One-run games: the mark of a true champion

ST. LOUIS - JUNE 28: Randy Winn #44 of the St. Louis Cardinals allows a home run as he attempts to haul in a fly against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Busch Stadium on June 28, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Diamondbacks 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Just when I call a bottom on regular-season heartbreak, Dan Haren has to go and hit a home run. Don't get me wrong—with that home run Haren's now hitting .435/.435/.630, worth well more than a win compared to the replacement level pitcher. (Cliff Lee doesn't even hit for himself—I wonder if Dan Haren's agent has put this into his trading deadline Power Point presentation?) But it doesn't really make me feel any better to know that I'm less surprised than I would have been had another heartbreakingly traded star pitcher taken our ace-in-residence out of Busch Stadium. 

What helps is that after everything—after that home run, and Randy Winn's Jose Canseco experience—the Cardinals didn't lose this game. There's nothing to take from the way they won, except for the brief and not-particularly-strong conviction, doomed to abandonment the next time Randy Winn has a home run bounce out of his glove, that every team has its share of terrible moments, and they even out, though not always in the same game, or with that kind of passion-play regularity.

With that in mind—with nothing at all to expound upon from this game in particular—I have prepared a list of other games that could have left me feeling this giddy, had things transpired just a little differently. 

June 27, 2010: Royals 10, Cardinals 3. Okay, this is a bad place to start. Short of Jaime Garcia not walking batters with two outs, there's no way for the Cardinals to win this game. It was just too awful. And that's what surprises me most about the idea that the Great Teams win the close ones, and the overrated teams just win blowouts. That is, I guess, what surprised me when I realized, upon first reading that idea in one Bill James book or another, that I was surprised by it. 

Watch this game. The Cardinals could not win this game. Bruce Chen could have slipped on a banana peel while fielding a ground ball and the Cardinals still couldn't have won this game, whereas a fairly accurate reproduction of last night's ninth inning, a 6-5 squeaker, could be performed by eighteen circus clowns emerging from a humorously small car labelled "Team Bus." The good teams make this happen more often. (Certainly more often than the Royals.) 

April 17, 2010: Mets 2, Cardinals 1. Here are some bad pitchers the Cardinals failed to hit in their 20 inning heartbreaker against the Mets: Ryota "Rocketboy" Igarashi, who I appear to have been wrong about; Fernando Nieve; Raul Valdes, a 32 year-old rookie. They could have hit any of those guys, of course, but the Mets failed to hit Felipe Lopez, so that's a little too general to work for me. 

More specifically: Joe Mather could have gotten a pop-up or a groundout instead of those two sacrifice flies with his medium-ball high and outside. I'm not even asking him to get ahead of a single hitter, or hit something consequential enough to get us some pitchers-hitting jokes for a week on ESPN. Just take the outs he got—sacrifice bunt (seriously, Jerry Manuel? You're going to let that be the first out Joe Mather ever gets?), sac fly, groundout, sac fly, short fly, foul out—and rearrange them. 

The Cardinals are 13-14 in one run games and 15-7 in blowouts. Winning and losing one run games isn't all luck, as I might have believed in my revolutionary youth, but if I had to pick a direction for these splits to go in, this would still be the one. (The Pirates are 12-12 in one run games and 2-22 in blowouts, which is pretty awesome.) 

The 2004 World Series: I've thought about this one a lot—it was my favorite team, and my least favorite series—and the only way I can think about making this one right is... okay, so Pedro Martinez has been reading about the 1904 World Series that wasn't, celebrating its hundredth not-anniversary that year, and he likes the cut of John McGraw's jib. McGraw, like AL fans of the 21st century, was convinced that his National League champs were already champs of the "only real major league", and decided against holding the second annual World's Series. 

So Pedro announces, in his delightfully patchy English, that the Boston Red Sox will not be holding the World Series that year, or even the World's Series, and that Jimmy Fallon will instead be appearing in the sequel to Taxi. The Yankees offer to play the Cardinals in a consolation American League Championship Series, but Walt Jocketty declines. 

Meanwhile, baseball fans everywhere think to themselves: These Cardinals won 105 games! Surely they can put up a challenge against an arguably inferior Boston squad! We can't just expect they'd be swept, and certainly not in a humiliating, soul-crushing way. The Cardinals are named champions by sabermetric fiat, and I don't spend November, 2004 in my room, listening to the All-American Rejects song from MVP Baseball 2003. 

October 26, 1985: Royals 2, Cardinals 1. Okay, so Don Denkinger makes his call, and then he says—"Hey, Jack Clark—gotcha!" Twenty-five years later, Jack Clark, one of the most engaging personalities in St. Louis, famous for his intoxicating mix of Scully-esque measurement and Buckian lyricism, is still at his playing weight of 175, and Whitey Herzog is going on thirty years as manager of the Cardinals, the first team to ever outfit a brand new, retro-styled stadium with astroturf. 

In fact, this might be the best way for any guilt-stricken umpire to get back into the press's good graces. Right now Jim Joyce will always be famous as the guy who screwed up a perfect game call. Tomorrow, Jim Joyce could be famous as the guy who called up Armando Galarraga and said, "You should have seen your face!

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