World Series 2011: The What-Ifs Of Game 6

Lance Berkman of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single to tie the game in the 10th inning off of Scott Feldman of the Texas Rangers during Game Six of the MLB World Series at Busch Stadium on October 27, 2011 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

You're right to want to punch the next person who says this is a game of inches. But clichés do start for a reason.

How do you write about Game 6 of the 2011 World Series? There are all sorts of angles to take. So many angles. They're all squiggly tailed ideas, poking around an unfertilized egg of understanding. The egg was also the best baseball game most of us will ever see. The ideas are bobbing and weaving, trying to get in. There will be a writer somewhere who gets it right. The resulting article will be a star-child, floating in the heavens like the baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And after we read it, we still won't have any idea what in the hell just happened, just like in 2001. This is bigger than all of us.

Every baseball game has what-ifs. Every single World Series game that's ever been played was festooned with what-ifs. Should Manager Q have gone with Player Y? Should he have pinch-hit there, bunted there, brought in this reliever, that reliever, left in the starter too long, not long enough?

Game 6 of the 2011 World Series -- hereafter known as the greatest baseball game played since the advent of color TV -- had three what-ifs that were clearly defined and crystallized into the purest possible what-if form. They weren't what-ifs that branched off into some arcane decision tree of hypothetical scenarios. These what-ifs were if this were different, the Texas Rangers would have won the World Series on October 27th, 2011. They're completely unambiguous what-ifs.

What-If #1
Neftali Feliz's two-strike pitch to David Freese in the ninth
It was a 98-m.p.h. fastball. It wasn't a great location. But it was a 98-m.p.h. fastball. And it wasn't a bad location:



As an astute student of mathematical theory, you might have noticed that there's no "3" in that image. That's because it's obscured completely by the "4", which ended up as a game-tying triple. The third pitch of the at-bat was a strike. It was a swinging strike, probably on account of the whole 98-m.p.h. part. Feliz came at Freese with two off-speed pitches to start the at-bat, and when he finally threw a fastball, Freese was late. As just about every person who has ever existed would be.

The very next pitch came at the exact same speed. It had the exact same break and movement.

Feliz2_medium 

It was in the exact same location. One was a strike. The other wasn't the end of the World Series.

What-If #2
Nelson Cruz's missed catch on the David Freese triple.
The Rangers might not be in the World Series if it weren't for Nelson Cruz. They probably wouldn't. That's worth remembering, no matter what happens.

But a good defensive right fielder catches that ball. Cruz wasn't running at a full sprint; he was running at 80%, still judging how much carry the ball actually had.


It isn't just a good defensive right fielder who catches that ball. An average right fielder who sets up a couple of steps to his right might catch that ball. A poor right fielder, one who gets a better jump on the ball five times out of ten, might catch that ball. It was a catchable ball. Oh, man, how it was catchable. It was the last out of the World Series.

If he were able to sprawl out and catch it on a dive, it would have been the most replayed highlight in World Series history. The last out on a diving catch? It would have trumped Gibson's limping chainsaw, easy.

As is, the play will be only one of the most replayed highlights in World Series history.

What-If #3
Scott Feldman's two-strike pitch to Lance Berkman
Feldman has been a bit of a folk hero in the postseason. Whenever a Rangers starter leaked oil in the early innings, Feldman was there to clean it up. He was a relic from an earlier era, when the Rangers just couldn't find pitching. They had a bunch of kids who could barely crack 100 innings, and they had Feldman, who pitched so well that the Rangers rewarded him with a $16 million contract to buy out his arbitration years.

Then he got hurt. Then he was ineffective. He wasn't on the 2010 Rangers' postseason roster. He was a ledger item, something the Rangers wish they could erase with the back-end of a #2 pencil. And he clawed his way back from injury and organizational purgatory to be on the mound with a chance to record the last out of the first World Series win in Texas history.

He threw this pitch in the bottom of the tenth to Lance Berkman:


It was a two-strike pitch. A swing and a miss was a championship. A called third strike was a championship. Any sort of ball put in play that was turned into an out -- which happens about 70% of the time -- was a championship. Mike Napoli called for an inside fastball. He set up here:


And the ball went here ...


That's where it was supposed to go. They were definitely pitching to some sort of scouting report -- inside, inside, inside. But there's a chance that the scouting report read something like this:

Pitch him inside. Fastballs inside. Or don't. I don't care. He's Lance Berkman. Do what you want. I make $30,000 a year, and you're asking me how to get Berkman out? If I knew that, I wouldn't be driving an '89 Camry with a tape deck that doesn't work.

A pitch with a little more tail might have jammed him. An outside breaking ball might have gotten him on his front foot. A fastball above his helmet would have been called a ball, and the next pitch might have gone differently.

As is, it was a game-tying single. For the second time in as many innings, the Cardinals were down to their final strike of the season. For the second time in as many innings, the Rangers' pitcher threw the exact wrong pitch. Not a bad pitch, necessarily. Just the wrong pitch.

All of the narratives, all the angles -- whether Ron Washington made the wrong moves, or if La Russa made the right moves, or if Neftali Feliz choked, or ... -- they wouldn't be applicable if Feliz stepped a quarter inch to his left on the rubber. If Mike Napoli had called a slider instead of a fastball in either of the two at-bats with two strikes. If Lance Berkman was a little too concerned that he was being set up for a pitch away. If Scott Feldman gripped his fastball with .08 fewer pounds-per-square-inch. What if, what if, what if.

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