Thursday, October 30, 2014

World Series Reflections: The Muff, The Cat and the Power of 12

Madison Bumgarner's brilliant pitching in the World Series and the Giants' escaping harm from Gregor Blanco's error bring to mind Harry Brecheen and Fred Snodgrass (not necessarily in that order), and let's not forget that Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence both had 12 hits apiece. 

World Series Reflections: The Muff, The Cat and the Power of 12

When Gregor Blanco played Alex Gordon's single into effectively a triple (he was charged with a two-base error), Giants' fan versed in their team's history dating back to the Polo Grounds in New York City and the dead ball era might have had nightmarish visions of another Giant center fielder's misplay which in fact cost the Giants a World Series.

The year was 1912. The place was Fenway Park. The Series was tied at three games apiece. The deciding Game 8 (Game 2 had ended in a tie called by darkness) was tied at 1-1 going into extra innings. The Giants scored a run in the top of the tenth off Red Sox ace Smokey Joe Wood (34-5 during the season), working his third inning in relief. As their ace, Christy Mathewson, took the mound for the last of the tenth, the Giants needed three outs to win their second World Series (having won in 1905 but lost the previous year). Working on his third complete game start of the Series, Mathewson had given up only one run in the game, just three earned runs in 28 innings in the Series so far for a 0.96 ERA, and in nine starts over three World Series in his career to this point had an ERA less than one (0.99), having surrendered only 9 earned runs in 82 Fall Classic innings.

Clyde Engel, who hit only .234 in 58 games during the season, pinch hit for Wood to lead off for Boston in the tenth and reached second with the tying run when center fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped his routine fly ball. Having committed the error that would keep his name from being forgotten in baseball history, Snodgrass then made a great running catch to rob Harry Hooper of an extra base hit, but he could not prevent Engel from advancing to third with the would-be tying run after the catch. A walk put runners on the corners and Tris Speaker--one of the greatest hitters in the game--hit a pop foul along the first base line that should have been an easy second out in the inning for the Giants ... except that catcher Chief Meyers and first baseman Fred Merkle let the ball drop between them. With a new lease on the at bat, Speaker singled to right field and the game was tied. Significantly, the runner on first who was the possible winning run sped around to third on Speaker's hit and Spoke himself went to second on the throw toward third. After an intentional walk to load the bases and set up a double play situation, a sacrifice fly drove home the World Series-winning run. In 11 World Series starts, including two the next year (1913), Mathewson had a 0.97 ERA in 101.2 innings of classic Classic work.

(When Salvador Perez hit that foul popup off the third base line that secured the Series, Giants fans with historical perspective might have had visions of catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval perhaps also miscommunicating between them and allowing a sure out foul ball to drop and Perez, with a new lease on his at bat, driving in the tying run or perhaps even hitting a Game 7 walk-off come-from-behind game-winning, World Series-winning home run--something never before done in World Series history; Mazeroski's seventh game walk-off home run to win the 1960 Series came with the score tied and nobody on base. Posey stayed clear of the play, Sandoval caught the pop foul, and Blanco was spared having to be remembered in history for an error that cost his team the World Championship--unlike Snodgrass and his "$30,000 Muff," so called because that was the amount he and his teammates would have had in extra earnings had they won the World Series.)

Madison Bumgarner's two stellar starts followed by five innings of shutout relief on just two days of rest after pitching a complete game shutout in Game 5 to put the Giants in command of the Series brings to mind the work of St. Louis Cardinals southpaw Harry "the Cat" Brecheen in the 1946 World Series.

Brecheen, who had a 15-15 record with a 2.49 earned run average, was not the ace of the St. Louis staff in 1946--that was fellow-lefty Howie Pollet with a 21-10, 2.10 record during the season--but he was superb in the final two months of the season allowing only 19 runs in 99 innings (a 1.73 ERA) while going 8-5 in 13 starts and earning 3 saves in 4 relief appearances. These were critical games because his team's fight with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant ended in the first-ever tie after the 154-game schedule was completed, forcing a best-of-three games playoff for the title. Brecheen pitched a complete game in the next-to-last scheduled game to keep the Cardinals in a tie with the Dodgers, and three days later in the second game of the playoff (St. Louis with a one-game lead) came on in relief in the ninth inning to staunch a Brooklyn rally and secure the final two outs of an 8-3 victory that sent St. Louis to the World Series ... against the Red Sox, who were in their first Fall Classic since 1918, back when Babe Ruth was still resident in Boston.

After his team lost the first game, Brecheen threw a complete game 4-hit shutout in Game 2 to even the Series at one game apiece. Six days later, in Game 6 with the Red Sox holding a three games-to-two advantage as the Series returned to St. Louis, the Cat gave up one run on seven hits in another complete game to force a Game 7. With the Cardinals holding a 3-1 lead in the decisive seventh game, Brecheen was called on to bail out St. Louis starter Murry Dickson in the eighth inning with runners on second and third and nobody out. Not up to Bumgarner standards, Brecheen allowed both runners to score, which tied the game, but was himself bailed out by Country Slaughter's scoring from first base on aggressive base running when Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky double clutched on the relay from the outfield. Brecheen gave up back-to-back singles to start the ninth but, facing the bottom third of the order, retired the next three hitters to win his third game of the Series and send the Cardinals home for the winter as World Series champions for the third time in five years (shades of the 2014 Giants).

Harry Brecheen gave up only one run and 14 hits in 20 innings for a 0.45 ERA in the 1946 Series. All told, appearing in three Fall Classics, Brecheen had a 4-1 record and a 0.83 ERA in the 32.2 innings he pitched in World Series competition, including complete game victories in each of his three career World Series starts.

Finally, lost in the spectacular World Series pitching performance of Madison Bumgarner--arguably the best ever after that of Christy Mathewson's three complete game shutout victories in the 1905 Series--was the equally-important hitting prowess of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, batting fourth and fifth for the 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Sandoval and Pence each had 12 hits. The record for hits in a World Series is 13, reached by only three players (Bobby Richardson in 1964, Lou Brock in 1968 and Marty Barrett in 1986--all three, ironically, in losing causes). Only 16 players--now including Sandoval and Pence--have had 12 hits in a single World Series. Sandoval and Pence are only the third pair of teammates to both have 12 hits in one World Series, following Willie Stargell and Phil Garner of the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates and Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar of the 1993 World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. Sandoval and Pence accounted directly for 70 percent of the Giants' 30 total runs in the Series, scoring or driving in 21 (not double-counting Pence driving in himself with his two-run home run in Game 2 on behalf of Mr. Bumgarner).

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