Since I started watching baseball in 1996, sixty-four different men have won a Most Valuable Player or Cy Young award as the best player or pitcher in the American or National League. And forty-two different men played in the greatest baseball game I have ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, the latter is thus the greater honor.
Declaring Game 6 of the 2011 World Series the greatest baseball game I’ve ever seen isn’t an especially bold take. You could make a case for other games, but nobody in their right mind is going to laugh you out of the room for this pick. It was an often-bizarre, often-exhilerating affair which would have been remembered to this day by St. Louis Cardinals fans had it occurred on April 27, 2011 and not on October 27, 2011, with a miraculous season’s outcome hanging in the balance. That the game occurred with such high stakes meant that it doesn’t just belong to St. Louis. It belongs to baseball as a whole.
The game remains such an institution that last week, The Ringer MLB Show dedicated a 90-minute episode to discussing the over seven year-old game. As a subscriber to the podcast, I was likely to listen to it anyway, but seeing the subject of the podcast nearly caused me to develop carpal tunnel syndrome pressing “download” on it. If there is a saturation point on Game 6 media, I haven’t reached it.
The Ringer MLB Show is a popular podcast, sure, but I’m not sure that this episode, like, put Game 6 back into the cultural zeitgeist. But also, I’ve never met a Cardinals fan who got sick of discussing it, so I’m willing to take that chance.
The 42 players in Game 6 range from future Hall of Famers to forgettable bit players, heroes of the night to goats of the night to guys who never actually played. But they are all a part of history, and even the Stuart Sutcliffes of Game 6 merit some recognition for merely existing. And thus, here is a ranking of all 42 players who were part of the greatest game I’ve ever seen.
42. Neftali Feliz–Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington made countless blunders during Game 6, but going to Neftali Feliz seemed like the right call. Feliz saved 32 games for the Rangers in 2011, sporting a 2.74 ERA, and if anything, it seemed like the Rangers should’ve gone to him earlier. But Feliz’s 9th inning went, famously, disastrously. To his credit, Feliz struck out two batters, but his lack of control was his undoing, and while he was entrusted with a two-run ninth inning lead, he allowed the Cardinals to tie the game and deprive the Rangers of their first World Series victory.
41. Mark Lowe–Lowe faced one batter. That one batter hit a walk-off home run, and before that, probably should’ve walked on four straight pitches. By sheer volume, Feliz had worse results, but it would’ve been impossible, given the circumstances, for Mark Lowe to have fared worse.
40. Lance Lynn–Eventually a reliable starting pitcher for the Cardinals, Lynn had an outing to forget in Game 6. He had a decent 6th inning, allowing just a single in between his three in-play outs, but he opened the seventh inning by allowing back-to-back home runs and later allowed a single, which led to Lynn allowing three earned runs on the game.
39. Rafael Furcal–Game 6 was an offensive supernova, but Furcal had a truly terrible game at the plate, going 0-for-5 as the team’s leadoff hitter (Tony LaRussa was the best manager in the game by default, but he wasn’t exactly submitting sabermetrically optimal lineup cards). Furcal’s low point came in the eighth inning, when with the bases loaded, he weakly grounded out to the pitcher on the first pitch to end a potential Cardinals rally.
38. Darren Oliver–The former Cardinals starter was an Extremely Veteran lefty reliever for the Rangers by the time 2011 rolled around, but he was unable to do his job inheriting a two-run 10th inning lead, allowing two singles against not-especially-potent lefty hitters and only recording an out thanks to a sacrifice bunt.
37. Jason Motte–The de facto Cardinals closer, Motte pitched a mostly clean top of the ninth inning, but in his second inning of work, with the game now tied and his leverage increased significantly, he followed a one-out single by allowing what very easily could have been a World Series-losing home run. By Win Probability Added, Motte hurt the Cardinals’ chances of victory by 40.6%, second only to Neftali Feliz for biggest negative in the game (Feliz’s stood at 42%).
36. Fernando Salas–After a mostly successful stint as closer, Salas was demoted to much more sparing relief duty for the Cardinals down the stretch and into the postseason. Salas allowed an unearned run in the 4th inning, and while it didn’t amount to any runs allowed, Salas made a throwing error of his own two batters after the Rangers took the lead. In the fifth, Salas allowed another unearned run and allowed two walks. Fernando Salas was the victim of two inexplicable errors which were not his fault, and he was arguably the most unlucky player in the game, but it’s hard to argue he really did much to help his own cause.
35. Alexi Ogando–The Rangers reliever had a rough series in general, and that Ron Washington put him into a bases-loaded jam with a one-run lead and one out in the sixth inning is yet another of his baffling decisions. Ogando walked in the tying run with the first batter he faced, and he walked the next batter in a plate appearance which included a wild pitch. Had Ogando not fallen into the extremely good fortune of a runner being picked off third base with the bases loaded, he would’ve become even more of a goat.
34. Ryan Theriot–Replaced as the Cardinals’ regular shortstop with the trade deadline acquisition of Rafael Furcal, Theriot entered the game via a 7th inning double switch, where his three plate appearances went quiet pop fly, strikeout swinging to lead off the bottom of the ninth, and a 10th inning groundout to put the Rangers one out away from winning the World Series. Theriot at least drove home a run in his third AB, but given the 14% drop in Win Probability for the Cardinals, this wasn’t exactly a desired outcome.
33. Esteban German–The Rangers bench player arguably should’ve been in the game as a defensive substitution earlier, but when the penultimate player to enter Game 6 entered the game, it was in an unlikely scenario for heroics, with two outs and a runner on first base in the top of the 11th. German was retired via a quiet 4-3 groundout.
32. Jaime Garcia–Garcia, at the time a promising young southpaw in the Cardinals rotation, got the start, and in the midst of Tony LaRussa’s influential acceleration of postseason bullpen usage, only went three innings. It wasn’t a disastrous start, but it wasn’t a good one either–Garcia walked two and struck out three, but he allowed five hits and two runs while throwing 59 pitches.
31. Nick Punto–Punto had a good season as an afterthought acquisition before the 2011 season for the Cardinals, but while he got the start in Game 6 at second base, his game wasn’t especially memorable. He struck out swinging in his first two plate appearances before being walked to load the bases against the aforementioned Alexi Ogando.
30. Matt Holliday–Holliday had two of the worst moments in the game: a dropped fly ball to lead off the top of the fourth inning (Rafael Furcal was rather inelegant on this play, as well, though Holliday was ultimately charged with the miscue) and being inexplicably picked off third base with the bases loaded, in the process hurting himself and having to be removed from the game. But Holliday avoids being in the deepest recesses of this list because despite this, he was actually a net positive for the team at the plate, drawing two walks and reaching on an error in his three plate appearances.
29. Mitch Moreland–Moreland entered the game in the seventh inning as a defensive substitution at first base (following Bill Buckner in 1986, teams are understandably quick to make this move with suspect defenders in Game Sixes of the World Series), and while his defense was sufficient, his offense was lacking. In two forgettable plate appearances, Moreland made two outs.
28. Endy Chavez–On one hand, Endy Chavez had an extremely forgettable game, pinch-hitting for the pitcher before flying out to end the top of the ninth inning in a very low-leverage appearance and being immediately lifted for closer Neftali Feliz. On the other hand, Endy Chavez deserves mention always for being an inner-circle “Had An All-Time Great Baseball Moment If Not For Cardinals Devil Magic” Hall of Famer. A teammate of his would join this club an inning after Chavez’s brief cameo. Chavez showing up is the Stan Lee Marvel Cinematic Universe cameo of Game 6.
(Seriously though, what was Jim Edmonds doing?)
27. Mike Adams–The presence of Mike Adams, who pitched part of the 8th inning for the Rangers, technically improved the Rangers’ odds of winning, but this was mostly circumstantial. After surrendering two singles, which brought the Cardinals’ odds of winning from 10% to 21%, he induced the weak inning-ending grounder from Rafael Furcal to put the Cardinals’ odds of winning at 7% with perhaps one inning left to go in their season.
26. Scott Feldman–Feldman has this weird tendency to find himself in awkward positions in which his actual ineptitude is magnified through little fault of his own. It isn’t Feldman’s fault that the Baltimore Orioles traded Jake Arrieta to the Chicago Cubs for him–he just went in the trade as dictated. Likewise, when Feldman entered this game in the 10th inning to replace Darren Oliver, he was handed a difficult situation–runners on second and third, one out, and a two-run lead. A single would tie the game, and following a groundout and an intentional walk, that is precisely what happened. He truly did not deserve to lose this game, and as he was able to retire the next batter after allowing the game-tying single, he was spared from this fate.
25. Octavio Dotel–Any pitcher who didn’t allow an earned run in this game for the Cardinals deserves a statue outside Busch Stadium, and the oft-traveled veteran reliever helped mitigate the damage in the top of the seventh. A single did expand the Rangers’ lead to three, but a huge strikeout with runners on second and third kept the Cardinals alive.
24. Colby Lewis–The Rangers starting pitcher, Lewis was kept in the game entirely too long, but he mostly settled in after allowing two runs in the first inning. His pitching line isn’t anything special: 5 1/3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K. But after what Rangers relief pitchers did, his performance looked a lot better in retrospect. I’ve decided to mostly not dock Lewis for his strikeout in a high-leverage, bases loaded appearance in the top of the fifth inning, because it was an unreasonable position in which to put Lewis.
23. Edwin Jackson–The major return of the Colby Rasmus trade from July, Jackson started Game 4 of the World Series as a pitcher, but was listed in Game 6 simply as a pinch-hitter. In a bizarre switcharoo, Jackson entered the game in the bottom of the 10th with runners on 1st and 2nd, as the team’s best remaining hitter (the entire bench had been cleared, and the better hitter Jaime Garcia had long since left the game), only to be removed for a superior bunting pitcher before Jackson saw a single pitch.
22. Gerald Laird–The sparingly used backup catcher for the Cardinals was, along with Edwin Jackson, the other player who didn’t do anything in this game. He entered a pinch-hitter and then was subsequently removed before he saw a pitch. He gets the tiebreaker because of his excitability from the dugout throughout the rest of the game.
21. Kyle Lohse–Lohse entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Edwin Jackson, and his sole assigned task was to bunt the runners at first and second over to second and third. He did exactly that, but he was within a few millimeters in either direction of bunting into a World Series-ending triple play, or of positioning himself to reach first base on a bases-loading bunt single.
20. Michael Young–A Texas Rangers institution, a man who came into his own as a serviceable replacement for Alex Rodriguez started this game at first base, and was very good at the plate, singling in the top of the third and belting a go-ahead double in the top of the fifth. Unfortunately, his defense was more than a bit lackluster, committing two errors before being replaced in the first by Mitch Moreland.
19. David Murphy–Not to be confused with now-Colorado Rockies now-first baseman Daniel Murphy, as has been the case throughout the careers of each, David Murphy entered the game for the Rangers as a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth inning, immediately drawing a walk which led to the inexplicable occasion of Colby Lewis batting with the bases loaded. In the top of the seventh, Murphy singled off Lance Lynn, and while he was forced out on a fielder’s choice, his presence on the bases allowed the Rangers to score another run later in the inning.
18. Nelson Cruz–This might be the most controversial placing I have on this list, as Cruz’s game is defined by his defensive miscue in right field in the bottom of the ninth inning which allowed the Cardinals to, down to their final strike, tie the game. But assigning too much blame to Cruz is short-sighted–it was a difficult play to make, and while most right fielders would’ve looked less hopeless, there were several far more inexplicable misplays in this game. But more importantly, Cruz had a really big game at the plate, scoring a run in the 4th after reaching on error and hitting a home run to give the Rangers a two-run lead in the top of the seventh. Cruz was there for his bat, and since he batted in the top of the ninth, he probably should’ve been taken out before he had the chance to misplay a ball in the bottom of the ninth.
17. Skip Schumaker–His defining 2011 postseason game came three weeks earlier in Game 5 of the NLDS, but the starting center fielder had a role in Game 6, as well. Schumaker’s first-inning single gave the Cardinals their first base-runner of the game, and he later scored the team’s first run via a home run. He was later removed from the game in a sixth-inning double switch.
16. Craig Gentry–A somewhat forgettable Rangers center fielder, Gentry singled in the top of the second and eventually scored the game-tying run in the inning. He was later removed for a pinch-hitting David Murphy.
15. Elvis Andrus–One of two players from this game who is still on their respective teams, the Rangers shortstop singled in the top of the first to put runners on the corners, setting the table for the game’s first run, and while his next four plate appearances were frought with frustrations, Andrus came through huge for the Rangers in the top of the tenth, singling with one out to give the Rangers their first hit since the seventh inning. Andrus then scored what would have been the team’s World Series-winning run.
14. Marc Rzepczynski–The Cardinals LOOGY faced three batters, including a defending MVP and a future Hall of Famer, and he got three ground ball outs. In a game in which everything went wrong for every pitcher, the Rangers had a very quiet top of the eighth inning thanks to the man they called Scrabble.
13. Allen Craig–By far the highest ranked player on this list who had a negative WPA, Craig’s case for immortality is severely hampered by two high-profile misses: a ninth-inning strikeout to put the Rangers one out away from a victory, and a tenth-inning groundout when a hit would’ve secured victory for the Cardinals. But Matt Holliday’s injury replacement had a moment which would grow in stature thanks to subsequent events–an eighth-inning solo home run which helped to tarnish some of the sense of invincibility surrounding Texas Rangers pitching.
12. Derek Holland–And by “invincibility surrounding Texas Rangers pitching”, I mostly mean Derek Holland. Holland, after pitching a gem four days prior in Game 4, entered as a reliever and aside from the Allen Craig home run, pitched well, going two innings and allowing only one additional hit. Holland even scored a run, for good measure, while wearing a jacket, which always looks silly and seems like a passive-aggressive move by an AL team to advocate for the designated hitter.
11. Jake Westbrook–The soft-tossing sinkerballer was (correctly) removed from the Cardinals’ 2011 postseason rotation, but he wasn’t a bad pitcher. His role was limited for the postseason, but he did get his chance to shine in the top of the 11th inning, allowing just one hit and no run and, meaningless as such a statistic might be, earning the win.
10. Adrian Beltre–Beltre was 1-for-6, and while the 2011 version of Beltre hadn’t quite become the consensus future Hall of Famer that he would become in his thirties, he did come up with an enormous hit, leading off the top of the seventh with a solo home run off Lance Lynn to give the Rangers the lead. A play which swings a team’s win probability 21% is generally enormous, but in this case, it was only the 6th biggest play of the game.
9. Daniel Descalso–The infielder, who broke through somewhat as a third baseman in the regular season, entered the game as a pinch-hitter for pinch-hitter Gerald Laird and remained in the game until its conclusion. Descalso singled in his first plate appearance in the 8th inning, and then singled again to lead off the bottom of the 10th inning, later scoring a run which cut the Rangers lead to just 9-8. Descalso was always a bit overmatched defensively at shortstop, but his presence allowed the Cardinals to remove the badly struggling Rafael Furcal from the lineup.
8. Yadier Molina–2011 was a new benchmark for Molina as a truly viable offensive threat, and he played well in Game 6. He drove in a game-tying run in the bottom of the fourth, he drove in another run via a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the sixth, and while it didn’t result in any runs, his one-out single with the bases empty in the bottom of the eighth eventually led to the Cardinals loading the bases. It seems impossible that Yadier Molina would ever be overlooked, but his Game 6 performance has been largely forgotten to history.
7. Albert Pujols–The best hitter I’ve ever seen, and probably the best hitter you’ve ever seen, was 2001-2004 Barry Bonds. And the greatest skill Bonds possessed wasn’t his 73 home run power, nor even his incredible plate discipline, but his ability to induce fear, his ability to convince opponents to do completely irrational things by his sheer presence. For Ron Washington, Albert Pujols was that. Pujols was just 1-for-5, doubling in the bottom of the ninth to help foster the team’s late two-run, game-tying rally, but perhaps even more memorably, he was intentionally walked in the bottom of the tenth, intensifying the situation for postseason heroics from a similarly capable hitter.
6. Jon Jay–Jon Jay was having a terrible postseason, hence why Skip Schumaker started in center field instead, but Jay redeemed himself once he did enter Game 6. While he started off with two groundouts, including a bases-loaded one in the bottom of the sixth, he singled in the bottom of the eighth to load the bases, and singled once again in the bottom of the tenth, eventually scoring the inning’s game-tying run.
5. Ian Kinsler–Chase Utley is the recent Hall of Fame-worthy player who feels the least like a Hall of Fame-worthy player, and Ian Kinsler is slightly poor man’s version of Chase Utley. And true to form, Kinsler reached base three times and drove in two runs in this game and it just doesn’t feel like that’s right. He walked to lead off the game, scoring the game’s first run. He had an RBI, game-tying ground-rule double in the top of the second inning. And he had a single in the seventh which gave the Rangers a three-run lead.
4. Mike Napoli–In all likelihood, the Rangers catcher would’ve been World Series MVP had Nelson Cruz caught that ball. And in this game, Napoli was particularly impressive. Napoli walked three times, once intentionally, and provided a go-ahead RBI single in the top of the fourth, while his 11th inning single was the last gasp of offensive breath for a Rangers team that otherwise seemed to be emotionally grinding down. And while Napoli was an offense-first catcher, by and large, his pickoff of Matt Holliday was a legitimately impressive defensive moment.
3. Josh Hamilton–Hamilton was battling injuries in the short-term, and battling a tumultous career full of mostly self-inflicted road blocks in the long-term. And Game 6 was the game of his life. His first-inning single provided the first RBI of the game, and he reached base in both the fifth and sixth innings, once on an error and once on a single. And most notably, his tenth inning, two-run home run off Jason Motte took the Rangers from a coin flip to win the game to 93% favorites. He did all of this not only while hurt but also primarily while playing in center field, a position for which he wasn’t ideal even on his best day. This could’ve been his career-defining game, but instead, like his teammate Endy Chavez five years prior, he became a relative footnote.
2. Lance Berkman–A home run which brings a team from losing an elimination World Series game to winning an elimination World Series game is always a big deal, and Lance Berkman’s first-inning home run is the great overlooked play of Game 6. The game was full of moments for Lance Berkman, who reached on a Michael Young error and later scored in the 4th inning, and then singled and scored in the 6th inning, and then walked and scored the game-tying run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. And most famously, Berkman singled with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the tenth inning, moving the Cardinals from 16% to win the game (considering the count, the odds were in reality much more narrow than 16%) to 63%. By almost any standard, Lance Berkman had one of the greatest individual games in postseason history.
1. David Freese–Through the first 5 1/2 innings of this game, David Freese was having a ghastly game. He was 0-for-2, including a rally-killing strikeout, and made an inexplicable error at third base, dropping a routine pop-up. He walked to load the bases in the sixth inning, giving the St. Louis area native some measure of redemption, but this was barely a glimpse into what would happen next.
A moment which brought the Cardinals from nearly eliminated to very, very much alive.
And a moment which would be easily the career peak for pretty much any other player, and probably wasn’t the most exhilerating moment for David Freese in this game.
It’s perhaps the greatest baseball game ever. It’s almost certainly the greatest Cardinals baseball game ever. And it is, statistically and spiritually, the greatest individual game in postseason history. I think it is distinctly possible, given his local roots and given his career arc, that no person in sports history ever had as much right to be as excited as David Freese was that night. And millions of us were able to share in that excitement.