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The best World Series games since Fisk
By Joe Sheehan
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) normally writes for ESPN.com Insider. This is a special free version of their work. You can check out their web site at baseballprospectus.com.
The "greatness" of an individual game isn't something that can be reduced to a formula or a metric. We can't quantify drama, and it would be silly of us to try. What we have done is asked the Baseball Prospectus staff for their opinions on the five best World Series games since Carlton Fisk's legendary home run in Game 6 of the 1975 Series.
The results are heavy on games in the last 15 years, which may reflect the age of our staff. It's not any slight to the three New York/Los Angeles showdowns of the 1977-1981 period, or the exciting seven-game World Series of 1979 and 1982. It's just that the games you consider the greatest are the ones you got to experience, not the ones you read about, and our lists all reflected that fact.
Here's our top five:
No. 5: 1985 Game 6, Royals vs. Cardinals at Kansas City
No, Rob Neyer didn't get a vote, although Rany Jazayerli did. This game showed up on a more than a few lists, so it wasn't just the Kansas Mafia fixing the balloting.
The game is most famous for Don Denkinger's blown call on Jorge Orta's groundball leading off the ninth inning. With the Cardinals clinging to a 1-0 lead and three outs from a World Series victory, Denkinger called Orta safe when the journeyman was clearly out, a break the Royals would use to start a two-run rally, capped by a game-winning single by Dane Iorg, also a journeyman.
What isn't talked about is how great the game had been prior to that call. Danny Cox and Charlie Leibrandt hooked up in their second pitchers' duel in a week, following a 4-2 Cardinals win in Game 2. In Game 6, the two tossed seven scoreless innings at each other before another journeyman (journeymen were very big in 1985, although not as big as Journey-men like Steve Perry and Neal Schon), catcher Brian Harper, singled home Tito Landrum to give the Cardinals the lead.
While Denkinger's place in baseball history was cemented that evening, it should be remembered that the Cardinals helped him become a legend. After the Orta single, Jack Clark muffed a foul popup by Steve Balboni that could have helped the Cardinals get out of the inning. Given new life, Balboni singled; it was Jim Sundberg, running for Balboni, who scored the game-winning run. Darrell Porter also mishandled a Todd Worrell pitch that moved the winning run into scoring position.
History has affixed the goat horns to Denkinger while all but forgetting the roles Clark and Porter played in the Redbirds' demise. As we'll see, that -- and taut, low-scoring games -- are a common thread running through the games on this list.
No. 4: 1995 Game 6, Braves vs. Indians at Atlanta
The first of two 1-0 games on the list, this game featured one of the best pitching performances in recent World Series history -- and one of the most dramatic stories as well.
The Braves were coming back home to Atlanta needing one win for their first World Series title in a decade that had seen them have two near-misses. After three games in raucous Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Atlanta right fielder David Justice challenged Braves fans to display the same level of excitement -- read: noise -- that long-suffering Indians fans had subjected the Braves to during the week.
Justice's comments made the front page of the Atlanta newspapers and made him the talk of the Series. In the bottom of the sixth inning, though, Justice got the noise he was looking for, hitting a solo home run off Jim Poole that gave the Braves the lead.
It would be enough, because Tom Glavine was masterful. The left-hander shut out the Indians for eight innings, allowing just one hit before giving way to Mark Wohlers in the ninth.
As with the first game on this list, the combination of the stakes and the taut nature of the game made it great to watch. The Indians' lineup was loaded with power, and the knowledge that nearly every hitter came to the plate in scoring position added to the tension.
The subplot of the Series -- the Braves trying to escape their label as the Buffalo Bills of baseball -- was another factor in making this one of the most memorable Fall Classic games since 1975.
No. 3: 1997 Game 7, Marlins vs. Indians at Florida
The Indians don't have any World Series titles to show for their recent dominance; they did, however, participate in two of the four best Series games in recent years. If you really want to know if that makes John Hart feel better, you're free to ask him.
Unlike their Game 6 loss to the Braves in 1995, when they simply lost to a great pitcher on one of his best nights, the Indians lost this game because, like the Cardinals in 1985, they couldn't the final three outs in the ninth inning to win the Series.
Tony Fernandez had given the Indians a 2-0 lead in the third inning with a two-run single off Al Leiter and rookie Jaret Wright, who had already won three postseason games, tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball before turning the game over to what was one of the best bullpens of the decade. And it did its job: Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson and Brian Anderson got five outs and turned the game over to closer Jose Mesa in the ninth.
Mesa had his career year in 1995, with a 1.13 ERA and 46 saves in 48 opportunities, and was still a good pitcher in '97 (2.40 ERA). But just as the Royals had done a dozen years before, the Marlins put together a rally capped by an unlikely hero. Moises Alou and Charles Johnson rapped out singles, and with one out, rookie infielder Craig Counsell hit a fly ball to right field that scored Alou to tie the game.
The game remained tied until the 11th, when Bobby Bonilla led off with a single. Gregg Zaun was unable to get a bunt down, bringing up Counsell. He tapped a groundball to second base that should have been the second out, but Fernandez misplayed it, allowing Counsell to reach and allowing Bonilla to go all the way to third base. After an intentional walk and a forceout at home, Marlins shortstop Edgar Renteria, all of 21 years old, lined a two-out single to center field off Charles Nagy that made the Marlins the youngest expansion team to win a World Series.
Fernandez's error made him the goat, but it was Fernandez whose single gave the Indians their only two runs of the game, and it was Fernandez who had put the Indians into the World Series with an extra-inning home run off Armando Benitez in Game 6 of the ALCS. Mesa's ninth inning was the root cause of the Indians' loss, but falls into the same category as the misplays of Jack Clark and Darrell Porter.
No. 2: 1986 Game 6, Mets vs. Red at New York
The most famous World Series game since 1975, but not the best, according to Baseball Prospectus. It's also one of two non-decisive games to make our top five, although, as with the Royals/Cardinals Game 6, the details of the Game 7 that followed are often forgotten.
As has been written elsewhere, this game's place in history is aided by the cities in which it was played and the vast amount of ink spilled in its elevation. I also think it is helped by its timing: the game was part of what was probably the greatest October in baseball history, with two fantastic League Championship Series coming before it.
The Red Sox entered the game up 3-2 in the Series and in great shape. They had Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens going and, if they failed to win, Met killer Bruce Hurst behind him for Game 7. The Sox held a 3-2 lead heading into the eighth inning, but Clemens left the game and ex-Met Calvin Schiraldi, sent to Boston for Bobby Ojeda before the season, gave up the lead and set up the 10th inning.
In the top of the 10th, Dave Henderson -- whose ALCS Game 5 home run off Anaheim's Donnie Moore had saved the Boston season -- led off with another huge home run. The Sox added another run and went to the bottom of the frame with a two-run lead. Then history happened, and Bill Buckner became synonymous with "goat" across large swaths of the United States.
This ground has been well-trod by better writers (read "One Strike Away", for example), so I'll just touch on two points that are sometimes overlooked in the rush to lynch Bill Buckner. One, Buckner, hobbled with a foot injury, had no business being in the game, his presence there a result of John McNamara's decision to not put in Dave Stapleton as a defensive replacement as he had been doing all postseason. Two, while Bob Stanley threw the wild pitch that tied the game, it was Schiraldi who allowed the Mets to tie it in the eighth, then gave up three singles in the 10th to set up the dramatic ending.
No. 1: 1991 Game 7, Twins vs. Braves at Minnesota
The 1986 World Series had the most memorable moment since Carlton Fisk pogo-sticked down the first-base line, but this game, this masterpiece, was one of the best baseball games of the 20th century.
The game holds a special place in my own baseball history. I was a junior at the University of Southern California at the time, and had a ticket to see The Phantom of the Opera the Sunday night of Game 7. I spent most of that Sunday hoping for a fast game, or a blowout, so that I could somehow see the game and still get to the musical. My roommate, who had procured the tickets, couldn't believe that I was even considering missing Phantom for a baseball game.
The Series itself was an improbability. Both teams had finished in last place in their divisions in 1990, and neither was projected to make a great leap forward in 1991. The Braves, down 3-2 in the NLCS, shut out the Pirates over the final 22 innings of that series to make their first World Series since moving to Atlanta.
Game 7 was set up by the dramatic ending to Game 6. Twins icon Kirby Puckett won the game with an 11th-inning solo home run to center field, a blast that left the park not far from where Puckett had saved a two-run home run earlier in the game. Puckett hit the blast off Charlie Leibrandt, who had been brought in to start the inning by Bobby Cox, in spite of Puckett's ability to abuse left-handed pitchers (he hit .407 against lefties that year). The use of Leibrandt is one of many decisions that have caused analysts to question Cox's ability as a postseason manager.
Game 7 matched veteran Jack Morris, the Twins' hired gun and a pitcher having a great October, against the Braves' young John Smoltz, whose shutout of the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS was the beginning of his reputation as a big-game pitcher.
Morris and Smoltz weren't dominant, but they did toss goose eggs at each other for seven innings. In the eighth, the Braves' Lonnie Smith singled and Terry Pendleton followed with a double to left-center field. Smith was running on the pitch, and a Chuck Knoblauch fake caused him to slide into second base and prevented him from scoring. Ron Gant grounded to first base with the runners holding, the Twins walked David Justice intentionally and then Sid Bream grounded into a 3-2-3 double play to end the threat.
Smith sliding into second base on a double into the gap is the key mistake that people remember, but there are a significant number of people, among them BP's Michael Wolverton, who contend that Smith could have scored on the subsequent groundball by Gant, and that not doing so compounded the initial error.
What isn't in question is that Morris did a fantastic job getting out of the situation. While Smoltz would leave the game in the eighth inning, Morris went on to throw 10 shutout innings. In the bottom of the 10th, Dan Gladden hustled a broken-bat single into a double; a sacrifice and two intentional walks later, Gene Larkin hit a flyball single over a drawn-in Brian Hunter, giving the Twins their second World Series championship in five years.
And me? I skipped the show, suffering the barbs of my more-cultured friend. Oh, I finally saw Phantom a few years later, but while I can describe large parts of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series in great detail, I'm hard-pressed to tell you much about the Andrew Lloyd Webber production.
I'm just lucky, I guess ...
Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.