There is nothing like a Game 7.
The finality of a winner-take-all game with a championship on the line is indescribable. My biases in favor of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series as the greatest baseball game I’ve ever seen aside, I think the objective answer for greatest game ever has to be a Game 7. As great as the Game Sixes of 1975, 1986, or 2011 are, in each case, they merely set the stage for another, inevitably less exhilerating game. The tense walk-off affairs of 1960, 1991, or 2001 were the entirety of the season laying right in front of the teams involved. It is sheer terror as a fan and I love it.
Tonight, for the first time, St. Louis will experience a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, as the Blues square off against the Boston Bruins. This will be the 16th winner-take-championship game in one of the four major sports in St. Louis history: the Cardinals have participated in eleven such games, the St. Louis Rams participated in two, and the St. Louis Hawks participated in two. In those games, St. Louis is 9-6.
I constructed a formula for ranking the Game Sevens in which the St. Louis Cardinals have participated based on margin of victory, leverage, and having major Win Probability-swinging moments, and then arbitrarily weighed these until the results seemed about right. Yep, that’s how scientific of a baseball analyst I am. And since the Cardinals are 8-3 in Game Sevens in the World Series, this should be a pretty chipper read for anyone in the mood for St. Louis propaganda.
11. 1985–Kansas City Royals 11, Cardinals 0: The most famous moment of this game is Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog being ejected after getting into a somewhat understandable but undeniably petty argument with home plate umpire (and Game 6 first-base umpire) Don Denkinger, which doesn’t exactly reflect well on the game as a modern classic. The game was 5-0 by the end of the third inning and was never particularly competitive, with only Steve Balboni’s go-ahead two-run home run in the second inning registering as an even moderately interesting game moment. Bret Saberhagen pitched a complete game shutout, but this was completely unnecessary.
10. 1934–Cardinals 11, Detroit Tigers 0: The bottom two of this list were pretty easy to determine, with the only question being which was the worse game of the two 11-0 bloodbaths. I’m splitting hairs, but this game at least took longer before it got ugly (taking all the way until the third inning), and from a Win Probability standpoint, Frankie Frisch’s bases-clearing double to give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead was slightly more impactful than Balboni’s 1985 home run. Anyway, the point is both of these games were terrible and if you ranked this game ahead of any game but the 1985 one, you must really hate watching the Cardinals lose.
9. 1967–Cardinals 7, Boston Red Sox 2: It involves Bob Gibson shutting down the Red Sox at Fenway Park, so I understand having a sentimental attachment to this game, but it was fairly ordinary as far as a Game 7 is concerned. The Cardinals chipped away with two runs in the third and two more in the fifth, and by the time Orlando Cepeda hit a three-run home run in the sixth to give the Cardinals a 7-1 lead, it only amounted to a 6% jump in Win Probability, from 92% to 98%. There is certainly aesthetic value in Bob Gibson carving up Red Sox bats to the tune of 10 strikeouts in a complete game, but it just wasn’t especially dramatic.
8. 1931–Cardinals 4, Philadelphia Athletics 2: It wasn’t quite as close of a game as the final score suggests–the Athletics didn’t score until the top of the ninth inning and the Cardinals were up 4-0 from the third inning–but a game which necessitates a pitcher getting a save (in 1931!) is a start. And the game ended with drama–Philadelphia had put the tying run on first base, but a Max Bishop flyout gave the Cardinals their second World Series title.
7. 1964–Cardinals 7, New York Yankees 5: A lesser Bob Gibson Game 7 start creates more drama, if nothing else. While the Cardinals did have a 6-0 lead through five, a three-run sixth inning from the Yankees, coupled with a ninth-inning rally, left the outcome of the game and the season in some doubt. But while the Yankees did manage a pair of solo home runs in the top of the ninth, they never got the tying run to the plate, and the Cardinals persevered.
6. 2011–Cardinals 6, Texas Rangers 2: This game was inevitably going to be a letdown after the drama of the previous night’s sixth game, but this was itself a decent game that retained a razor-thin lead for most of the game and never got out of control. The game’s biggest moment, a David Freese two-run double which tied the game (repeating the outcome of his ninth-inning at-bat in Game 6 if Nelson Cruz were merely bad at right field defense rather than truly abhorrent), happened in the first inning, which diminished its game impact moderately, but a 20% swing is pretty big (even if it was his third-biggest plate appearance in as many attempts). The game reached a sense of inevitability after the fifth inning, but the game deserves credit for at least not being a complete letdown after the classic it succeeded.
5. 1968–Detroit Tigers 4, Cardinals 1: The 1968 World Series fell apart for the Cardinals, as they surrendered a 3-1 series lead and lost Games 6 and 7 at home. Game 6 was a blowout but they at least remained competitive in the series finale. The 4-1 final score doesn’t quite tell the story–the game was a classic pitcher’s duel between Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich for the first six innings, as neither team managed to score a single run. But the Tigers rallied in the top of the seventh, despite making two outs in their first two plate appearances. After consecutive singles, a Jim Northrup triple gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead, and a Bill Freehan double took the Tigers’ win probability, in the course of two at-bats, from 49% to 92%.
4. 1987–Minnesota Twins 4, Cardinals 2: Two years after getting demolished in a World Series Game 7, the Cardinals at least bothered to show up in 1987. They even held a 2-1 lead through the first four innings, thanks to surprising RBI from a pair of catchers, Tony Pena (that night’s designated hitter) and Steve Lake. But the Twins scored one run apiece in the second, fifth, sixth, and eighth innings, and while the big moments weren’t necessarily all that memorable (they tied and went ahead thanks to a Kirby Puckett double and a Greg Gagne single, respectively), the pace of their scoring meant that the game never entered the doldrums.
3. 1982–Cardinals 6, Milwaukee Brewers 3: A three run victory isn’t huge, but it is also not a crazily narrow margin. But only one completed inning in this game, the eighth, concluded with one team having more than a one-run lead. The Cardinals struck first in the fourth inning, but after tying it in the fifth, the Brewers went ahead in the top of the sixth. But the Cardinals went from a two-run deficit to a one-run lead in the second half of the inning with the help of a two-run Keith Hernandez single followed immediately by a one-run George Hendrick single. Two runs in the eighth put the game somewhat out of reach, and the iconic conclusion, with Bruce Sutter striking out Gorman Thomas, was anticlimactic.
2. 1926–Cardinals 3, New York Yankees 2: The first World Series title (in their first appearance) in Cardinals history didn’t come easy, as they needed a Game 7 at Yankee Stadium against a lineup which included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt on the mound. A third inning Babe Ruth home run gave the Yankees the early lead, but the Cardinals answered with three runs in the next half-frame. The Yankees pulled within one in the bottom of the sixth, but it was in the next inning that things got truly interesting. Starter Jesse Haines left the bases loaded, and Cardinals reliever Pete Alexander entered to strike out Tony Lazzeri, in the most significant strikeout in franchise history (the Cardinals were already at 82% to win when Adam Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran and they had another round to play–don’t @ me). Babe Ruth walked in the bottom of the ninth while representing the tying run, but was caught stealing, a fact which should be repeated in Cardinals lore as often as possible.
1. 1946–Cardinals 4, Boston Red Sox 3: This was the final Cardinals World Series game that was not played on television and thus it makes sense that how great this game was would be somewhat lost to history. But the game remained close throughout, with the largest lead coming to the Cardinals after scoring two runs in the fifth inning. But a two-run Dom DiMaggio double in the top of the eighth tied the game, and so the Cardinals were forced to scramble to win their third World Series in five seasons. In the bottom half of the eighth, Enos Slaughter led things off with a single, but quiet outs by the next two batters made it look like the game would be tied entering the final inning. And while what technically happened next was a Harry Walker double, according to the official scorer, it is known as the Mad Dash Home in baseball lore, as Enos Slaughter ignored a stop sign from the third base coach and scored from first base on what was, essentially, a single (Walker only advanced to second base after the throw home). This play, which took the Cardinals from 55% to win the game to 87%, increased the team’s odds of a championship more than any other play in franchise history, and remains one of the most famous moments the team has ever experienced. And then, because the game wasn’t exciting enough, the Red Sox led off the top of the ninth with two singles. But Harry Brecheen, in what would be his second complete game in three days, recorded three consecutive outs and the Cardinals won another title.