MILWAUKEE — Down two games to none just a few days ago, the Brewers had little hope of a World Series. Today, as I stand on the County Stadium infield with Pete Ladd‘s cap in my hand, the fans finally trickling back into the stands, we can say it: The Milwaukee Brewers are American League Champions.
Yes, after yet another heart-stopping, come-from-behind performance on Sunday, the Brewers beat the Angels 4-3 to advance to the World Series against either the Atlanta Braves or St. Louis Cardinals (the Cardinals lead two games to none and play tonight in Atlanta).
Declaring that baseball is a “game of inches” may be cliche, but today’s pennant deciding game was a prime example. There were several plays and non-plays, bounces of chance and clutch displays of amazing skill that led us to this celebratory stage. The game may have lasted three hours and one minute, but it was boiling over with memorable moments to last a lifetime. Let’s break it down…
Poor defense could have played the Brewers out of the game early, committing four errors in the first four innings.
With one out in the first and a runner on second, Reggie Jackson hit a liner at Molitor, who made a nice diving catch. However, Molitor then tried to make a quick throw to second to double up Downing, but no one was covering and the throw hit Downing on the helmet. The errant throw allowed Downing to move to third. The next batter, Fred Lynn, continued to destroy Brewers pitching by hitting a line drive base hit into left field that Oglivie misplayed. His error allowed Lynn to move to second. While allowing Lynn to move up wasn’t damaging (he would not score), Oglivie may have had a shot at Downing at home if not for the combination of the two errors. Frankly, the Brewers were lucky to allow only one run in the first.
With a runner on second and no one out in the fourth, Bobby Grich laid down a bunt towards first. Cecil Cooper picked it up, pulled the ball out of his glove and tagged Grich, who was moving into foul territory to avoid the tag. The problem was that Cooper was holding the ball in his bare hand and tagged Grich with an empty glove. Grich was initially called out, but after the Angels complained, home plate umpire Don Denkinger reversed the call and California had runners at the corners with no one out. Cooper did not tag Grich, this is true. The actual question is whether Grich ran outside of the baseline to avoid the tag. Regardless, it was ruled a sacrifice and an error on Cooper.
It would be a costly error. After Foli popped out to Cooper for the first out, Bob Boone executed his second squeeze bunt of the series to score DeCinces from third. While Boone would be safe on the play, it’s unlikely the Angels attempt a squeeze bunt had Grich been tagged out, making it two outs with Boone at the plate and a runner on third.
That said, it again could have been worse. Brian Downing grounded into an inning ending double play to keep the score at 3-1 Angels.
That double play in the fourth was the start of a new Brewers defense in this game. Up until that point, Milwaukee’s glovemen appeared content to throw the game away. From that poing forward, they did all thew could to save it.
The next big, game saving play came in the fifth. With one down and Reggie Jackson at first, Fred Lynn hit a bouncing ball over Cecil Cooper for a hit. Charlie Moore charged it down the first base line, and made a perfect throw on a line straight into Molitor’s glove without a bounce to nail Jackson. It was an unbelievable throw for the second out of the inning. Don Baylor, the next batter, would get another base hit that would have scored Jackson to make it a 4-2 game. Instead, the Angels did not score, and it remained 3-2. The Angels would have other opportunities to test Moore’s arm throughout the game, and each time they would pass.
The biggest play of the game was made by the most unlikely of heroes. Gorman Thomas is noticeably hobbled by a sore right knee, and it is affecting his play at the plate and in the field. With the Brewers up 4-3 in the eighth, Harvey Kuenn decided to lift Gorman from the game in favor of the speedy Marshall Edwards. The move would pay off almost immediately.
With one down, Don Baylor tested the new fielder with a rocket into the gap in left center. Edwards raced back to the track, leaping and crashing into the wall. The ball would have hit the top of the wall, but instead rested comfortably in the young center fielder’s glove. Doug DeCinces would then connect on a base hit into right that undoubtedly would have scored Baylor. Edwards saved a run.
Between these two plays, the Brewers defense saved at least two runs in spectacular fashion. Without either play, it would likely have been a different conclusion.
Paul Molitor led off the first inning with a line drive base hit into left field. Off the bat of any other hitter, it’s an automatic single. The ball was not in the gap, but was one that Downing charged head on. Molitor, though, was thinking two bases as soon as he hit it. The grass wet from rain, the ball slowed on its way to Downing and Molitor took second easily. Robin Yount then moved Molitor over to third on a ground out.
With one down, Cecil Cooper hit a ground ball to Doug DeCinces at third. DeCinces was distracted by Molitor at third and faked him back to the base before throwing a ball in the dirt to first. Molitor’s presence on third caused the throwing error, and there were runners on the corners and one out. If Molitor had been on second, he would have stayed there with the grounder to the left side, and Cooper is undoubtedly thrown out for the second of the inning.
Then, with one down instead of two, Ted Simmons hit a sacrifice fly that scored Molitor. Molitor’s single that turned into a double not only kept the number of outs to one instead of two, but it allowed him to get to third sooner to be in position for the sacrifice fly. That run was entirely thanks to Molitor.
While the defense began turning things around in the fourth, the offense would not cooperate when given the opportunities in the middle innings. Missed opportunities at the plate — and an unfortunately placed grounder — nearly cost this team the game.
With Molitor and Gantner on 1st and 2nd and no outs in the 3rd, Robin Yount hit a smash right at Doug DeCinces at third, who was a step away from the bag. DeCinces quickly stepped on third and fired to second for a double play. Grich was taken out on a slide by Molitor, but otherwise it was very close to a triple play. It was a well hit ball, but it resulted in two outs and a runner on first. The Brewers would not be able to score in the third, and remained down 2-1.
In the fifth inning and the Angels leading 3-2, Cecil Cooper came up in his first clutch opportunity with two down and runners at first and second. Cooper struck out, and the Angels remained in the lead.
Ben Oglivie didn’t play in Saturday’s game. The decision was likely two fold: Oglivie had gone 1-for-11 in the ALCS, and he injured his ribs in a collision with the wall on a Fred Lynn double in Game 3. The switch to Mark Brouhard for Game 4 proved to be one of the most ingenious moves of the series, as the back-up outfielder would key the Brewers win.
Oglivie returned to the lineup today, and he took several awkward swings that would lead observers to believe that his sore ribs were affecting his play. However, with one down in the bottom of the fourth, Oglivie hit a Bruce Kison changeup over the right field wall to make it a 3-2 game.
The run was crucial for an offense having trouble scoring. It kept the Brewers close and made the eventual win possible.
In a series with an unending list of story lines, the emergence of the Brewers bullpen is near the top. It was this group that struggled so mightily during the past couple of months, giving away several leads and wins along the way. But relief pitching was this team’s shining star in the ALCS.
With one down in the seventh, Brewers starter Pete Vuckovich walked Rod Carew. Harvey Kuenn summoned lefty Bob McClure, who induced a Reggie Jackson inning-ending double play on his first pitch. McClure would then cruise through the eighth, aided significantly by Edwards’ play in the outfield.
McClure would give up a lead-off single to Ron Jackson in the top of the ninth with a one run lead. Pete Ladd then came on to replace McClure. Bob Boone bunted over the runner for the first out, and Ladd got the final two batters to ground out to end the game.
The Brewers bullpen allowed one earned run on only five hits in 10 2/3 innings in this series. Pete Ladd was the poster boy of relief success, retiring all 10 batters he faced and striking out five. The impressive performance of the bullpen was a big reason this team is advancing to the World Series.
Clutch Hitting and Lucky Bounces
With one down in the seventh, Charlie Moore hit a jam shot that was falling into no-man’s land behind the pitcher’s mound. Bobby Grich dove and caught it on the bounce. The attempt was correctly called a trap, to Grich’s dismay, and Moore was safe on an infield single. But had Grich caught the ball, there would have been two down.
Gantner then hit a single and Molitor popped out into foul territory. Again, had Grich made the catch, the inning would have been over. Instead, Robin Yount was up with a man on first and two down. Yount took a very close pitch for ball four that could have conceivably been called either way, and Cecil Cooper was then up with two down and the bases loaded.
Had Grich made that catch or a ball been instead called a strike, this inning was over. Instead, Cooper came up and laced a two-RBI single into left to take a 4-3 lead. It was the biggest hit in the history of this franchise. But a hit that needed assistance to be possible.
Is baseball a game of inches? Damn right it is. I recognize that had several bounces gone a different way, the Brewers’ season would be over. I also recognize that the incredible skill displayed by the defense (after a bad start) and bullpen as well as some very clutch baserunning and hitting led to this win. The Brewers earned every bit of the American League Championship.
But with each big play that leads to another jaw-dropping win, it’s becoming clear that the Brewers aren’t just a good team. They are a great team. And a team of destiny.
Your American League Champion Brewers will face either the Braves or Cardinals in the World Series on October 12, though it may start later depending on the completion date of the NLCS.