Tuesday, July 19, 2011

2001 NLDS: Instant vindication

It was the heart of the steroid era in baseball. Seven National League hitters hit 40 or more home runs, led by Barry Bonds and his stunning 73. It seemed impossible that someone could hit that many, and with the excitement of Bonds chasing Mark McGwire's single-season record of 70, combined with the national mourning coming after the Sept. 11 attacks, few seemed willing to point out what should have been obvious.

Lost among the headlines of Bonds' march and the nation's recovery was the season of St. Louis Cardinals rookie sensation Albert Pujols. In his first year in the Majors, Pujols hit 37 home runs, which in most years would be a sensational number, but didn't even get him into the top 10 in his league in 2001. But Pujols also drove in 130 runs and batted .329, all while playing four positions, and was the spark the Cardinals needed to get into the National League playoffs as the wild card team.

Their first-round opponent was the Arizona Diamondbacks. In only the fourth year of their existence, the Diamondbacks were proving everybody wrong about the traditional path to team building taken by most expansion teams. Instead of building for the future and taking a few lumps along the way, Arizona loaded up on free agents and went for it all right away. In 1999, in just their second season, they won 100 games. After failing in the playoffs that year, they looked around for another ace pitcher to match up with Randy Johnson, finally finding one in Curt Schilling. With Johnson and Schilling providing a 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, the Diamondbacks had enough firepower to hold back Bonds' Giants at the end to win the NL West.

The acquisition of Schilling paid dividends for Arizona immediately in the playoffs, as he shut out the Cardinals on three hits, giving Arizona a 1-0 victory. St. Louis bounced back in Game 2, beating Johnson to even the series, but Arizona's four-run rally in the seventh inning gave them the Game 3 win. St. Louis won Game 4 to force the series back to Arizona, but they would have to go up against Schilling again.

The Game
Reliever Steve Kline was coming into the game in the ninth inning, St. Louis' second pitching change of the inning. They had started the inning by going to their closer, Dave Veres, who replaced starter Matt Morris after 8 innings and 130 near-flawless pitches. It was a tie game, 1-1, so it wasn't a save situation, but Morris had struggled to escape the eighth with no damage, and Tony LaRussa didn't want to risk anything in the ninth, when a single mistake could ruin their season.

Arizona didn't want to see any more of Morris. They were happy to see Veres. Matt Williams' leadoff double was proof of that. Arizona sent Midre Cummings in to run for him, then promptly bunted him over to third. After an intentional walk, in came Kline, the lefty.

Here's what St. Louis was thinking: "Arizona has four straight lefties coming up, so we need to get a lefty in there to face them."

Here's what Arizona was thinking: "Well, a lefty has his back to third base when he's in the stretch, and Tony Womack's a good bunter, so ..."

... so Cummings started for home on the 1-1 pitch, coming to the plate on a suicide squeeze attempt. Womack squared around, and .... missed. Completely. Cummings was easily tagged out for the second out, a play that went in the books as a caught stealing home but which was really all Womack's fault. Instead of having runners on first and third with one out, Arizona now had a runner on second with two outs. They had completely given away their big advantage. Thus the name "suicide squeeze."

It was somewhat surprising that the game even needed ninth inning dramatics. Game 5 was Schilling's sixth career postseason start, and as he had shown before, he knew how to rise to the occasion. When Reggie Sanders hit a home run to lead off the bottom of the fourth, Schilling looked to be in complete control. The Cardinals' only threat had come in the first, when Pujols grounded out with two runners on base. Since then, it had been next to nothing for St. Louis, and that 1-0 deficit looked awfully foreboding.

That's why the home run J.D. Drew hit in the eighth seemed so shocking. Schilling was completely in control, was four outs from getting Arizona to the next round, and had showed no signs of letting down. But Drew's blast changed all that, turning it into a tie game and making fans wonder just how long it would last.

Schilling got into a little bit of trouble in the ninth, as Jim Edmonds led off with a single, followed by a Kerry Robinson sacrifice to move him to second. (As an aside, Robinson was pinch-hitting for none other than McGwire. Think of it - a man with almost 600 career home runs being pinch-hit for with the game-winning run on base in the ninth inning of a playoff game. McGwire, understandably, took the hint and retired after the season). Facing his first true trouble in several innings, Schilling got two straight strikeouts to end the inning.

And then it went to the bottom of the ninth. And there stood Womack, standing at home plate, the loneliest man in the ballpark. Sure, there was a runner on second, and the Diamondbacks were a single away from winning the series. But you couldn't blame Womack if he was thinking, even a little bit, that he had already blown the series.

But failure on the biggest stage can do strange things to players. Many players don't get a chance to atone for their mistake, but Womack was in the unusual position of still being at the plate immediately after his screwup. He could make things right on the very next pitch.

It wasn't the next pitch. It took four more, including a pair of two-strike fouls, but Womack came through, slapping a single to the opposite field. Danny Bautista got a great jump off second and stormed into home with the series-winning run.

The Diamondbacks first greeted Bautista as he scored the winning run. Then they ran toward second base, where Womack was standing, tears rolling down his face. Tears of joy. He had been given a rare chance to make up for his mistake, and he had come through.

The Game 5 win gave Arizona their first postseason series victory; they continued their inspired play with a five-game beat-down of the Braves in the NLCS, a series in which Schilling and Johnson gave up a combined three runs in 25 innings. To the World Series, where Arizona faced a Yankees squad who had the advantage of being the three-time defending World Series champion and had the extra inspiration of playing for the memory of the 9/11 victims. The Yankees had the pedigree and the emotional advantage, but Arizona had Schilling and Johnson, and their twin aces helped Arizona win one of the greatest World Series ever played in seven games.

The Rundown

9. Arizona 2, St. Louis 1 (2001 NLDS)
10. Chicago 4, New York 2 (1908 National League makeup game)
11. Boston 12, Cleveland 8 (1999 ALDS)
12. Boston 5, Minnesota 3 (1967 American League)
13. Minnesota 5, Oakland 4 (2002 ALDS)
14. Boston 4, Oakland 3 (2003 ALDS)
15. Cleveland 4, N.Y. Yankees 3 (1997 ALDS)
16. L.A. Angels 5, N.Y. Yankees 3 (2005 ALDS)
17. Texas 5, Tampa Bay 1 (2010 ALDS)
18. San Francisco 3, Atlanta 1 (2002 NLDS)
19. N.Y. Yankees 5, Oakland 3 (2001 ALDS)
20. Seattle 3, Cleveland 1 (2001 ALDS)
21. Chicago 5, San Francisco 3 (1998 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
22. N.Y. Yankees 7, Oakland 5 (2000 ALDS)
23. Los Angeles 4, Houston 0 (1981 NL West Division Series)
24. Montreal 3, Philadelphia 0 (1981 NL East Division Series)
25. N.Y. Yankees 7, Milwaukee 3 (1981 AL East Division Series)
26. Seattle 9, California 1 (1995 AL West tiebreaker)
27. Chicago 5, Atlanta 1 (2003 NLDS)
28. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
29. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
30. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
31. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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