November 15, 2019

The Ultimate Seven-Game Fall Classic: Game Seven

November 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In part one of my Ultimate Seven-Game Fall Classic series, I featured Game One of the 1988 World Series between the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers, won by the latter on Kirk Gibson’s walk-off two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley, ironic because it was Eck who coined the phrase “walk-off piece.” Part two featured an epic 14-inning battle between the Boston Red Sox and Brooklyn Robins in Game Two of the 1916 Fall Classic in which Babe Ruth went the distance. For Game Three, I stayed in the Deadball Era and featured Dickie Kerr’s surprising victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series that was tainted by the Black Sox scandal.

For Game Four, I went with the Athletics’ amazing seventh-inning comeback from an eight-run deficit at the hands of the Cubs to an improbable 10-8 victory. Game Five was a no-brainerDon Larsen’s perfect game against the Dodgers in 1956. Game Six is widely regarded as the greatest game ever played on a baseball diamondBoston’s 7-6 victory over Cincinnati in 1975.

Many believe Game Seven of the 1991 Fall Classic between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves capped off arguably the greatest World Series ever played. You be the judge.

October 27, 1991—Atlanta Braves at Minnesota Twins: Comparisons between the 1991 World Series and the 1975 Fall Classic between the Red Sox and Reds were inevitable and appropriate. Four of the first six games were one-run affairs, all having been decided in the winning team’s final trip to the plate, including a 12-inning Game Three won by the Braves, 5-4. If anyone could speak to the comparisons it was Twins third baseman and Medford, Massachusetts native Mike Pagliarulo. “I kept thinking of the ’75 Series tonight. God, I sound like Pete Rose after that sixth game. But this was the greatest game I ever played in,” Pags told the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy after Game Seven. If the ’91 Series wasn’t the best after six full games, it certainly qualified after the seventh.

What made the 1991 World Series so compelling was that both teams had risen from last place in their respective divisions only a season before to first place and a league pennant. The feat had never been accomplished before in the long and storied history of the major leagues, then suddenly it was achieved twice in the same season. Either way, someone was about to make history. Tom Kelly, in only his fifth year managing in the bigs, was already in his second World Series after leading the Twins from a record of 74-88 in 1990 to a 95-67 mark and an eight-game advantage over the second-place Chicago White Sox. Billed as a “baseball throwback,” and one who wasn’t afraid to ignore “the book” and manage by feel, Kelly was offered the Twins job in November 1986 four years removed from copping three Manager of the Year awards at two different minor league stops.

Steve Rushin referred to the Twins as “men of the people.” Kent Hrbek liked to bowl, Kirby Puckett played pool, and Kevin Tapani worked for Federal Express during the offseason so he’d have something to do during the winter. “Our stars don’t seem like stars,” Tapani explained. “They’re more like…average guys, I guess.”

Bobby Cox, also a very successful minor league skipper, was in his 10th season, splitting his first eight seasons between Atlanta and Toronto before going back to the Braves halfway through the ’90 season. Unlike Kelly, Cox didn’t experience immediate success, winning his first division title in his ninth season and his first pennant in his 10th, when he guided the Braves from a 65-97 mark in 1990 to a 94-68 record in ’91.

Rushin likened the Braves to someone with a dual personality, calling them “alternately captivating and irritating.” “This team is somehow, at once, the worst-to-first Cinderella and the wicked stepmother Barbarella,” clearly referring to Braves owner Ted Turner’s fiancee, Jane Fonda.

The teams were fairly similar and evenly matched. Atlanta was slightly younger, scored more runs per game relative to league average (4.62/4.10), had a lower ERA (3.49) and was the most defensively efficient team in baseball (.714). The Braves ranked among the top three in all three categories. The Twins scored more runs per game (4.79/4.49) than all but three teams, boasted a better ERA relative to league average (3.69/4.09) and ranked third in the A.L. in defensive efficiency at .710, and ranked among the top four in all three categories.

Both possessed a solid mixture of veterans and youngsters, although Atlanta had more up-and-coming stars, while Minnesota relied more on older players. The Braves’ three best regulars were 30-year-old league MVP Terry Pendleton (.319/22/86), 25-year-old former Rookie of the Year David Justice (.275/21/87) and 26-year-old 30-30 man Ron Gant (.251/32/105/ 34 SB). Minnesota sported a trio of 31 year olds—DH Chili Davis (.277/29/93), first baseman Kent Hrbek (.284/20/89) and center fielder Kirby Puckett (.319/15/89)—and 27-year-old outfielder Shane Mack (.310/18/74).

The rival pitching staffs were also similarly built, both anchored by a veteran, but led mostly by kids. The Twins were led by 36-year-old grizzled veteran Jack Morris, a 216-game winner with almost 3,300 career innings under his belt. Morris went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA during the regular season, then beat the Toronto Blue Jays twice in the ALCS. But the staff ace was 23-year-old Scott Erickson who featured a hard sinking fastball on his way to a 20-8 regular season record and a 3.18 ERA. Kevin Tapani, 27, went 16-9 and paced the rotation with a 2.99 ERA, and 29-year-old starter-turned-closer Rick Aguilera pitched to a 2.35 ERA and saved a career-best 42 games.

The Braves also had a veteran in their rotation—34-year-old southpaw Charlie Leibrandt (15-13, 3.49)—and bullpen—36-year-old closer Juan Berenguer (2.24, 17 saves) and 32-year-old closer Alejandro Pena (1.40, 11 saves)—but most of the staff was made up of twenty-somethings, like 25-year-old ace Tom Glavine (20-11, 2.55), 21-year-old Steve Avery (18-8, 3.38), 24-year-old John Smoltz (14-13, 3.80), 23-year-old Kent Mercker (2.58, 6 saves) and 24-year-old Mike Stanton (2.88, 7 saves). Avery and Smoltz really came into their own against the Pirates in the NLCS, going a combined 4-0 with a 0.85 ERA in their four starts, and the staff as a whole allowed only 11 earned runs in seven games. The Twins’ pitching wasn’t as good against Toronto, pitching to a 3.33 ERA, but they plated 27 runs in five games and scored almost twice as many per contest as the Braves, who recorded an anemic average of 2.71.

Heading into the World Series it looked like it would be a match-up between the Braves’ hot, young arms and the Twins’ hot, veteran bats. The latter took Game One, 5-2, behind Morris, who held the Braves to two runs in seven innings to best his aging counterpart, Leibrandt, who could only go four. Minnesota also took the second game despite a four-hitter by Glavine, who surrendered only one earned run through eight but was victimized by a David Justice first-inning error that Chili Davis capitalized on by belting a two-out, two-run homer three batters later. Tapani was equally effective, allowing only two runs through eighth innings, and kept his team in the game long enough for them to score the winning run in the bottom of the eighth for a 3-2 win.

The Series shifted to Atlanta where the Braves took the next three to move to within a win of their first title since 1957 when they were still in Milwaukee. Game Three was a see-saw affair that went into the 12th inning knotted at 4-4 before Mark Lemke drove in Justice with the winning run in the bottom of the frame. Game Four was also decided by one run and came down to the Braves’ final at-bat in which pinch hitter Jerry Willard knocked in Lemke with a sacrifice fly to tie the Series at two wins apiece with the 3-2 victory. The Braves took the Twins out behind the woodshed in Game Five and pasted them by a 14-5 count, but Minnesota came back with a thrilling 11-inning win in Game Six in which Kirby Puckett belted a lead-off homer off Charlie Leibrandt in the bottom of the 11th to give the Twins a 4-3 victory and send the Series to a seventh game.

Still Tom Wheatley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch remained unimpressed. “Pound for pound and inning for inning, the 1991 World Series was maybe the most competitive in the history of horsehide,” he wrote. “But something was missing. As drama, it was thrilling but not gripping. The Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves offered plot but no characters. Each team lacked a marquee name, or a player with a decent nickname, for that matter. No good guys, no bad guys, no outrageous incidents.” Some people are just hard to please. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post was a bit more excited: “Is it possible that the best, perhaps even the most unusual, baseball story ever is on our doorstep and we have barely had time to hear it knock?”

Game Seven pitted Morris against Smoltz, a rematch of Game Four in which both hurlers threw well but earned no-decisions. Morris went into the seventh game of the ’91 Series with a postseason record of 6-1 and an ERA of 3.03, and had already copped a title in 1984 with the Detroit Tigers. Smoltz, a Michigan native, was a 17-year-old Tiger fan in 1984, who was drafted in 1985 by the team he grew up rooting for, but was traded to Atlanta in 1987 for veteran hurler Doyle Alexander. Now the boy was a man and was going up against his boyhood idol and one of the toughest competitors in baseball in a winner-take-all battle. Smoltz had already acclimated himself nicely to the postseason, having gone 2-0 with a 2.02 ERA and a 7.33 K/BB ratio in his first three starts, so this promised to be an epic duel.

When Lonnie Smith stepped to the dish to lead off the game, he shook hands with Twins backstop Brian Harper. “That was a nice touch,” announced play-by-play man Vin Scully. The pitchers exchanged perfect innings in the first before Justice reached Morris for a lead-off single in the second. Morris retired the next three Braves, then Smoltz ran into a little trouble when he surrendered back-to-back two-out singles to Brian Harper and Shane Mack before escaping the inning. Atlanta threatened in the third when Rafael Belliard singled with one out and advanced to second on a passed ball, and Lonnie Smith walked, but Morris retired Pendleton and Gant, and the game went into the bottom of the third with no score. And so it went. Smoltz allowed a one-out double to Dan Gladden, who reached third on a deep liner to right, but the Braves hurler fanned Puckett to strand the go-ahead run.

Morris surrendered a two-out double to Brian Hunter in the fourth but coaxed catcher Greg Olson to line out to right to end the mini threat; Smoltz hit Kent Hrbek in the hand with a pitch to lead off the bottom of the fourth, but set down Chili Davis, Harper and Mack on harmless fly balls and pop-ups. The Braves threatened again in the top of the fifth when Lemke led off with a single, moved to second on a Belliard sacrifice, then advanced to third on a bunt single by Smith, who dived into the first base bag just ahead of the throw. But Morris buckled down again, popped up Pendleton and struck out Gant to get out of the jam.

Then both pitchers got stubborn. Smoltz allowed a two-out single to Gladden in the bottom of the fifth, then retired the next seven straight. Morris retired six in a row before giving up a lead-off single to Smith in the top of the eighth. That’s when things began to get interesting. Pendleton smoked a shot to left-center field during a delayed steal and the speedy Smith, who’d stolen more than 350 bases in his career at that point, should have scored easily from first base. But an amazing thing happened on the way to home plate; Smith lost sight of the ball halfway between first and second and was deked by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and shortstop Greg Gane, who pretended to turn a double play. By the time Smith realized the ball was banging off the outfield wall, he only had time enough to advance to third. “I don’t know whether Lonnie Smith lost the ball in the crowd or what,” Scully announced over the radio, “but he could have walked home on that.”

“If you’re scoring, the play that probably decided the 1991 World Series goes Knoblauch-to-Gagne-to-Nobody, the greatest double play never made,” wrote Boswell. “Lonnie Smith still wonders where the ball is. He hasn’t seen it yet. He’s still watching Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne pretend to turn a phantom double play—a mime, a joke, a sucker play, a moment of genius…” Smith later admitted as much. “On the ball Terry hit, if I’d taken the time to take one look, that could have been the difference.”

Instead of a run in and a man on third with Gant coming up, the Braves had runners at second and third with no outs. Gant grounded weakly to first and couldn’t get the run home. Tom Kelly ordered an intentional walk to Justice, bringing Sid Bream to the plate with the bases loaded. Bream was 3-for-23 in the World Series at that point and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, prompting Scully to call him “the weakest link” in the Braves’ lineup. “And so like the matador looking at the bull, this, I guess, is that moment of truth they talk about so much,” Scully announced. The matador won. The Twins turned a real double play this time, first-to-home-and-back-to-first, to get out of the inning and the Metrodome crowd erupted into a frenzy. It turned out to be the Braves’ last opportunity to score.

It looked like the Twins were going to break the scoreless tie in the bottom of the eighth when pinch hitter Randy Bush singled and pinch runner Al Newman advanced to third on a one-out hit-and-run single by Knoblauch to put runners at first and third with only one away. Cox removed Smoltz from the game in favor of lefty Mike Stanton, who held left-handed batters to a .194 average during the season and allowed only one homer to a lefty all year. Cox had Stanton walk Puckett to load the bases for port-side swinging slugger Kent Hrbek, and the move paid off when Hrbek hit a looper to Lemke, who stepped on second for an inning-ending twin killing. “And each first baseman has come up empty in the identical situation. Can you believe it?” Scully incredulously asked his audience.

Morris settled down again and retired the side in the top of the ninth on only eight pitches, bringing the Metrodome crowd to its feet when he had two strikes on Lemke and was one strike away from his ninth shutout inning. When Kelly told Morris he was through for the night, the hurler insisted he stay in and finish what he started. “Who was going to take him out of this game?” Randy Bush asked later. “Who would have had the courage to say, ‘Jack, you’re done’? I don’t think anyone would have done it. If it was T.K., Jack would have punched him, kicked him—he might have killed him. He wasn’t coming out.” Kelly concurred. When asked what it would have taken to get Morris out of the game, the Twins skipper smiled and replied, “Probably a shotgun.”

When the Twins rallied in the bottom of the ninth it looked like Morris wouldn’t have to pitch the “112 innings” he insisted he could go if the game continued. Chili Davis led off the inning with a long single that was played well by Justice and was replaced by pinch runner Jarvis Brown. Harper laid down a bunt between Stanton and Bream that went for a hit and put runners on first and second with nobody out. Stanton injured himself on the play, pulling a muscle in his back, and Alejandro Pena entered the game to face Mack, Pagliarulo and pinch hitter Paul Sorrento. The Braves reliever escaped the jam when Mack grounded into a double play and Sorrento whiffed after an intentional pass to Pags, sending the game into extra frames.

Like a proud gunfighter, Morris strode to the mound and dispatched his enemies without so much as breaking a sweat, setting down pinch hitter Jeff Blauser on a pop to Harper, fanning Smith and coaxing Pendleton to ground out to short. That set up the climactic ending of only the second World Series Game Seven to end 1-0. “Okay, it’ll be hard hats, seat belts and Homer Hankies,” Scully excitedly announced going into the bottom of the 10th. Gladden smacked a broken-bat double to left to lead off the bottom of the 10th, then advanced to third on a Knoblauch sacrifice bunt. Cox had little choice but to intentionally walk Puckett and Hrbek to load the sacks and set up a force at any base.

Cox pulled his outfielders in so they’d have a chance to get Gladden at the plate on a shallow fly ball. They were so shallow that Scully claimed it looked like a slow-pitch softball game. Kelly called upon 28-year-old switch-hitter Gene Larkin to pinch hit for Jarvis Brown. Larkin hit a career-best .286 in 1991 and reached base at a .361 clip, but had little power, slugging only .373, and was battling tendinitis in his knee that held him to only three plate appearances in the ALCS and three in the World Series. When he stepped into the box with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the 10th, it was Larkin’s fourth and most important trip to the dish. “You can taste the pressure here in the dome as Alejandro straightens up,” announced Scully.

“The noisy home crowd of 55,000 was on its feet and creating a snowstorm by waving its white homer hankies,” wrote Ira Berkow of the New York Times. “And Larkin responded.” Larkin wasted no time, swinging at Pena’s first pitch and punching it into left-center field where it fell in for the game-winning hit. The Twins were champions by the slimmest of margins after an epic 1-0 victory.

Berkow called Game Seven of the ’91 Fall Classic “a gift from above” and claimed that it was the best sporting event anyone had ever witnessed. “Nothing was happening,” he wrote about the final game between the Twins and Braves, “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing but tension…It appeared that the best and concluding moments of this baseball season—maybe the best of any season—might last forever.”

Inevitable comparisons to past performances began in earnest. In 1968 Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich tossed six shutout innings apiece before the Tigers plated three runs in the top of the seventh en route to a 4-1 win. In 1971 Steve Blass and Mike Cuellar allowed only one run between them through seven innings before the Pirates prevailed, 2-1. In 1965 Sandy Koufax tossed a three-hit shutout to beat five Twins pitchers who allowed only two runs on seven hits. “With all apologies to the aforementioned Hall of Fame pitchers,” wrote Claire Smith, “Morris and Smoltz combined for a game that equals any achievement ever considered for display at Cooperstown.”

Morris was named Series MVP. “I don’t know where the strength came from,” he said after the game. “My arm was alive. I felt real strong, I don’t know how or why. Pitching two games on three days’ rest, this isn’t supposed to happen. The baseball gods in the sky must have blessed me tonight.”

They blessed us all, Jack.

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