Game 6 of the 2011 World Series ended for the first time with back-to-back, seventh-inning home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz, a pair of blasts that surely put the Texas Rangers ahead to stay. It ended again when Neftali Feliz faced David Freese in the bottom of the ninth—down two runs with two outs and a 1-2 count, St. Louis was one pitch away from defeat. It was over for a third time when Texas’ Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer in the 10th, superseding the Cardinals’ amazing comeback.
After the game, Hamilton said God spoke to him before that crucial at-bat. “He told me, ‘You haven't hit [a home run] in a while, and this is the time you're going to,’ ” Hamilton explained. According to the Rangers outfielder, God’s word ended there: “He didn't say, ‘You're going to hit it and you're going to win.’ ”
The Rangers did not win, even with Texas reliever Scott Feldman getting two strikes on Lance Berkman with two outs in the 10th. Single to center. Tie game.
By the time Freese finally, undoubtedly won it for St. Louis with a home run in the bottom of the 11th, too much had happened for any one play to stand as the game’s turning point. In a 10-9 game, every hit and run is important but none of them is decisive. Sure, Cruz could have ended the game by catching Freese’s fly ball to right in the ninth, but the Rangers got—and blew—another two-run lead just a few batters later.
With each twist came a tactical decision, and in a game that defied prediction the two managers behaved exactly as you’d expect. With the Cardinals down two runs in the 10th, St. Louis’ Tony La Russa made the quintessentially La Russa-ian maneuver, pinch-hitting pitcher Edwin Jackson for pitcher Jason Motte, and then pinch-hitting pitcher Kyle Lohse for Jackson before the initial pitcher/pinch-hitter could take a swing. La Russa’s post-game explanation: “Lohse is a better bunter.” If that’s the case, then why didn’t La Russa put Motte in the on-deck circle, allowing him to send either Jackson or Lohse to the plate depending on the situation? Maybe one day I’ll be clever enough to figure it out.
In the other dugout, Texas’ Ron Washington continued his infatuation with the intentional walk. After ordering four free passes (three of them to Albert Pujols) in Game 5, Washington decided to walk Pujols again in the 10th inning of Game 6. This decision—choosing to put the winning run on base and face Lance Berkman rather than pitch to baseball’s best hitter of the last decade—didn’t work (Berkman singled to tie the game) and didn’t make strategic sense (over his career, Berkman is just as good against righties as Pujols). Even so, I can understand where Washington was coming from.
The sacrifice bunt and the intentional walk are baseball’s star-crossed opposites. The sac bunt, though in most situations just as dumb a strategic maneuver, has more credibility and stature—the word sacrifice makes it sound dignified, even noble. The intentional walk is also a kind of sacrifice, but it’s a defensive rather than an offensive one. As a consequence, the optics are reversed: It is lily-livered, pathetic.
I agree with Rob Neyer that the intentional walk is a travesty. I agree with Joe Posnanski that it is anti-competitive. At the same time, the intentional walk is fantastically compelling—the sports world’s most transparent crutch. MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince wrote that Washington’s call for four intentional walks in Game 5 was “bold, brave—and, indeed, some would argue boneheaded—strategy.” In truth, there has never been a bold intentional walk. When the Angels intentionally walked Barry Bonds seven times in the 2002 World Series, this was not an act of unparalleled courage. It was a decision made out of fear that the other team’s best player would win the game. It was cover-your-ass managing, a move made to outflank the second-guessers.
Washington’s intentional walk fetish reminds me of football coaches’ consistently illogical decisions to punt on fourth-and-short rather than go for a first down. As Brian Burke wrote on Slate earlier this month, NFL coaches “are playing to delay elimination and not playing to win.” By walking Pujols with a one-run lead and a man on second, Ron Washington ensured that the Rangers wouldn’t lose with one swing of the three-time MVP’s bat. In exchange for staving off an instant catastrophe, Washington increased the chance that the Cardinals would win down the line. (St. Louis’ win expectancy increased from 13.9 percent to 16.6 percent after Pujols’ free trot to first.)
In the NFL and in baseball, decisions are too often motivated by disaster avoidance. When you punt on fourth-and-1 or you intentionally walk Albert Pujols, you’re not just preventing the worst possible outcome. You’re also eliminating the possibility that something great might happen. In a World Series where great stuff keeps on happening, I’m hoping to see more of the same in Game 7. And I’m hoping more than anything that Ron Washington doesn’t intentionally walk his team off a cliff.