On October 5, 2011, Cardinals fans were treated to a spectacular baseball game. It was Game Four of the NLDS, the first of two elimination games. That is nothing new for this team, they have been in elimination mode since late August. As they have done consistently for the last month of the season, the Redbirds turned adversity into advantage and forced a decisive Game Five by defeating the Philadelphia Phillies, 5-3. We have a number of players to thank for this must win victory. Edwin Jackson pitched a gem, once he got past his typical shaky first inning. David Freese made us forget about all those ugly strikeouts with two swings of his bat. The oft maligned bullpen was unflappable again.
There was a turning point in the game, one of those truly special moments and it came in the sixth inning.
With the Cardinals hanging on to a razor thin 3-2 lead, Edwin Jackson suddenly lost his control. He would walk Chase Utley to start off the inning. How many times in baseball history has a leadoff walk come back to haunt a pitcher, especially in a close game ? This could have been one of those times.
Jackson’s difficulty with the strike zone would continue, and he would work the count full on the next batter, Hunter Pence. On the 3-2 pitch, with Utley running, he hits a ground ball deep into the hole at shortstop. Rafael Furcal makes the play and throws to Albert Pujols, trying to throw out Pence. It is going to be a close play, but seeing Utley take a turn at second base, Pujols steps into the throw and fires a strike to David Freese at third base. The throw beats Ultey by a wide margin and David Freese puts down his glove, tagging out Utley in a head-first slide. That play is so good that you really need to see it to believe it. I’ll wait. Go ahead, watch it a couple of times, it is that good.
The inning would come to a quick and drama-less conclusion following that defensive play. As it so often happens, the Cardinals would ride the momentum swing into the bottom of the inning and take control of the game. The big blow was a long 2 run homer to dead center field by David Freese. For a hitter that makes his living hitting line drives the other direction, that was a mammoth blast, and the result was a defeated Phillies team. Now look who has their backs up against the wall.
All of this begs the question – has anything like that Pujols play ever happened in a must win game ? I’m so glad you asked.
There are a number of examples of great catches that saved a game. Jim Edmonds, the human highlight reel, made a career out of doing exactly that. A line drive to give the opponent a late inning lead often found it’s way in to Edmonds’ glove, and about 12 feet of turf on his uniform as he dove to make the catch. Willie McGee did that twice in the 1982 World Series, once on an early game gapper and then late, reaching high over the centerfield wall to make a catch a sure home run ball.
A tough play that wasn’t made happened to Curt Flood in the 1968 World Series. It was a pivotal moment in that decisive Game Seven, and it gave the Tigers all the runs they would need to earn the win, and World Series title.
But a throw like Albert Pujols made, followed by a titanic momentum swing ? For that we have to turn out attention to Game Seven of the 1982 World Series. We have all seen the video of Bruce Sutter striking out Gorman Thomas, Darrell Porter throwing off his mask and then the two of them meeting on the mount for a celebration. That might not be how that series ended, if not for the right arm of George Hendrick.
To set up this particular play, know that both teams had their aces on the mound for Game Seven. Both pitchers were severely injured, Pete Vukovich had a torn muscle in his shoulder and Joaquin Andujar had been hit in the leg by a line drive a few games earlier and could barely put any weight on it. Pitching on adrenaline alone, both got through their respective first innings. But as it started wearing off, both pitchers began faltering, and it was just a matter of time before one team took advantage.
For a few moments in the fourth inning, it appeared as if the Brewers were going to do exactly that. Paul Molitor led off the inning with a sharp single to right field. The speedy Robin Yount followed that with a grounder to third. Yount’s speed prevented the double play, but the Cardinals did retire the lead runner with a force play at second base. The big blow in the inning came off the bat of Cecil Cooper. He hits a line drive into right field. Fortunately for the Cardinals, it was hit more towards the right-center field gap. When George Hendrick fielded the ball, all of his momentum was heading in the direction of third base. Robin Yount tries to take third on the Cooper single. Hendrick comes up firing a bullet to Ken Oberkfell. Just like the Pujols play in Game Four, the throw beats Yount, and all he has to show for his effort is a face full of dirt. And a bewildered look as the umpire gives him the out sign.
That one play changed the outcome of the 1982 World Series. Immediately following that outfield assist, Joaquin Andujar got a second win and started challenging hitters. The results were not always what he wanted, but if he had continued to work tentatively, he would have been shelled.
After the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth, Andujar challenged Ben Oglivie and the result was a long home run to tie the game. Still on the offensive, Andujar threw away a bunt attempt in the sixth and it led to two runs, giving Milwaukee a short-lived 3-1 lead. That lasted all of about 10 minutes because it was time for Vukovich to run out of steam, and the Cardinals took the lead for good in the bottom of the inning. Unlike Andujar, the Brewers defense never came to Vukovich’s rescue, and when he got into trouble, he stayed in trouble.
There was one last defensive gem in the game, and it came from Andujar himself, perhaps to atone for his earlier errant throw. With the tying run on first base, and two outs in the seventh inning, Jim Ganter hits a rocket up the middle. Somehow Andujar is able to get his glove on it and makes a brilliant play, throwing out Gantner to end the inning. Andujar, never one to let a moment like that go by, blew on his fingers as if it were a smoking gun, and Gantner took exception. There was a scuffle, but the coaches and umpires were quick to diffuse the situation, so the game went on.
We know how this game ended, with the Cardinals earning an improbable World Series win over the highly favored Milwaukee Brewers. Perhaps history will repeat itself again with another such win over the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS.