Four times, in the impending moments before the seventh games of the 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019 World Series, I quietly told myself, “I might be about to watch the greatest game in the history of baseball.” And I give myself chills every time thinking about it.
While 2017 was a bit anticlimactic, the other three games were quite good, though I would stop well short of referring to any of them as “the greatest game in the history of baseball”. But the reason I only give myself this pep talk before a World Series Game 7 is because I know how Game 6 of the 2011 World Series felt, and had I been able to gather myself before the next night’s seventh game, I would have realized that the only way I will ever top the thrill of Game 6 would be if it were a Game 7.
The stakes, first and foremost, are what define any of the greatest baseball games of all-time, and the stakes of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, which was played ten years ago tonight, were obvious–the Texas Rangers were playing for their first World Series in franchise history, and the St. Louis Cardinals, whose chances of even making the playoffs were dismissed entirely two months prior, were playing to extend the season another day. Realistically, any game in the discussion of the greatest game of all-time has to be a postseason game, probably a World Series game and probably a game played with a team facing elimination; there have been plenty of regular season baseball games as or more chaotic than Game 6, but a game on a June afternoon does not mean as much to those on the field or those in the stands as one played on a crisp October night.
Is Game 6 the greatest baseball game ever played? Well, it’s kind of a pointless question to ask. I would lean on the side of no–Game 7 of the 1960 World Series has all of the wild swings, not to mention a hometown hero walk-off story, of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, but in a winner-take-all game. Given what happened in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, I’m not even certain that it was the greatest game of the twenty-first century, though I will readily admit that Game 6, if not for context, was the more dramatic game. Is Game 6 of 2011 better than Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? I think so, but I also think the tenth inning of that game may be the greatest baseball inning ever played, and even though I lean towards 2011 as an entire game, I wouldn’t try to argue with a New York Mets fan about it.
Part of what makes Game 6 of the 2011 World Series great is that it is overflowing with great moments. Everybody knows the Joe Carter walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, but how well-versed are you in everything else that happened in the game? 2011’s Game 6 had a come-from-behind two-run home run in it that is almost completely lost to history because four other offensive moments were clearly more impactful, including one by that same batter.
Quantifying one’s favorite moments is a silly practice. If you said that your favorite baseball moment of the twenty-first century was some random game you attended on a Sunday in August because it was the first game you saw in person with your child, well, as long as you aren’t trying to convince me of why this should be my favorite game, I won’t argue with you. But what is perhaps my favorite baseball statistic, albeit one that is completely useless from an analytical standpoint, helps to solve for this subjectivity–Championship Probability Added.
I have written about it several times, but for the unacquainted, the simple description of cPA this: How much did a play contribute to a team winning the World Series for his team? One does not necessarily have to have won the World Series going forward to qualify. Let me invent a hypothetical scenario: Let’s say that a player gets a walk-off hit to win Game 6 of the World Series (in this particular case, it does not matter whether his team is up or down 3-2 in the series), but because the game was tied and the team had runners on base and outs to spare, his team already had an 80% chance of winning the game. His hit made the odds of victory 100%, necessarily, so he added 20% Win Probability. Either his team has a 50% of winning a championship via Game 7, or the walk-off spared his team of having to play a Game 7 in which they would have a 50% chance of winning. So you multiply the 50% by the 20%, and he provided a Championship Probability Added of 10%.
In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been 470 plays in which a team’s championship probability jumped 10% or more on a single play. The overwhelming majority have happened in the World Series, a material number have happened in the League Championship Series, and a few have even technically occurred during the regular season (the most famous being Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, which clinched the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants in a postseason tiebreaker series in the pre-LCS days). Amazingly, only one such play happened in the Legaue Division Series. Would you like to know what play that was? Here is that play.
This play, which turned the Cardinals from very minor favorites to win their winner-take-all Game 5 against the Washington Nationals to prohibitive, 92% favorites is amazingly only the 84th biggest play of the 21st century by Championship Probability Added–after all, even with a victory in this game, the Cardinals still only mathematically had a 25% chance of winning the World Series after that game. A worthy honorable mention, but at 10.27%, it was still a relatively far cry from the greatest plays of them all. And yes, Game 6 will be revisited.
#20–Aaron Boone’s walk-off–17.81%
For a man who only had 209 regular-season plate appearances with the New York Yankees, Aaron Boone had an astonishingly outsized impact with the franchise he now manages. A few months later, an off-season recreational basketball injury compelled the Yankees to trade for Álex Rodríguez to replace him at third base, but for now, Boone notched an extra-innings walk-off against Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox to win Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. As there were no outs, the Yankees were still favorites in the game, but locking down a World Series bid is certainly helpful.
#19–Tino Martinez’s game-tying Game 4 blast–17.9%
The 2001 World Series was certainly the greatest World Series of the 21st century so far, and is a credible contender for the greatest ever, and with the New York Yankees down 2-1 in the series and 3-1 in the game, down to their final out, future St. Louis Cardinals moper Tino Martinez hit the first of three back-breaking home runs launched off Arizona Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim in the span of two days. Although Derek Jeter’s walk-off during the next inning, which earned him the “Mr. November” moniker (Tino’s blast came while it was still October 31), went down in history, the home run which dragged the Yankees from 5% heavy underdogs to 54% to win the game was slightly more impactful.
#18–Mariano Rivera’s grand mistake–18.24%
Later in the same series, the only unanimous Hall of Famer in the history of baseball had the lowest point of his career–Yankees closer Mariano Rivera inherited a one run lead, but after allowing a lead-off single to Mark Grace, a bunt off the bat of catcher Damian Miller came back to Rivera. But a poor throw allowed pinch-runner Dave Dellucci to advance to second base while Miller made it to first, and suddenly, the Diamondbacks, despite trailing in the game, were World Series favorites. Perhaps the most incredible part of this play is that this was only the third-most impactful moment of this half-inning.
#17–Paul Konerko’s Game 2 grand slam–18.58%
Despite the 2005 World Series being a sweep by the Chicago White Sox, each individual game was competitive, with Game 2 being the classic of the group. And in the seventh inning, the Houston Astros had built a two-run lead. But with two outs, the bases were loaded for Paul Konerko, a beloved figure on the South Side of Chicago, and Konerko, with one swing of the bat, took the game from Houston’s big series comeback to setting the course for a White Sox sweep, moving the game odds from 28% to 86% with one swing of the bat.
#16–Jay Bell is why we say to Never Bunt–18.7%
Honestly, I do think sabermetricians tend to overdo the whole “never bunt” thing. Yes, teams bunt (or, post-Moneyball, bunted) too much, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for it. And Bob Brenly nearly made a fatal mistake one batter after Mariano Rivera gifted the Arizona Diamondbacks first and second base with nobody out and the World Series on the line. That Jay Bell’s bunt attempt did not work well–it was fielded cleanly by Rivera and the lead runner was thrown out–should not distract from the fact that the Diamondbacks already had a fast runner in scoring position and were sacrificing Bell, and more importantly adding an out to their total, in order to get a worse hitter to the plate. Bad process, even worse result. Well, for one batter.
#15–Javier Báez misses his hero moment–18.78%
This is a play I admittedly forgot happened, but in an alternate universe where Cleveland wins the 2016 World Series and the Chicago Cubs let the Theo Epstein-era rebuild come and go without snapping the franchise’s World Series drought, we would never stop talking about it. For those who forgot, in Game 7 of the World Series, in the top of the ninth inning, the Cubs and Indians are all square at six runs apiece. Javy Báez comes to the plate with one out and a runner on first base, but thanks to a stolen base and an error, the go-ahead run is now on third base. Báez is a deep fly ball away from easily scoring the quick-footed Jason Heyward, who is ninety feet away from paydirt. But then, with a full count, Báez…bunted. And it went foul. And it was out. Why on Earth would he do this? In a career that seemingly oscillates between hit or miss with every single moment, this was a moment that had a real chance of permanently haunting the future MVP candidate.
#14–Alex Bregman walks off the century’s most chaotic game–19.34%
Game 5 of the 2017 World Series felt like a fever dream–it was a dizzying offensive explosion that felt like if you made Game 6 in 2011 pound a case of Four Lokos. It was a great pleasure to watch as a non-partisan, but eventually, the game which was 12-12 entering extra innings simply had to end. We all had work the next day, after all, and Alex Bregman, pre-America hating the Houston Astros, obliged with a walk-off single that was one of eight plays in the game to influence the win probability of the game by 20% or more.
#13–David Freese’s walk-off home run–20.18%
Only in comparison to the rest of the sheer madness that was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series could a solo home run to walk off a do-or-die World Series game be considered mildly anticlimactic. But David Freese, who is not even close to finished on this list, had to “settle” for this home run. But a play that took the St. Louis Cardinals from minor game favorites (with zero outs in the bottom of the inning of a tied game, the Cardinals simply had more cracks at victory) to forcing a seventh game was guaranteed a spot on this list.
#12–David Freese’s encore double–20.32%
Although far less remembered than the David Freese highlight which precedes it on this countdown, David Freese’s next plate appearance–a two-RBI double with shades of his Game 6 triple in the first inning of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series (more to follow) was actually a slightly more impactful play for one simple reason–it was Game 7. When Freese hit his home run, the Cardinals were still a coin-flip to win the World Series, because there was another game coming the next night. But when Freese once again brought home Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman, he took the Cardinals, trailing 2-0 after the top of the first, from only a 33% chance of taking home a World Series crown that night to favorites to do so.
#11–Yadier Molina (???) puts the Cardinals ahead in the 2006 NLCS–20.71%
Before he established himself as a competent hitter, Yadier Molina was regarded as a glove-only catcher, which made his go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS against the New York Mets that much more shocking. Molina capped the massive upset with a two-run home run to break a tied game with even win probability wide open. The home run is the most championship-impactful moment of the 21st century to occur outside of the World Series, and it remains the fifth-biggest non-World Series moment in baseball history.
#10–Josh Hamilton’s World Series capper that wasn’t–23.04%
In a World Series game that was littered with moments that felt like they would go down in history as the big moment that everybody would remember, this was the example which benefited the Texas Rangers. While the preceding Elvis Andrus single made the Rangers even-money to clinch the the franchise’s first World Series title that night, Hamilton’s mammoth blast into the right-center field bleachers made them prohibitive favorites, with the Cardinals now lingering in single-digits. And while subsequent events, of course, rendered Hamilton’s home run nothing more than an interesting footnote to history, it remains worthy of commemoration for what it meant in the moment.
#9–Alfonso Soriano sets up the Yankees title that never came–23.12%
Speaking of major go-ahead home runs which were lost to history, there is Alfonso Soriano’s go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. The dinger, which took the Yankees from a coin-flip to nearly three-in-four favorites to lock down their fourth consecutive World Series, is now a relic of history, in what is arguably an extended metaphor for Alfonso Soriano, who was at the peak of his powers a very good player and arrived in New York one year too late to win a World Series title, was once an MVP finalist in the Bronx and is now mostly remembered as the guy they traded for Álex Rodríguez, and now has an almost entirely undeserved reputation as a poor defensive left fielder, when in reality guys who make a bunch of errors in left field are typically just really good at getting to more balls than most.
#8–Scott Brosius makes Yankees Devil Magic seem truly real–24.19%
Like all good and virtuous Yankees haters, I stayed true to my principles during the 2001 World Series, and like all good and virtuous Yankees haters, Scott Brosius made me surrender to the inevitable when, in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5, he belted a game-tying, two-run home run off the much-maligned Byung-Hyun Kim, taking a Yankees team with a 95% chance of heading back to Arizona needing to win two games on the road to win the World Series to favorites to win the World Series. That it was Brosius, the off-kilter Yankees foundling, who hit the home run and was immediately elated does warm my heart a little, though I can’t pretend that hindsight of knowing what would eventually happen has not informed that.
#7–Lance Berkman wins the battle of the beards–25.42%
Although it lacked the pop of some of the most well-remembered moments of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Berkman’s single off Scott Feldman to level the game at nine apiece in the bottom of the tenth inning would, by almost any other standard, be regarded as one of the sport’s iconic moments. Although Rangers manager Ron Washington hurt his team’s Win Probability by intentionally walking Albert Pujols (while Pujols was, of course, a legendary hitter, Berkman had been the more consistently dominant hitter throughout the 2011 season and into the postseason), the Cardinals’ odds still stood at just 16% when the plate appearance began, and the odds had diminished once Berkman got to two strikes, but following his single, the Cardinals became favorites.
#6–David Freese’s triple–29.08%
Over a stretch of three consecutive plate appearances, David Freese had three of the thirteen most impactful plate appearances of this century, and it was this one–his first of the run–that made the most impact. With the Cardinals down to their final out (and eventually down to their final strike), the team’s game-tying run still stood 270 feet away (and given that it stood in the form of thirty-five year-old Lance Berkman, it felt much further), and Freese entered the plate appearance with the Cardinals at just 8% to force a seventh game in the World Series, but by the time Freese dusted himself off at third base, still grappling with the extent to which his life had just changed forever, the Cardinals had tied the game and were in the driver’s seat. While the subsequent batter, Yadier Molina, made the inning’s third out, and the subsequent events added further noise to the moment, Freese’s triple remains the iconic play of arguably the century’s iconic baseball game.
Every remaining entry on this list occurred in Game 7 of the World Series, when Championship Probability Added maximizes. Of the top sixteen moments on this list, fifteen occurred in a World Series Game 7 or in one of the three other scenarios tied for second-highest leverage moment producer–a World Series Game 6, a World Series Game 5 in which the series is tied, or an LCS Game 7 (or a pre-LCS tiebreaker, such as the Bobby Thomson home run, though that isn’t relevant when discussing plays of the 21st century). For a play to reach these heights in a World Series Game 4 makes it seem like the system is broken. It takes a massive game swing for this to happen, and in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, a jump from 18% to win Game 4 (a loss would put them down 3-1 to the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers) to 100% can have that effect. Because of the asterisky nature of the 2020 season and the lack of home crowd roar thanks to the game being played at a neutral site, the moment may lose its luster (also, this is the only play in the top twenty I did not watch live, so I tend to forget about it as well), but it is chaos.
#4–Ben Zobrist’s 108-years-in-the-making double–31.27%
While the pieces for the Chicago Cubs were starting to come together already, with runners on first and second and just one out for Ben Zobrist when he doubled, driving in the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, it took Zobrist as the catalyst to take the Cubs from slight favorites to overwhelming favorites in extra innings of a World Series game that was going to give one team its first World Series title in at least 68 years. Driving in Albert Almora, of course, was the headline, but that Zobrist hit a double rather than a mere single allowed Anthony Rizzo to advance to third base, from which he would eventually score what would become the World Series-winning run for the Cubs.
This is the final moment on the list which benefits the visiting team, and the lack of wild, over-the-top crowd roar really does have an impact on how remembered a moment is. But despite Game 7 of the 2019 World Series eventually turning into a relatively moderate 6-2 final score in favor of the Washington Nationals, the impact in the moment of surprise postseason hero Howie Kendrick was enormous. Although Anthony Rendon’s home run two batters earlier to chip away at the Houston Astros lead got things rolling, Kendrick’s two-run blast in the seventh inning took the Nats from essentially one-in-three underdogs to two-in-three favorites to clinch their first World Series title, and in a World Series where the toxicity of the Astros had made the Nationals the popular rooting interest, this was truly A Moment.
#2–Rajai Davis salvages Game 7 for the Cleveland Indians–39.04%
It is the fourth-biggest moment in baseball history by Championship Probability Added, and it is the biggest moment for a player whose team did not go on to win the World Series. But while Davis’s eighth inning home run to tie Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, a game which Cleveland trailed by two runs, did not eventually lead to a title for Cleveland, few moments have as high of an approval rating as Davis’s home run. For Cleveland, the jubilance on the face of Rajai Davis (aand on the faces of thousands of fans in attendance) makes for a beautiful moment. For any Cubs fan with a soul (and, admittedly, hindsight), it meant that the heroes of their World Series triumph could be a bunch of guys who aren’t Aroldis Chapman. And for neutral observers, it meant heightened drama under the most exhilerating of circumstances.
#1–Tony Womack saves the Arizona Diamondbacks–49.75%
Number one with a bullet is this moment, which is a far less replayed moment than the Luis Gonzalez walk-off single which came two batters later but which was far more impactful for Arizona’s championship chances (since the bases were loaded for Gonzalez and the game was tied, the Diamondbacks were a relatively robust 84% favorites to win the game and thus the World Series). In this moment, Tony Womack, with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, came to the plate with runners on first and second, and the relatively light-hitting Womack belted a double to score Midre Cummings from second base and put Jay Bell on third base–the moment not only gave the Diamondbacks the run they desperately needed, but it put them in great position to notch the winning run in regulation. Only two plays in baseball history–Hal Smith’s go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series and Tris Speaker’s game-tying single in the bottom of the tenth inning in not-a-typo Game 8 of the 1912 World Series (regrettably, no video is available) to capitalize on a play that 1912 baseball writers somehow agreed to call “Snodgrass’s Muff”–were bigger than Tony Womack’s two-out double in 2001.