could anybody ask these players to keep playing after such an excruciating Game Six? Mea culpa on that instinct.
Nonetheless, here’s one of my thousand thoughts that stays with me hours after the fact: Tony La Russa’s greatest managerial genius may have been found not in anything he did during this epic contest but how he screwed up everybody’s notion of what a bullpen has to be when he assigned rigid roles, inning by inning, to Dennis Eckersley and everybody who pitched out of the pen in Oakland ahead of Eck. That was more than twenty years ago, but La Russa permanently changed baseball’s thinking on relief pitching. Setup men didn’t exist as such before La Russa and the late-’80s A’s. Closers weren’t automatically confined to one inning. But now all that is the norm.
The closer part was certainly the norm for Ron Washington in this most abnormal game. Neftali Feliz couldn’t quite keep the Cardinals from tying in the ninth. Then Neftali Feliz (22 pitches thrown) couldn’t be sent to the hill to pitch the tenth to redeem himself and, way more importantly, help the Rangers win their first World Series. Instead, it was 41-year-old Oliver, who was a gut-level bad bet (lefty-lefty matchups be damned; Daniel Descalsco and Jon Jay both singled off Darren anyway), and it was Scott Feldman (giving up a deceptively innocent fielder’s choice ground ball that made it 9-8), and it was the Cardinals, again a strike from elimination and again not being eliminated when Lance Berkman singled off Feldman to drive in Jay after Albert Pujols was intentionally walked.
Which, incidentally, was both the correct call (because he’s Pujols) and the dumbest idea ever (because Berkman is Berkman, never to be confused with chopped liver).
By the way, I could be talking out my hat on any of this. Game Six confounded our preconceptions into misconceptions all night. But because I was rooting for Game Seven, I didn’t much care if I was getting any of this right as I was going along. I just liked that it was going along and showing no sign of ending…until the bottom of the eleventh, that is, when Washington rolled out his eighth pitcher of the night, Mark Lowe, and I was pretty sure (more conditional hindsight) that Mark Lowe wasn’t going to continue the festivities much longer. I knew next to nothing about Mark Lowe, but I recognize an eighth pitcher of a World Season game when I see one. And so did Freese, as his game-winning home run six pitches later would attest.
Cardinals 10 Rangers 9 evoked dozens of postseason memories, Mets moments included, but to compare and contrast this Game Six to our Game Sixes from 1986, or the Game Six that didn’t end quite so joyously for us in 1999, or any Game Six you like from any World Series you care to name strikes me as inappropriate. For one thing, I’m confident Game Six of the 2011 World Series will serve as a new template for future nights of its nature. “It’s just like the time David Freese…” For another, this Game Six this morning stands alone. It has to. It happened last night. No other Game Six has given us a Game Seven for tonight, and a Game Seven for tonight is just what we needed, or at least what I very much wanted. I want it all to come down to one game, as clichéd as that sounds. This World Series and this postseason deserves this kind of final act, though I have to believe tonight’s production can’t help but serve as denouement, considering how utterly climactic last night’s was.
At times like these, I am a proud citizen of the Republic of Baseball. Here in our particular province, distant from the center of the action, we haven’t had a game in exactly a month. But that doesn’t bother me a whit right now. I hope fans of the Mets and fans of 27 other teams share my immense exhilaration that baseball continues one more night. Not because it’s baseball for baseball’s sake, but because it’s baseball that’s this absolutely thrilling.